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?

An Advent Poem

They say that Advent is
waiting
for Light in Darkness
for a bright white God,
Night-erasure,
Knowing.

They say that the world is
tired
dish-water gray and that
Salvation looks
much paler, bleach-bone
sanitized and safe:

But I have been caressed by
the Spirit
in a thousand tender shadows.
She whispers
dreams and visions
under moon and cave and cloud.

God is not afraid of the dark.
And so I wonder
If perhaps I shouldn’t be—

If maybe this Coming
in womb;
like night-thief
means that blackness is
Divine
And Love
Is an Unknowing, too,
a Hiddenness.

I wonder
if wonder requires
The embrace of deep
Unseen things—

I wonder, when I
meet the Son
if it will be less like
the sun
and more like a kiss
at cool dusk.
Eyes closed. Soft.
Like rest.

Emptiness: A Sermon

“In the canyon, we perceive how negative space has its own power; we find that we are just as compelled by what is missing–what has been hollowed out–as we are by what remains.”

I preached this sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, December 13, 2020, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are John 1:6-8, 19-28 and Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11. It is a slightly edited version of the sermon I wrote for The Episcopal Church’s “Sermons that Work” collection for Advent & Christmas 2020.

I spent much of my 20s living in the desert, and whenever I was feeling stressed out or in need of some quiet time, I would drive out past the city limits to an overlook that took in views of Nevada’s Red Rock Canyon and a seemingly endless expanse of earth and sky.

Some people find the desert off-putting: all of that muted, windswept rock and dirt and shrub, where you cannot hide from the sun or from yourself; but others, like John the Baptist, are drawn to such places for precisely this reason—because there is no distraction, because it is a place of unobscured perception, of stark clarity, where one can see farther outward and further inward, if they are willing to brave the emptiness.

Indeed, if you have ever stood at the rim of a desert canyon, you know what it is to comprehend the immense majesty of such emptiness. These clefts in the earth, carved by the incessant flow of water over millenia, are rocky vessels holding a world unto themselves. 

Peer over the edge and look down into the sky held between the canyon walls—a highway for the howling wind and winged creatures of the air. 

Look down upon the stubborn shrubs clinging to the ledges, where tiny crawling things seek precarious shelter at the edge of the abyss. 

And then look down, down, down to the bottom, to the river—the improbable, sinuous source of this vast openness, branching out like a vein, still eroding and shaping the earth in its insistent passage towards a distant sea. 

In the canyon, we perceive how negative space has its own power; we find that we are just as compelled by what is missing–what has been hollowed out–as we are by what remains. There is a potentiality, a spaciousness in the open chasm that, in gazing upon it, we also begin to sense within ourselves, in the caverns of our soul, a certain thick luminousness, a sense of seeing deep into the heart of things that are usually hidden under the surface.

And so perhaps it is in just such a place, deep in a canyon in the Judean wildnerness, that we might imagine John the Baptist, his voice crying out, echoing off of the wizened rockface, mingling with dust and birdsong, proclaiming the Coming of Christ: an approach that will, like a river of Living Water, soon carve its own path through the petrification of the human heart. 

John heralds the advent of God’s own bone and breath and blood; the anointed flesh of the Messiah, which, in its birthing and breaking and Belovedness, will reveal the truth of how our own lives are sustained by the Divine ecology of Love.

But before we get there, we are here, in Advent country, in the desert. And just as emptiness defines the canyon, so it is, in this season, that discovering our identity in God is predicated, first, upon clearing away all that is not for us, in order to discern exactly how God might fill that open space.

“Who are you?” John is asked by those eager to label him and his peculiar mission. But he responds only with negations.

“I am not the Messiah,” he says. 

Are you Elijah? “I am not.” 

The prophet? “No.”

Relinquishment of these identity markers, alluring as they might be, is John’s act of humility, of refusing to be carried away the expectations or agendas of others. He is so grounded in God that he has become an open channel of grace and truth, letting the breath of the Spirit blow through the cracks in his soul, like a reed, like a wind-song. 

And, if we wish to let God shape the melody of our own lives, so must we be.

How often we secretly wish that we were solid rock; the savior of ourselves; the long-expected sovereign of our own small dominions, with the power to do it all, to be it all. How often we take on the titles offered to us, not because they are accurate, but because they’re there, because it sounded good at the time, and because an identity, a name, even one that doesn’t quite fit, makes us feel more real to ourselves, at least for a while. 

But just as the canyon only becomes itself in the void, so, too, with us: so it is ok, it is necessary, even, to not be all things to all people. It is ok to let go of the names and roles that never quite fit. It is ok to let your life take on some empty space, to let the wind rush through you. Because, like John, it is only in each of our own negations that we get closer to the spare, essential truth of our identity—the one that God has prepared particularly for us.

John shows us how brave and beautiful it is to simply be what we are, and to trust that, for God, this is sufficient.

But how difficult this can be. In this anxious time, faced with the multiplying needs of our families, our communities, and our planet, we are frequently tempted to take on far more than what we can actually do or be. Even as many of us attempt to slow down and be more attentive to what matters, the world continues to surround us and shout, “Who are you? Who are you?”

But, if we are ever to cultivate the space in ourselves for God to rush in, then, like John, we must respond with:

I am not the Messiah.

I am not.

No.

We must be willing to disappoint the onlookers. We must be willing to embrace the emptiness of what we were never meant to be.

And then, perhaps, we will find what was ours to claim all along.

“I am,” John admits at last, “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

Not a king. Not a savior. A voice. Just a voice–an invisible resonance piercing the air, unbounded, free. Nothing more and nothing less than this. And exactly what God needs from him.

For John, the purpose of his own voice is clear: the announcement of God’s Incarnate Promise. And so he baptizes in the river, that ancient agent of transformative power, inviting others to let themselves be scoured by it—to let their layers of defensiveness and artifice be stripped away, to hollow out a space in their hearts in preparation for “the one who is coming after,” the Christ, the one who makes all things new.

And here, in another time and in another wilderness—the one that we struggle to navigate each day—John’s invitation remains open to us. It is as urgent as ever, because we are still learning who we are and who we are not. Like the canyon, we are still being shaped; still being laid bare to the wind and the light, still becoming as deep and open and vast as God imagines we can become. And, like John, it is only in the cultivation of our own holy emptiness that we will, at last, be the vessels of God’s inbreaking purpose:

to bring good news to the oppressed,

to bind up the brokenhearted,

to proclaim liberty to the captives,

and release to the prisoners;

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,

and the day of vengeance of our God; 

to comfort all who mourn. (Isaiah 61)

The Wait: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on the first Sunday of Advent, November 29, 2020, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Isaiah 64:1-9.

Welcome to Advent.

Welcome to expectation, and wondering, and hoping and trusting that things will get better, that God will keep the promises made–even when we do not.

Welcome to the time when bits of light pierce the shadows, when small kind gestures might save a life, including your own. Welcome to the humble, lowly shape that true love takes when it is stripped of its finery.

Welcome to the pangs of yearning, the slivers of memory and song that come unbidden as you toss and turn at 3am. Welcome to the dull tick of the clock over the kitchen sink, and the peal of the bells, the thick silence of an empty house and the sound of children laughing in the snow.

Welcome to the collision of despair and joy that is, quite simply, what it is like to be here, to live and die here, in this time and place, looking for signs of heaven.

Welcome to the precious, lonely, lovely wait. 

I have always cherished Advent, this first liturgical season of the Church year, and I think a lot of Episcopalians feel the same way. We are drawn, for some reason, to its particular blend of sights, sounds, and silences, the quiet and unadorned sobriety, the crisp way that it cuts through thin sentimentality to the deep places within us where Christ gestates.

But for all our love of Advent, I have also wondered, at times, whether we fully understand what the season is and what it is asking of us. Because when we speak of it as a season of waiting and preparation, we do not mean that it is simply a means to an end, waiting and preparing for the Nativity, nor even is it solely about waiting and watching for Christ’s return at the end of history, as today’s gospel lesson reminds us to do. 

It is, of course, about both of these things, but alongside them, it is also about learning how to live, now, and forever, with the waiting itself, how to become a people that can bear the waiting, maybe even flourish in it—that ambiguous time that falls between what is promised and what is resolved, when we are just as liable to distraction and despair as we are to purposeful focus. This is the season that probes what the poet W.H. Auden called “the Time Being,” the days in which banality and transcendence both tug at us, making our lives a muddle of sorts, a mixture of angels and toothaches, of God’s face and grocery lists. 

The waiting and the wondering of Advent is, really, what most of the days of our lives will look like in any season, and it invites us to learn to be ok with that, to not let the wait dull our senses or harden our hearts. “The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all,” writes Auden, probably because there is so much of it, so much time spent waiting that we might forget what we are waiting for.

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you” Isaiah cries out in today’s reading, because Israel has been waiting so long in exile that they have nearly forgotten who God is and what God can do. So he lifts his voice to heaven, desperately, urgently: “You are our father. We are the clay and you are our potter.” Do something, God, do something now, something decisive, something that will help us remember what it feels like to be happy again, to make the world make sense again. End our exile, God. End our desolation. End our waiting.

I think, perhaps, that many of us have prayed something similar this year. The pandemic, and all that it as wrought, has escalated our own sense of what it is to wait, what it is to feel estranged from the normal patterns of life. Like Isaiah, we, too, might find ourselves crying out for resolution and restoration. To hug our friends and family members again. To worship in the ways that we love again. To feel at home out in the world again. 

But as much as I, too, long for all of those things, and as much as I trust that we will make it through this challenging time, I also think we need to remember what this waiting feels like right now—the weariness and the frustration and the tenderness of our hearts. 

I think we need to really hold onto this memory of how vulnerable and exhausted this year has made us feel, how uncertain and tremulous the future can seem when the present is drained of security and comfort. 

Because this feeling, this deep mixture of grief and hope and determination? THIS is the real experience of Advent, this has ALWAYS been what Advent pointed to—not just a cozy wait by the fireside with tea and cookies, not a pop-psychololgy pause for self care in between bouts of frantic consumerism, but this type of waiting, the real kind, the grip the arms-of-your chair kind, the same kind that precedes medical test results, the kind that you feel when a loved one is serving in combat or as a first-responder, the collective waiting of the downtrodden and the poor throughout human history, the heaving cries for justice, for relief, for solace; the waiting for a letter than never comes; the wordless tears that stream down your face when you think nobody is looking. 

The waiting that can only be satisfied, can only be fulfilled by something other than our own feeble attempts at virtue or self-soothing or control. The waiting for God; the waiting for the holy, vivifying, sanctifying, tender terror of God, who will annihilate our forgetfulness, who will consummate our longing “as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil.”

This is what we are doing in Advent—this is what we are reckoning with, what we are learning to name and to carry, because it is real life, without ornamentation, and it is something that every person must face. And we thank God that we have been given—and will discover again in a few weeks’ time, what all this waiting is for.

So today, for the “Time Being,” may our waiting be compassionate, rather than apathetic; and if it cannot be joyful, may it at least be honest. May our waiting carve out a space within us, big enough to hold the pain and the promise that is ours to bear for one another. Big enough to contain the dreams of all that a new year, a new world might be. Big enough to be filled by God’s once and future coming, as child, as fire, as Lord. 

Welcome to Advent. Welcome to your life. 

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.

Jesus, the Incarnate Lamentation of God

I offered this address as a video teaching on June 21, 2020, as part of a parish retreat, “The Transformative Power of Lament.” That video can be viewed here.

This weekend we have spent a great deal of time considering how and why we lament. We have talked about God’s ability to hear and hold our lament; about how God wants us to express our sorrow as one part of the deep fullness of what it means to be human. 

But what about God? Is God simply an impassive sort of figure, up there, who calmly, magnanimously receives our cries of grief and frustration with a cosmic pat on the head? Or does lamentation itself somehow bear the image of Divine Life? Can we say that God, that perfect Trinity of Love, is also a figure of lamentation?

Yes, I think we can. And as followers of Jesus, I would say that we must. Because in Jesus, in both his earthly life and in his passion and crucifixion, we see and hear God’s enfleshed lament. God’s anguish. God’s piteous tears.

The idea that God might have a lamentation to offer back to creation was intuited long before the Incarnation, of course. The tradition of the Hebrew prophets already bears the imprint of God’s sorrow over Israel’s brokenness

From the prophet Amos:

Hear this word that I take up over you in lamentation, O house of Israel:

Fallen, no more to rise,

is maiden Israel;

forsaken on her land,

with no one to raise her up.

For thus says the Lord God:

The city that marched out a thousand

shall have a hundred left,

and that which marched out a hundred

shall have ten left.

For thus says the Lord to the house of Israel:

Seek me and live. (Amos 5:1-4)

And then in Jesus, we hear something so very similar, uttered on the human lips of that very same God, who has come to be as one with creation, and thus issues a cry in his own voice: 

“If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” (Luke 19:42-44)

That is, of course, the pathos of God from the very beginning of our story, from Eden, through the Exodus, to Calvary and beyond —an inability to be fully recognized by creation in those moments of visitation. The Father weeps, in a sense, over our inability to see his face clearly through the tears of our finitude; the Son weeps over the hardness of our hearts, ossified by fear and apathy; the Holy Spirit weeps over our inability to hear her crying out across the the desert, across the void of infinite closeness between us.

Thinking about God as a figure of lamentation changes a few things. First, it recasts a lot of the ideas about God’s “wrathfulness” in a new light. What would be like if you imagined all of those “angry” proclamations from God in Scripture as being, instead, expressions of deep grief, said through tears and sighs? Would that affect how you imagine God’s realationship with the world?

This should not be especially surprising, if we think about it, because as Christians, Jesus reveals precisely what God has to say to the world about its brokenness, unmediated through the prophets, and far from being an expression of vengeful anger or rage, it is an expression of lament. Somehow God knows, in Holy Wisdom, that lament is the necessary message. 

Why is this? 

The theologian and scholar Walter Brueggemann suggests that it is grief and lament, rather than rage, which God offers to us in Jesus because God understands that lament is the fundamental act which penetrates the numbing self-interest of systems of domination and death; it is God’s solidarity wtih us, God’s joining in our anguish and asking us to learn from anguish rather than acting out of denial. It is in taking up our cross that we encounter the narrow but certain path to wisdom and redemption. The way, the truth, and the life.  Thus it is Only lamentation—that which we express and that which we listen to from others—which can build compassion within us, soften our hearts, and open us up to the mystery of transformative love.  

As Brueggemann writes, “Newness comes precisely from expressed pain. Suffering made audible and visible produces hope, articulated grief is the gate of newness, and the history of Jesus is the history of entering into the pain and giving it voice” (The Prophetic Imagination, 91).

And so when we look at Jesus on the cross, the ultimate expression of God’s lamentation, we are looking at that gateway into newness. We are looking at the articulation of God’s grief over a broken creation, and of God’s deep longing to be so close to us that he is willing to be broken himself. And then, in the resurrection, the definitive evidence that lament, for all its power, is a prelude to something even more powerful: healing, liberation, and enduring life. 

But in Jesus we learn that it is a necessary prelude. There is no shortcut around Golgotha, no avoiding an intentional engagement with grief. This, in some ways, is one of Christianity’s unique contributions to the faith traditions of the world—that suffering is itself a wisdom path, a holy road, one that Divinity itself has trod.

It is not a road for the fainthearted, but it is also not one that we walk alone. God walks with us, and we walk it with each other, to encourage, to listen, to grieve, and to celebrate as one body.

So, as we conclude our retreat, the question is: are we willing to go down that road? Are we willing to go through the gate of newness that is the cross? Are we willing to articulate our grief, and respond to the grief of others? Are we willing to weep with Jesus at the edge of the city, to bear that same fierce love he does, for people, including ourselves, who have not recongized the things that make for peace?

If we are willing, then lamentation is where we begin. 

God bless you on the journey. I will see you out there.

Lamentations of the People

I wrote these liturgical “Prayers of the People” a few weeks before the national protests in response to George Floyd’s killing, but they have taken on a new resonance for me now, and so I share them with you here.

Lamentations of the People

In grief and in undaunted hope, let us cry out to God, the undivided Trinity, saying:
Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One, Have mercy upon us.

God, your Church is splintered and sorrowful. We are undone by the virulence of the age into which you have called us. We hunger for the bread only you can give; we long for the solace of an absent embrace. Gather us close, hide us under the shadow of your wings, and strengthen us to be your ministers amidst the uncertainties that lie ahead.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One,
Have mercy upon us.

God, our nation is diseased. A pandemic has brought us to our knees, but we have been kneeling before false gods for too long: economic and environmental injustice, systemic racism, the death-dealing myth of white imperialism, the vainglory of unexamined consumption. We need you, the Divine Physician, to heal the heart-wounds we cannot see, so that we might heal the broken bodies and broken systems we can see.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One,
Have mercy upon us.

God, the world is so vast, and so small. We are overwhelmed by its complexities, yet we are reminded how tightly our lives are knit together. The old lies of extraction and exploitation have laid waste to our planet and have oppressed our siblings in every land. Lead us out into the wilderness beyond self-satisfaction, beyond denial, beyond plunder, and teach us new ways to live simply, humbly, close to the earth.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One,
Have mercy upon us.

God, our communities are being crushed by the yoke of sin: political enmity, economic inequality, gun violence, racism, xenophobia, disparities in health and education, pollution, loneliness, and despair. Our brothers and sisters are sleeping in the streets, weeping in the streets, bleeding in the streets, like strangers in their own land. And so many of us choose to look away. Give us, instead, your easy yoke, your light burden: to open the doors, to step out, to speak out, to trust one another, to be taken where we do not wish to go, to the foot of the Cross, to the tomb, where you will meet us, where real life begins.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One,
Have mercy upon us.

God, our loved ones are sick and dying, from viruses and from violence. The silence of silenced bodies overwhelms our ears. The IV-drip of memories stings and burns as it works its way through our veins. We are weak and helpless, but don’t allow us to be hopeless. Make your presence known to us, especially when we cannot be present to one another. Heal our ailments and mend our hearts.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One,
Have mercy upon us.

God, you have taken so many away. Their names tumble from our lips, a remembrance, an insistence, a plea. We say their names so that they won’t be forgotten. We say their names so that we won’t be the type of people willing to forget. As we grieve and grasp at the mystery of death, take their names and bind them to yourself; open your everlasting gates and welcome them home.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One,
Have mercy upon us.

God of our Sorrows and our Joy, we lament today so that we might rejoice tomorrow in your promise of justice, of healing, and of never-ending life; for you are the One in whom all things are made new, and it is to you whom we turn in trust, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and for ever.

Amen.

How God Sees Us: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on October 12, 2019, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Luke 17:11-19.

In the winter of 1990, the NASA space probe Voyager 1 had traveled to the outer reaches of our solar system, collecting data and images of neighboring planets since its launch in 1977. As it hurtled ever farther outward into the vastness of space, the probe’s capacity to take photographs was nearing its end. But before its camera was shut off, engineers turned the probe around to capture a final image facing back in the direction whence it had come, back toward earth.

Perhaps you have seen or heard of this now-famous photo, popularly nicknamed the “pale blue dot.” If not, I encourage you to look it up. At first glance, it appears to just be a picture of a broad, shadowy emptiness, pierced by a few pale bands of light resulting from the reflection of the sun in the camera lens. 

But if you look closely, very closely, you notice in the middle of one of those bands of light a tiny speck: soft blue, unremarkable, and yet shockingly singular, reposing in solitude amid the immense darkness. 

That speck is us—it is planet earth, viewed from 4 billion miles away.

This tiny dot in a photograph, so small you might miss it, reveals the humble totality of the world we know, suspended in the midst of something so large we cannot comprehend it. As the astronomer Carl Sagan wrote of the image a few years after it was captured, the pale blue dot contains:

“every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species…on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

Faced with such an image, we are offered a bracing new perspective on the sum total of our struggles and strivings. They tend to appear a bit less momentous at this distance. 

In the same way that we might go to a mountain top or to an ocean vista in order to gain a sense of our place within the larger landscape of creation, discovering our smallness on the pale blue dot offers both clarity and mystery. 

Clarity, because we suddenly comprehend both the fragility and the preciousness of this home we have been given. Mystery, because the created order and the God who bestowed it are revealed as so truly vast that, to paraphrase the Psalmist, “it is too wonderful for us…we cannot attain unto it.” 

Seeing ourselves from this vantage point invites us into a sense of gratitude and awe that we might miss in the inevitable, persistent anxieties of life viewed at ground level, when it sometimes feels like our lives will be defined by the jumbled detritus of our daily concerns: a stack of receipts, a beeping alarm clock, an unanswered email. 

But within this tension of competing perspectives—the mundane and the magnificent—in which we often struggle to see the forest for the trees: it is here that Jesus steps into our path. He, the Incarnate Son of God, brings together, within his very self, the inscrutable mystery of the cosmos AND the simple dignity of our daily endeavors to get by as best we can. 

He sees us from both vantage points. He loves us from both vantage points. And he invites us to share in his dual vision, to see the world as God sees it—with a gaze that is both attentive to the immediate moment AND understanding of its place in a broader story of creation, redemption, and reunion. 

This dual vision, I think, is what the tenth leper demonstrates for us in today’s Gospel. His turning back and praising God illustrates an additional layer of perception more than anything else. A capacity for recognizing what is really going on.

So we don’t necessarily have to spend a lot of energy pointing fingers at the nine other lepers for failing to demonstrate sufficient gratitude, as if Jesus were chiding them like a 1st century version of Miss Manners demanding a thank you note. Those nine have been through a lot. We will send them on their way without judgment.

ALL of the lepers recognize Jesus as Master, and all call out to him, and all are healed. The nine who go directly to the priests, as Jesus instructs, receive no less of a blessing; they will present themselves in their places of worship and, we imagine, they will be restored into the communities from which, as lepers, they have been estranged as social outcasts. 

But the tenth leper, the Samaritan, offers us an additional gift. He understands that what has just happened is far more significant than the provision of his own immediate relief, his own private healing. Perhaps because he is a despised Samaritan as well as a leper—and is thus one who inhabits the periphery of the periphery—he has a broader, more insightful perspective. People at the margins often do. 

This tenth leper realizes that what Jesus has done for him is indicative of what God is doing more generally—that his healing in fact reveals the abundantly loving, restoring, life-giving nature of the God who desires to heal all people and all things. This is why he is compelled to come back and prostrate himself in gratitude. 

In Jesus he has beheld not just a holy man, a miracle worker, but the fullness of God’s mercy in human form, the vastness of God’s concern contained in the voice of a single man. 

Thus the healed leper understands that his individual story has been caught up in something so big, so wonderful, so mystifying, that he must fall down and cling to the earth and cry out in thanksgiving. It is, we might say, his glimpse of the pale blue dot reflected in the eyes of Christ: both the immensity and the intimacy of God’s love in a single flash of understanding.

And so Jesus says to him, “your faith has made you well.” It is the deep wellness of knowing God for who God is.

And friends, is that not why we are here, too, kneeling before our Lord, to give thanks for the goodness that we have seen in Him? To be made well in the knowledge and love of God?

We are always in need of that dual perspective—to understand, like the healed leper, that God sees us and loves us in our particularity, and to also know that each of us is part of something so much greater, so much more beautiful, than we can possibly imagine. 

This is why we unite our hearts and our voices in liturgy—to assert our brief but nonetheless essential role in the eternal praise of God that echoes out into the deep. 

To step back and see ourselves as part of that pale blue dot, a beloved jewel nestled in the velvety darkness of a universe that God has made and called good. 

And then, as a people healed and made new in Christ, to step forward into our lives, to examine the beautiful, earthy blessedness of our days, and to sing out in gratitude that even in our smallness, we are known and loved and forgiven. To be bearers of the holy vision that gazes tenderly on all that has ever been and all that will ever be.

By the way: that space probe, Voyager 1, is still traveling farther out into space. It is predicted that in 300 years it will enter the outermost edges of our solar system, and in 30,000 years, it will reach interstellar space. Beyond that, who knows? 

But what I find especially remarkable, what I find truly “too wonderful for us” to imagine or attain, is that no matter how far that Voyager goes, no matter how long it wanders in the silent darkness, it will never, ever reach a point that is beyond the scope of God’s presence. It will never, ever truly be lost. 

The same, I think, can be said for us. 

Poems on the Road

I’m on a night train heading through the Oregon wilderness, and I decided to share a couple poems I jotted down recently. I’ve been reflecting a lot on the spirituality of love and desire this past year, and these are small, imaginative windows into that journey, one from the perspective of Mary Magdalene, and the other from Judas Iscariot. Hope they resonate for you in some way. Peace, friends.

Magdalene

I needed you so much that
I whispered my deepest longings into a jar
And poured its dark sweetness upon your feet
Not that you would grant them, but
That you would absorb them into your self
My desire like sweat on your skin

I wept tears of love so pure and burning
that they felt like grief
Salt water sonnets
Braided through my hair like jewels or
Serpents

And just now
In the garden of re-encounter
Which never looks like the old days
When love was initial:
I saw
Briefly, ever so
The glimmer of my longing, and my tears
Transfigured into something selfless and whole
In you

Do not hold on
You said
Not because I shouldn’t love you
(Impossible)
But because my love
Reached its home in
Your heart
The sweetness and the salt are yours now
Ours now
The world’s now
Now, always
Anointing
Washing
Outpouring
Shameless
Free

 

Judas

You offered me the cup, said it was your blood.
Oh how I hated you, and loved you
For your generosity
When all I wanted was to bite your flesh and make you bleed from my desire.
You called me by name once
And I thought I loved you
Purely, selflessly
But now I know I wanted what i thought you were
What I needed you to be
Most beautiful of men
And when I realized that your inner light was as perfect as your shining face
I hated you, because I could not possess you for myself
Apple, flesh, my joy and sweet poison
They killed you and I thought I’d find relief
From your perfection
But there is no rest apart from you.
My tears are silver discs
And I weep, not for you, Who is peace itself
But for myself, because I realize
We could never have been united
Until I let you be Yourself. And I couldn’t.
My desire was misplaced.
I long for you still.
I will join you.
Beyond death, somehow, find me.

The Joy of Normality

Temperamental spring is flirting with the landscape in Mirfield. In the past two weeks we’ve had snow blanketing the hillsides, unannounced rainstorms that drenched me on the way to morning prayer, and profusions of purple crocuses and yellow daffodils carpeting the parish churchyards. A bit like life itself, the weather in England is unpredictable, occasionally frustrating, and always beautiful.

Having been here almost two months (!) I’ve settled into a rhythm of prayer, study, meals, and periodic frivolity that feels more like a new home than like a “trip”. Given how disoriented and adrift I felt in the first couple of weeks, this change in itself feels like a miraculous revelation. It makes me realize how infrequently I am grateful for normality in my daily life back in California: always hungry for what is next, not for what simply is.

There was a piece I read long ago by the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh that referred to this type of everyday gratitude as “the joy of no toothache.” In other words, it’s usually when we are in some type of acute pain that we finally recognize the joy that was already present in the pain-free status quo. Now that the discomforts of adjusting to life in Mirfield have mostly subsided, I am determined to relish the quiet happiness of simply being here.

But how to hold onto that sense of gratitude? For me, in this place, it has come about through a burgeoning sense of prayerful discipline. I am realizing more and more how the constancy of the Daily Offices (morning prayer, Eucharist, evening prayer, etc.) keeps me attentive to God and to the preciousness of the day at hand. Compared to my life back in the US, when I often let prayer become sidelined by academic anxieties, personal angst, and (let’s be honest) a lot of social media-driven idleness, now the rigor and structure of prayer is the framework upon which I build each day. I don’t always *want* to go and pray the Offices, but I must, and in maintaining that commitment, I find small but perceptible shifts in my heart, an accumulation of movements that are reorienting me towards the Divine presence in moments I might otherwise have missed it.

Robert Browning writes of this type of attentiveness in “Pippa’s Song”:

The year’s at the spring,

And day’s at the morn;

Morning’s at seven;

The hill-side’s dew-pearl’d;

The lark’s on the wing;

The snail’s on the thorn;

God’s in His heaven—

All’s right with the world!

 

The saints often express similar feelings about the miracle of the commonplace (think of St. Francis’ Canticle of the Sun). It is a mistake, I think, to sentimentalize or trivialize these types of observations. Deep satisfaction and delight in the everyday is not the same as naivety, nor is it complacency. To marvel at the poignancy of God’s abiding in the present does not preclude us from clear-eyed hope, from the work of reconciliation, or from the pursuit of justice; instead, it grounds us in pursuing those aims out of love, rather than fear and stridency.

Of all the things I am discovering at Mirfield—the joys of community, the need to take a more holistic view of priestly formation—one of the simplest and best is this experience of inhabiting the day prayerfully, non-anxiously, without a lot of worry about the future. This hasn’t come easily, but it is a change I have experienced quite dramatically in the past few weeks. I told someone recently that there is a bright line around my time here; beyond June 1st I am unsure of what life will hold, and I am suddenly, truly all right with that. If “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1) then I am experiencing faith anew here.

So, if I could offer any bit of advice for the perpetually stressed, among whom I have counted myself for many years, I would say this: forget dramatic transformations, and give yourself over to a gentle discipline of prayer. Focus less on an idealized, perfect end result, which is forever beyond our grasp anyway, and find something simple and immediate that will ground you in this day which God has made for us. It might be the Daily Offices, if you are Episcopalian/Anglican, or it might be something else. If you are already engaging in a practice along these lines, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Please know that in my daily prayers I am constantly lifting up your names. It is a great consolation to think of all the love that has permeated my life thus far, and I can only hope to give some of it back to God, through my relationships with you and through the worship that I offer up each day.

Peace, dear friends. You are in my heart always.