Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Epiphany

We read of God’s epiphany to 3 different people throughout the readings we’re given today; appropriate subject matter for this season of the church year, contemplating God’s revelation of himself to humanity, both as individuals and as a whole.

In all of the testimonies given this morning, we read of the same response from each person: when faced with almighty God, each one is pierced by humility, seeking immediate and full surrender to the obvious Lord and God standing in front of them. Each one admits their own shortcomings, their own unworthiness in the full light of Life, and yields completely.

Isaiah says, “I am a man of unclean lips and I come from a people of unclean lips.” Simon Peter declares, “depart from me, I am a sinful man!” And Paul, here, and other places, boasts only of his failures and unworthiness as he is given the grace of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

What can we imagine our response might be other than this same one of the holy people we read this morning? Our own humble bowing, our own yielding and surrender, our own acknowledgement of our inadequacy, as our faces are filled with God’s light, our full selves exposed to his glory.

This is the same response that another holy person had to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ; I’ve been reading some Julian of Norwich recently, and near the beginning of her memoir, the Revelations of Divine Love, she writes of a near-death experience she has. She knows that death is creeping closer, indeed, she’s received Last Rites and describes fixing her eyes toward heaven, as she expected to be there very soon. She demonstrates this full surrender, this complete yielding, in the presence of Almighty God, and yet, as perhaps an analogy of what is recounted in the 6th chapter of Isaiah today, she misunderstands God’s purpose, even in her humility and her longing.

She is certain she will die; as he notices that the pain and suffering is relieved in her body, she prepares her soul more fully she says, knowing that God must mean to take her with all haste. And yet, this is only in chapter 2 of more than 100 that she writes of the visions God gives her and reflections on them over the ensuing 20 years. She indeed does not die, and her humility and yielding, though crucial to her intimacy with God, does not safeguard her from every myopia in her vision of God and his will.

“Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.

Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”

Then I said, “How long, O Lord?”

And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, and the Lord removes people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land.

And though a tenth remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, whose stump remains when it is felled.” The holy seed is its stump.

Isaiah 6:9-13, ESV

Despite Julian’s faithfulness, she hears and does not understand, she sees, but does not perceive the fullness of God’s purpose for the experience she’s undergoing, or for her life. So, too, the people Isaiah addresses, the Israelites, do not understand the signs of the times, they do not perceive the message which is being preached to them. And as their heart is made dull, their eyes blinded, their lands, too, are laid waste, they experience great dissension and suffering, they endure the removal of their lives far away, as the prophet says; they go into exile. The desolation is so complete that not only is it like a tree that’s burned but one that’s been chopped down to boot. As hopeless and dead as can be.

But what do we read as the last line of this prophecy? “The holy seed is its stump.” That most-desolate moment, that most-hopeless-situation, that deadest-of-the-dead — there is where God in his will and for his kingdom brings forth a living, holy seed. It is through the exile that the fullness of time comes for God’s people and Jesus, God incarnate, is born. It is through his death on the cross that Easter Sunday is made possible and later, that Paul comes to belief. It is after Simon Peter’s disastrous night of fishing that he finds the revelation of God incarnate sitting in the stern of his very boat.

We read and learn and are reminded here in this words, brothers and sisters, that the God we worship, the God YHWH who has found us and drawn us to him even now, is the God who finds a holy seed in a dead, rotten, evil, oppressed, divisive stump.

We live in a moment of division, of the fraying of our society’s fabric, of tension politically and in our culture, and, I suspect, even in our very families and homes. We can be tempted, even in our humility, to think that we know what God has planned, that we have a clear vision of God’s will and plan, but even the most faithful throughout ages and ages have rarely if ever gotten it right. And so perhaps our work is to continue to yield, to continue to walk in humility, to continue to believe and practice and live as if even in the darkest times and the most painful brokenness and the most isolating fear that God will make the stump itself into a holy seed for the glory of his kingdom. Amen.

this version, more or less, was preached at Ascension in Lafayette, LA, on Wednesday, February 9, 2022 at the noonday service.

Smash Cake

Many years ago at a graduate school Christmas party, I brought a cake with melted frosting. To make the start of the party, I had to frost it before it was fully cooled, and the glops of sweetened butter were swirling around the platter, the cake rising like a castle above a sugary moat. This is a very whimsical and positive description of something that was disastrous to my eyes/heart/expectations.

The host told me, “sometimes you’ve got to let the cake fall on the ground.” I was horrified. I tried to take the good advice in stride. I think this was the same friend who told me during another cooking fiasco, “Never apologize, never explain” (in the kitchen at least, and according to Julia Child).

It’s funny the way we store quotations in our heads, and the way they come bubbling back up to the surface when we need them. As my own birthday cake stuck in its pans last Friday, and the frosting seized (and this, after my mom’s flight to celebrate my birthday with me was cancelled), I had to give up on the (seemingly reasonable dream!) of having a cake that day.

Beloved friends far away showed up for me through the miracle of Doordash and Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse cheesecake, in addition to having had the foresight to gift me a gorgeous magnolia-inspired bundt pan, which I put to successful use the next day, but I do continue to learn over and over how much our expectations — however reasonable they seem! — can have such power over our experience.

What ways can we let go of expectations in order to really see and enjoy the world that’s already around us?

All Souls Day

Though my grandma, Marlene, was a force to be reckoned with (and did many good deeds, most unheralded), she is not part of the canon of saints. She was not Mother Teresa, or Hilda of Bingen, or Bridget of Sweden.

It is for people like Marlene that the church gives us All Souls Day.

Today, the 2nd of November, is a day for remembering and honoring “all the faithful departed.”

I do not presume to assert that my grandma, saintly as she was, is worthy of being a canonized saint celebrated the world over throughout time. And I do assert that there are people who are worthy of being remembered throughout time, their stories celebrated the world over.

We approach church tradition with humility and reverence, we recognize the innate wisdom and the Holy-Spirit-gifting of those who have come before us. Personally, I prefer the image of sitting at their feet, rather than standing on their shoulders. We are, all of us, on level ground at the foot of the cross — where gathers the communion of saints, the great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1) — and as St. Paul the Apostle himself says, of sinners, I am the foremost (1 Timothy 1:15).

The only thing we have to boast in is our ignorance and sinfulness — let us not grab titles of wisdom and honor and innovation and freedom for ourselves. It reminds me of the parable of the one who takes a seat much higher than he ought, and is asked to move down the table when the really important people come.

Our relationship to the Communion of Saints and the Souls of all the Faithful Departed, is always one of bowed head and open heart, ready to receive instruction, reproof, revelation, direction, and we pray, grace.

Sermon on the Feast of Saints Simon & Jude

Lectionary readings

John 15:17-27

“Don’t worry when the world hates you, when society rejects you, when the woke people cancel you, because they cancelled me first.”

The irony of preaching this to Nashotah House is not lost on me — you all are well-practiced, and indeed, I suspect, by turns even proud (!) to be viewed with suspicion by the world, if not at times, with outright disdain! And that’s just by other Episcopalians.

But speaking more broadly, I’ve been struck recently at how much about Jesus is processed into palatability in our day and age, facets and bits of Jesus Christ are refracted and highlighted, spun into gauzy visions of “peace,” “hope,” “justice” … in our time. I saw a meme last week that said, “Jesus always chose loving the neighbor over loving theology. Jesus always chose sitting with the vulnerable over standing with the powerful. Jesus always chose healing the broken over correcting their brokenness. Jesus always chose empowering the poor over defending the rich.” 

Of course the insidious thing here is that some of that is absolutely true, from a certain angle. On the other hand, some of the problems — which are myriad — are that it’s picking and choosing pieces of God incarnate, that it’s obscuring the true nature of God by highlighting snapshots of action, that it’s playing on so many modern assumptions to lead the viewer to a particular funhouse mirror image of who the Son of God is. 

I saw a commercial for Amber alerts that opened with a 30-something woman walking along the sidewalk, holding hands with an 8 year old girl. They were maybe skipping, without a care in the world. They saw at the next intersection a white man in black motorcycle leathers, standing tall and looking stern. They turned away and walked a different direction. Soon, they came upon a black man in sweatpants standing by a street lamp, who narrowed his gaze at them, and they picked up their pace as they hurried away. 

They are shown coming to a park entrance, with at least those two characters following them, maybe more, and the woman picks up the child and holds her close as she starts to run. In a field in the park, they’re absolutely surrounded. All sorts of forbidding people, frowning ladies with dogs, the big scary looking men, numbers and numbers of them, forming a circle on this innocent little family. Finally a police officer is led to the center of the group by the white man in leathers, who is holding his cell phone, and the view is cut to the screen of the phone, which reads, “AMBER ALERT: Woman with brown hair, 30s, abducted girl 8 years old, long brown hair, pink dress.” 

Our assumptions are visceral, they are strong, they seem unassailable. And our assumptions are not just about who is safe and who is not, but our assumptions are shaped by our culture and society, by our education and our families, and there are assumptions in our water in the United States — and of course throughout Western Civilization and the world — about Jesus Christ and about his followers. 

Sound bites like the meme I narrated, play on those assumptions, seeking to re-introduce a more palatable Jesus: the true, loving, subversive but peaceable, harmonious, and it-doesn’t-really-matter-if-he’s-divine-or-even-rose-from-the-dead Jesus. 

Have you ever betrayed a friend or loved one? Have you ever had to face the person you’ve wronged? We’ve surely all betrayed our beloveds at one time or another, we’ve all struggled with integrity and honesty, with standing firm and graciously in our convictions, with both maintaining community and being faithful to the God revealed in Jesus Christ. 

Today we celebrate the feast of Saints Simon and Jude. 

All martyrs are our friends, our siblings in Christ. They died because they believed so much and so strongly that Jesus is God and that Jesus actually died and actually was raised to life again. To preach less than God incarnate, to chew Jesus up and package him into a sausage casing for easy digestion by the modern masses is not only to put heart-health at risk, but also to betray the witness of our courageous brother and sister martyrs who comprise the communion of saints. 

There have been thousands of revolutionaries, both in the first century and today — throughout all time! — who have been put to death by the state. Jesus could have been just one more failed coup attempt. But none other has ever been raised again from the dead. 

The ease of our lives today can lull us into imagining a spiritual resurrection, or a figurative raising. Many, as you’re well aware, seek to make palatable the shock of bodily resurrection by chewing it up into a philosophical stance about the abiding power of love.

But this risks forgetting the realities of life in ancient times, it discounts the record and witness, it denies the testimony of our forebears the prophets and martyrs. Life was — and I would argue, is still! — nasty, brutish, and short; death prowls, always. Do we believe that our brothers and sisters in Christ were lying to us? Do we suspect that we know better than those who knew Christ himself in the flesh? Do we deign to put ourselves in a place of authority over the testimony and blood of those who have come before us in faith? 

If Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, then he was just another revolutionary, and who would have continued to follow him? No one. No one would have bothered with him, he would have been forgotten before his body was cold. It wasn’t that his preaching or actions were particularly out of bounds, he wasn’t that radical. There were all kinds of kooks spouting all sorts of strange gospels — not unlike today, really! Something set him apart. 

He wasn’t put to death by the state because he broke the social customs and sat with the woman at the well. He wasn’t arrested and tried because he was healing peoples’ brokenness rather than correcting it. He wasn’t spit on and despised and crowned in thorns because he was empowering the poor. Jesus was not sentenced to the most shameful death imaginable — a torture device — because he loved his neighbor more than theology.

Do not forget, beloved brothers and sisters, that our Lord Jesus Christ suffered death, faced the greatest evil known to man and God, passed through it, and came to life again. This is the testimony we have been given, and it is the only word we have to share. Through our adoption and kinship, we are offered the same new life. The risen Christ is the firstborn of the new creation, the Lord and ruler of the kingdom of God. We are members of that kingdom, we are made heirs of eternal life, we belong to an authority and kinship and communion which is not this world. Our kin are the saints, our Lord is Jesus, and that is what will get us killed. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Leading Liturgies

This week I ended my job as a vicar at St. Augustine’s in Dallas, Texas. The most important part of a priest’s work is the leading of worship (it’s the only thing we do that not-ordained people can’t do themselves), and I’m really not sure when I’ll do that again. I don’t have another priest-post lined up, or any guest-gigs at the moment.

What I do have a lot of this week, and, I’m starting to see, in the weeks to come, is still a lot of leading liturgies. I’m leading my little family in the relentless rhythms of our days, and that, in a very tangible (and also, intangible) and big (and also small…) way, is important, orienting, rooting work, very much the way that leading church liturgies is.

That’s the other thing about church to me now: it’s more important than ever, because almost nothing else in my life is the same. It’s even more important to me to show up on Sunday morning and hear the same words, to be reminded who I am and to whom I belong. It’s even more important (though perhaps not as easy, since church will still go on without me!) to be present with the Body of Christ, whoever and where ever I am, to anchor my heart and my week.

While at home I’m creating new liturgies, doing the work of cultivating furrows for new seeds to grow in the lives of my family, moving again and again through the same motions, in trust that they will become second nature and part of the fabric of our lives, I’m eager, too, to continue enjoying and resting into the older liturgies, not only the ones I’ve practiced for longer at church, but that the Body of Christ has practiced for millennia, tying Christians in the 21st century to brothers and sisters in the communion of the saints in the first century, too.

In being required to innovate “new” liturgies for my family in a new place, I’m relieved, indeed, I cling to, the “old” liturgies that are the foundation of Christian worship and belief. In a time and culture that is changing rapidly, there’s even more reason to not-change the liturgies that have sustained faithful Jesus followers for thousands of years already.