The broken world waits

         The 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is woefully underrated and almost forgotten sixteen years after its release, which is a pointed irony if you know anything about the movie.  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind stars Oscar winner Kate Winslet as Clementine and Jim Carrey, who is surprisingly good in serious roles, as Joel.  As the film begins, Joel wakes up foggy-headed and skips work, and, seemingly on a whim, takes a train to Montauk, the last stop on the very tip of Long Island.  In a manner the film conveys almost palpably, Joel knows dimly that something is amiss.  He has forgotten something.  The forgotten something is important and momentous, and it lures him forward to Montauk’s obscure and remote geography, but he cannot recall what it is.  Joel is off-balance and adrift, with neither keel nor mooring.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) - IMDb

Deuteronomy, the fifth and final book of the Torah, serves as the Torah’s retelling and renewal.  Deuteronomy is an extended speech as from the mouth of Moses, recounting to the Israelites their relationship with God and explaining what it means to live completely dedicated to that relationship.  Right in the middle of Deuteronomy, Moses describes the four offices necessary to shepherd the Israelites.  The first of these is the judge, whose job is to administer the law and mete out justice fairly.  The second is the king, who both keeps order and is a symbol of the ideals of the people.  The third is the priest, who leads worship, makes sacrifices, and serves as pastor to the people in need.  These three roles are, perhaps, self-evident.  For any people, they are each indispensable.  Without the judge, the world would be arbitrary.  Without the king, the world would be chaotic.  Without the priest, the world would lack succor. 

The fourth office is that of the prophet, deemed by God to be as important as judge, king, and priest.  It is about the role of prophet that we read in Deuteronomy today.  The prophet’s essential role in the life of a people may be less obvious than the other three offices.  Indeed, in ancient Israel, though there were court prophets like Nathan who sat at King David’s side, the prophets were usually outsiders—think Hosea, Amos, Jeremiah—who the king and people would preferred to have been rid of.  The prophets were nuisances and gadflies who repeatedly questioned the kings’ decisions and the people’s way of life. 

What is a prophet?  Unfortunately, today we too often associate the term with fortunetelling or future-predicting.  The whacky and malleable predictions of Nostradamus are called prophecies.  Certain sects within Christianity seek to read the bible as code book of opaque future-oriented “prophecies” waiting to be deciphered.  But neither of these notions gets anywhere close to what the bible means by prophet or prophecy.  Please give them up.  (I have a short list of gross misconceptions I hope to help people shed over the course of my ordained career, and this is near the top.)

Jeremiah - Wikipedia
The Prophet Jeremiah, by Michelangelo

So, what are prophets, really?  They are those who tell the truth.  That is the beginning and end of prophecy.  In scripture, at times it seems that prophets are harbinger of doom.  But why is that?  It is because the prophet has the courage, and the commission from God, to tell the people the truth about their actions, their commitments, their plans, and the consequences of all three.  When those plans are hell-bound toward destruction, then the prophet’s truth-telling comes across as bad news.  But it isn’t the prophet’s intention to convey doom and gloom.  Some of the most soaring and hopeful passages in scripture also come from the prophets.  Think of Isaiah’s vision of the wolf and the lamb, or of the heavenly banquet.  Or, consider Martin Luther King, Jr.—a true modern prophet—and his vision of the beloved community. 

Prophets tell the truth.  God’s truth.  And what is that?  The truth is that the world we live in most of the time, in which we make our decisions, and choose our paths, and react and respond to others, is an illusion.  It is not what God intends—it flows not from the heart of God—and thus it is not real.  We recognize that dimly.  The illusion and artificiality of the world through which we walk is why we, like the main characters in the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, carry with us a dull but ambient anxiety.  It is why we are so often, but without any clear object, confused.  It is why we take note that things seem to be broken, but we cannot pinpoint why, or exactly how, or how to repair them. 


In the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it turns out that both Joel and Clementine have earlier paid a company called Lacuna to erase their memories.  Joel and Clementine had originally met in Montauk and fallen in love, but love is hard.  It is work, and self-giving, and acknowledgement of wrong, and sacrifice.  Clementine’s and Joel’s relationship became so strained that they each chose to cancel love, to banish its presence and even memory from their lives, to live as amnesiacs.  They scrubbed their minds clean, believing that a spotless mind would be eternal sunshine.

What the main characters quickly learn, however, is that such willful amnesia results not in light but in confusion, anxiety, and a discomfiture that is gnawing and ever-present.  Letting go of love seems at first to be the simpler and easier route, but that proves to be desperately wrong.  Such willful ignorance casts a shadow that is a pall over everything.  Without love, the world is false and confused.  Without love, sunshine is merely an illusion.

I doubt that it is a coincidence that the filmmaker named his main character Joel.  Joel is, after all, another of the bible’s prophets, another of its truth-tellers.  In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, despite the supposed erasure of his memory, Joel can’t shake the feeling that the world through which he now walks is broken.  Something has been forgotten, and it must be remembered.  In Joel’s confusion, he lumbers and careens through shadows where he thought there’d be sunshine.  He won’t the abide the falsity, the amnesia, the brokenness, the sorrow, and even in his confusion he doggedly seeks the truth.  Until, miracle of miracles, he rediscovers and speaks it.  Joel and Clementine find one another again in Montauk.  They commit to live in light of the truth and do the hard work of love.

We Remember | 4ThoughtMedia | WorshipHouse Media

There is a moment in the Eucharistic liturgy called the anamnesis.  “An-amnesis.”  It means the contrary of amnesia.  It means to remember.  The words are different in each Eucharistic Prayer, but the anamnesis always comes after the priest has rehearsed the story of Jesus and his friends in the Upper Room.  Suddenly, as if waking from a dream or shedding an illusion, the whole gathered people say, “We remember his death!  We proclaim his resurrection!  We await his coming in glory!”

We remember.  That is the first step in prophecy.  To be prophets all, we must awaken from our confusion and our willful forgetfulness of God’s intention for the world.  We must recognize that we, consciously or subconsciously, have sometimes decided to abandon love, for ourselves, for our intimates, of those who are different from us in the world.  We have come up with all sorts of rationales for why life will be easier, simpler, spotless, and sunshine without love.  We have convinced ourselves and lapsed into amnesia for who God truly is and what God intends for the world.  We must remember.  We must remember that God is love and calls us to love.  The very word “re-member” means to knit back together that which has been frayed and separated.  Remembering is the first step.

And then, as the prophet does, we must speak the truth.  We must tell it both to ourselves and to the world, recognizing that, depending upon the depth of our forgetfulness, the truth may seem like bad news before it is revealed to be Good News.  Awakening and remembering will require that we become different.  Love is hard, not easy.  Love is work, and self-giving, and acknowledgement of wrong and passive complicity in wrong, and sacrifice. But love is also light.  It is the ever and only truth.  And speaking that truth is the way we awaken others to it, the way the world begins to shed its amnesia and knit its frayed edges back together.

The author and poet L.R. Knost understands that light is to be found in the recollection of love rather than in forgetting.  She articulates our calling to the office of prophet in these days:

“Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world.

All things break. And all things can be mended.

Not with time, as they say, but with intention.

So go.

Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally.

The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you.”

Sifting through the noise

Blogger Megan Griffith shares what it is like when she listens to the world.[i]  She says, “Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone at a concert, sporting event, or on a noisy train/subway? It’s difficult to hear the other person, right? [My life] is like all your conversations take place in some kind of stadium or subway station, even if you’re actually sitting in a quiet classroom or even your own living room.”  All the time, in any circumstance, Megan hears the sounds all around her, but she can’t distinguish where they come from or the meaning attached to each one.  Sound is a constant bombardment and sifting through the barrage is virtually impossible.  Megan suffers from Auditory Processing Disorder, a condition that includes the failure of “auditory figure-ground discrimination,” or, “being able to focus on the most important sounds in a noisy environment.” 

Autism and auditory processing disorder: What's the connection? | Autism  Speaks

In 1 Samuel today, the little boy Samuel is asleep in the temple at Shiloh, but he sleeps fitfully.  Three times he is awakened by a voice calling out to him.  Samuel can’t distinguish from whom or where the voice is coming.  He thinks it must be Eli the priest, and he gets up each time and tries to follow the sound.  Finally, the bible tells us, “Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy,” and he counsels Samuel that, if Samuel hears the voice again, he should listen with care.

I’ve always loved this story, and it does, indeed, turn out that the voice calling out to Samuel is the voice of God.  That’s why it is included in Holy Scripture, after all.  But I’ve always wondered, what if it hadn’t been God?  Because often, of course, it isn’t.  Often, when we hear a siren song and call it God, the voice is something different altogether.  Albert Schweitzer famously said that sometimes seeking to hear God is like calling out down a deep well and mistaking our own echo for God’s voice.

But even that is just one voice among innumerable others.  In full, it is as if we suffer from a cultural Auditory Processing Disorder.  We are all so bombarded with noise—and I mean this both literally and figuratively—that we cannot process it accurately.  We suffer from a collective failure of auditory figure-ground discrimination.  We too often fail to recognize the trustworthy and reliable voices in a noisy environment. 

As a result, often the sound that lands is the loudest, most incessant, and most outrageous.  Why is that so?  Because we cannot abide ambiguity or confusion.  We are hard-wired to seek simplicity and clarity just as when the earth beneath us feels like quicksand we will seek solid ground no matter what, even if that ground is volcanic.  We desire these things so much that we are sometimes willing to accept whatever pierces through the noise and grants us something distinguishable, whether or not that voice is trustworthy.  Or, to hearken back to the story of Samuel, whether or not that voice is of God.

That can happen regardless of one’s politics or ideology, but it certainly happened in the weeks, months, and, indeed, years leading up to January 6.  The assault on the U.S. Capitol Building was the inevitable result.  The rhetoric, postings, and emblems of those who violated the Capitol Building express fidelity to, and certainty in, loud and incessant voices that are most decidedly not of God.  There were overt expressions of white supremacy; idolatrous signs emblazoned with the message “Jesus Christ is my Savior; Donald Trump is my President;” and, cryptic to those on the outside but most telling of all, ubiquitous symbols of QAnon, the Byzantine, internet-driven conspiracy theory with thousands of devotees that claims to be combatting, as reported by the BBC, “a secret war against elite Satan-worshipping paedophiles in government, business and the media.”[ii]  

The scale of the violence involved in the assault on the Capitol is still becoming clear.  In addition to the Capitol Police officer killed, Acting U.S. Attorney Michael Sherwin reports as “mind-blowing” the extent and severity of the acts of violence at the Capital Building.  Sherwin said in his press conference, “People are going to be shocked with some of the egregious contact that happened within the Capitol.”  Sherwin also revealed that live pipe bombs were planted at both Democratic and Republican party headquarters.  Blessedly, they did not detonate.[iii]

In the wake of January 6, we must ask anew, “Through the world’s noise and our own distress, how do we know which voices are God’s and of God, when so many competing ones claim to be?”  For that, we turn, as we should always turn, to the Gospel.  Today, the voice of Jesus calls out amidst the world’s noise, and Nathanael hears him.   Without pause or hesitation, Nathanael proclaims of Jesus in awe and wonder, “You are the Son of God!”  In that moment, Nathanael’s entire life changes.  And by that, I don’t mean he starts going to church twice a month or rests easy in the assurance that he gets to go to heaven when he dies.  Rather, his life becomes, in its entirety, a life of discipleship to Jesus.  Every commitment, every decision, every priority, every passion becomes the shared passions of Jesus.

Why is this so?  Why is this voice different?  Why does it transform Nathanael’s very being in the world?  A few verses prior, John’s Gospel has told us, “No one has ever seen God.  It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made God known.”[iv]  That is to say, and admittedly mixing metaphors of sight and sound, “If you want to know what the voice of God sounds like, listen to Jesus.” 

This has always been the central Christian truth, the truth of the Incarnation: If we want to know what God looks like, look at Jesus.  If we want to know what the voice of God sounds like, listen to Jesus.   By extension that means we mustn’t call our own self-affirming echo Jesus’ voice, and we mustn’t choose some ideology—any ideology—and call it the Gospel of Jesus.

Jesus Christ Orthodox Icon

Listen to Jesus.  Let Jesus’ voice reach us through the noise.  Focus on it, and only it.  What does that voice say?  The voice of Jesus denies the temptation of power in favor of sacrifice.[v]  The voice of Jesus defends the vulnerable who are at the mercy of the majority and the mob.[vi]  The voice of Jesus brings good news to the poor, release to the captives, and freedom to the oppressed. [vii]  And the voice of Jesus blesses those who do likewise as inheritors of his kingdom.[viii] 

This is the voice of Jesus piercing the noise.  This is the only entirely true, trustworthy, and reliable voice.  Any voice, from anyone, that speaks differently is not God or of God.  And following the voice of Jesus in all things is what the life of discipleship looks like.  It is all-encompassing. 

At the funeral of John McCain on August 31, 2018, McCain’s friend and fellow senator from Arizona Jeff Flake said, “This fever will eventually break.  It has to.”  That’s an interesting image.  Fever spikes, often into delirium, before it breaks.  I pray that our national fever broke on January 6.  In hopes that it did, then we must ask how we, as Episcopalians and members of Christ Church Cathedral, can contribute to national healing. 

Importantly, the first word Jesus speaks in the Gospels is a call to repentance, to acknowledge our contributions to the world’s unholy noise, and to turn anew toward the God of love.  Surely and specifically, this means holding accountable all those who participated in and abetted the violent and hateful assault on January 6.  Beyond that, in order to experience societal redemption, we must each ask and answer with stark honesty what sins of commission or omission we have contributed to the acrimony in our nation.  We must amend our speech where we have added to the noise and speak Gospel words where we have been silent.

Secondly, and of equal importance, a restoration of health also requires that we acknowledge that “getting back to normal” is not good news for everyone.  Our experience these past years has revealed that there are those in our society who remain vulnerable and for whom justice and equal opportunity have been ephemeral.  There is much work to be done with regard to race and racism, the economic effects of de-industrialization on communities, and more, all of which must be constructively addressed, from our national leaders all the way down to our local community.  And about these things the Church must have something to say as well, just as Jesus did.         

First of all, we must quiet the noise and listen to the voice of Jesus.  In it there is no deceit.  It is good, trustworthy, and true.  And it calls us, this day and every day, to follow him into the transformed life of discipleship. 


[ii] In preparation for this homily, I traveled down some of the QAnon internet rabbit holes.  It is truly bizarre.


[iv] John 1:18

[v] Matthew 4:1-11

[vi] John 8:1-11

[vii] Luke 4:16-20

[viii] Matthew 25:31-46

Epiphany and the God Particle

In college I was a philosophy and religion major.  I loved the passion of the religion department, but I equally appreciated the dogged rigor of the philosophers.  With set jaws and steely eyes, they probed as deeply as the human mind can probe the fundamental questions of the universe.  I especially loved philosophers like Hegel who, while crazy difficult to read, proposed total systems of understanding, leaving nothing out.  There is something elegant and satisfying about the “grand theory of everything.”  I have always wanted to know the Truth with a capital “T”.  I’ve always desired knowledge about the things that hold the world together and give it purpose and meaning.

          It wasn’t long into my first philosophy course when I learned that once-upon-a-time physics was simply a branch of philosophy.  That realization made perfect sense.  The physicists, too, seek to understand the underpinning of things.  They, too, ask the deepest questions.  In fact, at some point along the way modern philosophers became sidetracked with (in my opinion, at least) silly questions and ceded the essential questions to the physicists.  It is the physicists who insistently peel back the layers of the world to discover what lies beneath.  And in so doing, they reveal to us dimensions that sometimes seem fantastic and surreal.

          For instance, there is, right here and right now—around and within each of us—another world, populated not only by molecules and atoms, but by things that even atoms dwarf.  It is a world of quarks and bosons (bo-zens).  It is a world governed by the strong force and the weak force. 

This is the world explored by physicists at the European Center for Nuclear Research.  Theirs is practical in addition to theoretical physics.  With their Large Hadron Collider, these men and women actually smash protons together at nearly the speed of light.  The collisions occur with such force that the protons splinter into their component parts, allowing physicists to see the very basic building blocks of the cosmos.  Because their work is mysterious to folks like you and me, it frightens many people.  Indeed, in the weeks before their Large Hadron Collider fired up for the first time in 2008, there was a crescendo of panic that its proton-smashing might create a black hole that would swallow the earth.[i]

          Lucky for us, that didn’t happen.  But what did happen at the Large Hadron Collider in 2012, and announced with fanfare in newspapers and on cable news channels across the globe, was the discovery of the “God particle.”  In laymen’s terms, the God particle is that subatomic bit that draws other particles to it, causing them to cohere and have mass.  Without it, there would be nothing tangible in the universe.  All would be merely ether.  It is, in other words, the basic property of creation, that through which all things are made: you, me, the tree, the rock, the supernova.  On this tiniest and simplest thing, all else hinges.  You can see how it got its nickname.  The God particle’s proper name is the “Higgs Boson,” and scientists had been searching for it for fifty years.  Without the Higgs, physics had a big hole in it.  Physics’ model of the universe was a hope, but it was not a hope realized.  Until the Higgs was found, physics’ house of cards might’ve fallen.  And so, the wise men of physics were constantly on the lookout for the Higgs at its rising.  They needed it as a lodestar to guide them to the truth. 

Explainer: the Higgs boson particle
The Higgs Boson

          Today, in anticipation of the Feast of the Epiphany later this week, we read about another guiding star.  Magi—wise men, philosophers, we might say the physicists of their day—ardently seek the Truth.  They wish to plumb the depths of mystery and understand the essential workings of the world.  So they follow the lodestar at its rising, wherever it may lead.  On their quest, politics attempts to co-opt them (as politics today often tries to co-opt scientists).  King Herod seeks to influence the magi for his own ends, but these are seekers of truth, and honest truth-seekers will not be used and will not be influenced, no matter what pressure is brought to bear upon them.

          The magi continue to follow the lodestar, which draws them as a force toward Bethlehem.  The star beckons and lures until it stops over the place where lies a child.  These wise men from the east are learned.  They already have a healthy and potent sense of how the cosmos works.  They already hold a fair portion of the truth.  But until this encounter, there is a hole in their model of reality.  Their house of cards could fall. 

Until now, when in this child the wise men discover the heart of the world, when they find the essence, the purpose, the meaning of creation.  In this child they see, in the words of St. Paul, “the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.”  As they gaze at Jesus, the magi realize, as Paul also says, “all things have been created in him and through him…and in him all things hold together.”[ii]  In this tiny and simple child, all else hinges.

          Our Gospel reading shares with us the fact of this discovery.  But in the Epiphany season we are about to enter, we also receive the content of the meaning and purpose Jesus embodies at the heart of all things.  During Epiphany we often read the Third Song of Isaiah, known in Latin as Surge, illuminare.  In it, the Prophet speaks of the way the world will be when it recognizes Jesus Christ as its center.  When we awaken to the reality that we are created in and through Christ—when we are drawn to him as our center the way all those subatomic bits are drawn to the God particle—we will take on greater substance and surge with light, which is what the title of that holy song means.

Magi Follow The Star | ImageVine | WorshipHouse Media

          But there is more.  Christ gives us substance and light not for our own sake.  Too much of Christianity grasps only this half-truth.  The Third Song of Isaiah goes on to say that when the Truth is fully revealed, when we kneel before it the way the magi kneel to the Christ-child— when it completes us—we will be changed as essentially as those particles in the Hadron Collier are changed when they slam together at the speed of light.  Where our minds once tended to brood and darken, we will instead see the world in light.  Where we were closed off, insular, and self-protective, the gates of our hearts will remain ever open.  We will, each of us, foreswear violence and live in peace.  We will, in all things, seek to further the purpose of Christ Jesus through whom we are made, which is always, always love

That is the Epiphany.  That is the Truth disclosed by God and discovered by the wisest men and women, both in the first century and today.  It is practical rather than theoretical spirituality.   It bears concretely upon the way we respond all those things that linger from 2020 as we enter into a new year.  Once physicists discovered the God particle, they could never turn back.  Their world will never again be what it was before that truth was disclosed.  Once we have experienced the Epiphany, we can never go back, either.  We have seen the Christ at the heart of the world.  It has been revealed that we were created for no other reason than to live through him and for him.  We now know the Truth.  Surge, illuminare.  Take on new substance, rise and shine. 


[ii] Colossians 1:16-17.