Flesh, Bone, and Empty Tombs

A Homily for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

Texts: Ezekiel 37:1-14; St. John 11:1-45


Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus the Lord, the Resurrection and the Life. Amen.

As we enter into the Valley of Dry Bones, it’s not difficult to feel Ezekiel’s sense of desperation. He is a Judahite sent into exile, a priest who has heard of the Temple’s destruction, a prophet striving to make sense of why the Lord would abandon the Chosen People and let the Land of Promise fall into such ruin.

This morning’s imagery, the bones stripped bare by decay and rot, provides a vivid image of the doubt and fear Ezekiel and the other exiles felt. Staring out over the wasteland of a battle lost long ago, asked if these bones might live again, you can almost hear the defeat in Ezekiel’s voice:

O Lord God, you know.

His same resignation is on the lips of the rest of the exiles and those still living in the smoldering waste left behind in Judah. They cry out: Continue reading “Flesh, Bone, and Empty Tombs”

Blind, but Now I See

A Homily for the Fourth Sunday in Lent

Texts: Ephesians 5:8-14; St. John 9:1-41


Grace to you and Peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, the Light of the World who restores sight to the blind. Amen.

I’m not afraid of the dark, generally speaking. But on two separate occasions, I’ve been in a cave where the tour guide shut off the lights for us to see how dark it truly is deep under the earth’s surface: once in the paved tunnels of Wind Cave National Park, accompanied by an experienced ranger, and the other time on in the narrow, damp, muddy caverns under the mountains of eastern Tennessee on a spelunking trip with a high school youth group.

And both times were utterly terrifying. I could see, and then I was blind.

cave
Cave wit No Light (Artist’s Approximation)

Once the last photons disappeared, it was as though the entire world had been horrifyingly unmade. Suddenly, one entire sense was wiped out. With no fixed objects to look at, I was so disoriented that even the slightest tilt of the head or a subtle shift of balance was nauseatingly dizzying.

When the lights came on, I felt safer – but still not safe. I spent the long trips back to the earth’s surface still terrified that some accident might plunge us back into the void and that this time, we would be stuck in the inky abyss. Continue reading “Blind, but Now I See”

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Rivers of Living Water

A Homily for the Wednesday after Lent III

Text: St. John 7:14-31, 37-39


Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who sates our thirst. Amen.

Tonight, we find ourselves back in time: we’re exactly one chapter earlier than we were last Wednesday, when Jesus was confronted by an angry mob preparing to stone a woman caught in adultery. (For more on the relationship between these two episodes, check out last week’s sermon.)

It’s the Feast of Booths, and Jesus is on pilgrimage in Jerusalem, a city packed to overflowing with worshipers flocking to the Temple. In the turmoil of such a crowded city, the religious leaders are on a sharp lookout for anyone who may be stirring up trouble or fomenting insurrection, lest a riot bring about a violent crackdown from the Roman troops. And Jesus, they worry, is exactly that type of dangerous revolutionary.

What we see throughout chapter seven is an extended series of encounters with the Pharisees, the chief priests, and the Temple guards, debating the Law of Moses and the very nature of Truth itself. Continue reading “Rivers of Living Water”

Water From the Rock of Our Salvation

A Homily for the Third Sunday in Lent

Texts: Exodus 17:1-7; St. John 4:5-42


Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, the Fount of Living Water. Amen.

After years of slavery in Egypt, after ten horrifying plagues, after the Passover and the hurried escape, after passing on dry land through the sea while the pursuing army was drowned, the Hebrews have been liberated!

And their cry goes up: Ashira l’Adonai – now what? Continue reading “Water From the Rock of Our Salvation”

Born Again From Above

A Homily for the Second Sunday in Lent

Text: St. John 3:1-17


Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus the Lord, who gives us new birth. Amen.

Nicodemus - John 3:1-21
Nicodemus

Evening has fallen over Jerusalem, and the cool air of the spring night is settling in. The city is packed to overflowing for Passover feast, and this metropolis is in even more of an uproar after a wandering preacher from Nazareth entered the Temple to drove out the animals and money changers using an improvised whip. And yet this same preacher has attracted a large following. As St. John phrased it just a few verses before our Gospel reading, “…many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing.”

So it is that, as we read, Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a religious leader among the Judeans, came to Jesus under the cover of darkness. It might be a stretch to suggest he “believed in [Jesus’] name,” but he is definitely curious. “Rabbi,” he says, “we know you are a teacher who has come from God” because how else could anyone work such miraculous signs?

Which brings us up to the more familiar part of the story… Continue reading “Born Again From Above”

Christ the Deacon

A Homily, delivered to the Deacons of the ELCA’s Region 9

Texts: Philippians 2:5-13; St. John 13:1-17


Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who came not to be served but to serve. Amen.

On Maundy Thursday, 2013, Francis, then the newly elected Bishop of Rome, celebrated the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. The time came for the foot-washing rite, and the new pope removed his chasuble before adjusting his stole, setting it on his left shoulder, crossing his chest, and hanging at his right hip. (I would say that the symbolism was obvious, but I didn’t notice he was essentially vested as a deacon until Deacon Adrainne Gray posted about it on social media.)

More than the stole, Francis also dramatically expanded the ritual to include women for the first time in the Vatican’s recorded history. Both of these are habits Francis developed during his time as the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, and every year in his papacy, he has extended the rite to include more and more people on the margins of the Church: women, inmates, home-bound elders, and even Muslim refugees. Continue reading “Christ the Deacon”

Paradise Lost

A Homily for the First Sunday in Lent

Texts: Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; St. Matthew 4:1-11


Grace to you and Peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who walks with us through the temptations of this world that we may overcome this world with him. Amen.

confessional - expulsion from garden
The Fall, depicted on the door of a confessional in Speyer, Germany

“It was very good.”

That’s how Genesis 1 summarizes life in the first days of Creation.

And Genesis 2 paints us this picture (as translated by Robert Alter):

The Lord God fashioned the human, humus from the soil, and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living creature. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden…and He placed there the human he had fashioned. And the Lord God caused to sprout from the soil every tree lovely to look at and good for food, and the tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge…. Now a river runs out of Eden to water the garden…. And the Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the human to be alone, I shall make him a sustainer beside him.’ And the Lord God fashioned from the soil each beast of the field and each fowl of the heavens and brought each to the human to see what he would call it…but for the human no sustainer beside him was found.

The human is put to sleep for a quick operation in which the Lord takes out one of his ribs and uses it to fashion a woman, a fellow human to be the sustainer beside him. Life in this very good garden had only one rule: Eat from any tree except the three of knowledge of good and evil; if you eat that tree, you will be doomed to die.

It should have been so simple. Continue reading “Paradise Lost”

For All the Saints

A Homily for All Saints’ Day

Texts: Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18; Ephesians 1:11-23; St. Luke 6:20-31


Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who has united the saints throughout the ages into the Kingdom of God. Amen.

There’s a musical meme, a centuries-old piece of liturgical hymnody used by composers throughout numerous symphonies and film scores to add an air of foreboding. You’ve heard it, even if you don’t realize it.

It’s popped up in The Shining, Star Wars, and The Lion King. It’s the funeral chant Dies Irae, part of the medieval Requiem Mass for the dead. If you’ve ever heard Mozart’s setting of the Requiem, his take is especially dramatic, full of fury. Continue reading “For All the Saints”

Brought in by the Water

A Homily for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Text: 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c


Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who claims us as his own. Amen.

In the German town of Speyer, there is a beautiful old cathedral.

And by old, I mean old.

It was built in the early eleventh century. When it was constructed, the Catholic and Orthodox churches were still united and the Normans had not yet invaded England. The cathedral is extraordinary: it is one of the best examples of Romanesque architecture in the world, a UNESCO world heritage site. It is home to relics of beloved saints, to tombs of Holy Roman Emperors, and, out in the plaza in front of the church, there’s a giant wine goblet that is filled so that the town may celebrate every time a new bishop is seated. (We didn’t have one last weekend, sad to say. Perhaps we should have brought that tradition back.) Continue reading “Brought in by the Water”

Managing Forgiveness and Favors

A Homily for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost*

Texts: Psalm 113; St. Luke 16:1-13


dishonest steward color

Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who abundantly forgives. Amen.

Our culture loves Robin Hood stories – complicated heroes who break the law to provide for those in need, risking life and limb in epic feats as they serve the poor. We love the stories of the little person triumphing over the wealthy. It’s why we cheer on characters like Bud Fox in 1987’s Wall Street, who even though he has made a fortune for himself by violating financial regulations, decides to use those same underhanded (and illegal) means to win back his father’s respect, rectify the wrong he’s done, and ultimately get one over on the dastardly Gordon Gekko.

We’re just as likely to tell stories of noble outlaws as we are valiant sheriffs. Wall Street wouldn’t have been as good, wouldn’t have bagged Michael Douglas the Oscar for Best Actor, if it had been the story of a by-the-book Securities and Exchange Commission team investigating alleged impropriety at Jackson Steinem. These myths and legends form part of our collective consciousness, our culture’s shared understanding of the world.

And so we lean in a little closer when we hear today’s Gospel lesson – Continue reading “Managing Forgiveness and Favors”