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”

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”

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”

The Ordinary Incarnation

A Homily for the Nativity of our Lord

Text: St. Luke 2:1-20


Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, born this night, the Prince of Peace, laying in a manger. Amen.

On the 6th of May 2019, Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor, seventh in line to the throne of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, was born to Prince Harry and Megan Markle, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, in the exclusive Portland Hospital – birthplace of royalty and celebrity. His birth was heralded by a media spectacle as well as illuminations of the London Eye Ferris wheel, Toronto’s CN Tower, and Niagra Falls, and for £125 (just over $160), shoppers could buy the officially-sanctioned souvenir teddy bear. He was baptized in the chapel of Windsor Castle by the Most Reverend and Right Honourable Justin Welby, the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury. This pomp and circumstance in spite of the fact that his parents have opted to raise him a “private” citizen, foregoing the right to pass on one of his father’s hereditary titles.

What else would we expect for the son of a prince? This is precisely the sort of extraordinary attention we reserve for those lofty few, those who will reside in palaces or mansions.

The story of Jesus’ birth is likewise extraordinary, but in a completely different way. Our Lord was born not in some elite hospital nor a palace but in the ancient equivalent of a garage because the house was full.

His parents were not special, neither royalty nor celebrities, not even religious leaders. His father was a craftsman engaged to a young woman. They were from a small town that was often the butt of the joke – one of Christ’s own disciples would snidely ask, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” These blessed parents were far from home because the emperor in Rome decided to flex his political muscle over the farthest reaches of his realm.

The angels herald Jesus’ birth only to a few shepherds out in the fields, and a few foreign astronomers notice a strange star, but that’s about it. Save for his parents, the shepherds, and those magi (who don’t even show up for a few years – but more about that in two weeks), everything about this night seems so extremely ordinary.

This is the story of the Incarnation, the story of God the Son, the Divine Word, the Eternally-Begotten One through whom all things were made, becoming a human, one of us. It’s a night that changed the world, and yet it was so entirely plain.

There’s something unsettling about a God who comes to us in such humble form – born not to a king or emperor but to a craftsman and his fiancée in a far-flung province of an oppressive empire, a God who, like all newborns, cried and soiled himself and woke his holy parents up in the middle of the night. The one who gave us his Body and Precious Blood was fed of his own mother’s body, was entirely dependent on the Blessed Virgin Mary for his being.

We dress this night up with illuminations, festive greenery, and sacred song, but at its core, its is holy because it is common.

The Jesuit priest and gang intervention advocate Father Greg Boyle once remarked,

I think we’re afraid of the incarnation. And part of it, the fear that drives us is that we have to have our sacred in a certain way. It has to be gold-plated, and cost… millions [with a] cast of thousands….

But this is what tonight is all about: God enters the world, shunning the pomp and circumstance of human royalty, foregoing the gold-plating in favor of fragile human flesh. Living among us, he encounters pain and disease, he weeps at the graveside of a dear friend, knows the true anguish of hunger and thirst, and feels the sting of death. Our Savior is one who has gone through the same trials and tribulations as us.

On this night of nights, we remember and give thanks that our Lord blessed us with his presence not by appearing as some sort of angelic being devoid of flesh and bone nor by dwelling in some palace far removed from the pain of common, everyday life but that he lived among us, greeted by working-class shepherds.

He lived under earthly kings. He talked to, healed, touched, and even ate with the religious elite, the enslaved, the sex worker, the tax collector, the occupying soldier, the divorcee, the pure and unclean alike, washing away human distinctions between Jew and Gentile, male and female,  slave and free, calling all of people to new and everlasting life.

And it is this ordinary-looking child who shall be called Wonderful Counselor, who shall wield all authority on heaven and earth, who will reign with righteousness and justice.

It is this newborn Child who will break the oppressive yoke of sin and death, who will feed the hungry and send the rich away empty, who will lift up the lowly and topple tyrants from their thrones. It is this crying infant who will taste death but, in dying, destroy the deathly powers of this world.

By taking on humanity, ordinary, fleshy, common humanity, Christ will pull us ordinary, fleshy humans out of the grave and dress us in ever-living divinity.

And on this holy night, my dear friends, as we remember the God who came as an infant, we celebrate also that he left us this Blessed Sacrament, his Body and Blood, as a gift of grace. But even this we have tried to dress up with silver and gold. Again, Father Greg reminds us:

And so we’ve wrestled the cup out of Jesus’s hand, and we’ve replaced it with a chalice, because who doesn’t know that a chalice is more sacred than a cup….Jesus doesn’t lose any sleep that we will forget that the Eucharist is sacred. He is anxious that we might forget that it’s ordinary, that it’s a meal shared among friends, and that’s the incarnation.

Our Lord’s presence continues in our midst through the mystery of his Body and Blood made present in ordinary bread and wine. Here, beloved, the miracle of our Lord’s birth continues: a God who came to us as a normal kid comes to us again as an ordinary meal. Here he is, for us, to forgive and bring us into newness of life, to make us the holy Body of Christ.

Amen.

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”

Ecclesia Semper Reformanda Est

A Homily for Reformation Day

Texts: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Romans 3:19-28; St. John 8:31-36


luther-Copy

Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who has justified us by grace through faith. Amen.

Most of us know this story by now, either from confirmation or history class…especially after the build-up to the five hundredth anniversary festivities two years ago and the Vespers series* we just finished. But once more with feeling: On October 31st, 1517, a German Augustinian friar, deeply disturbed by the sale of indulgences, posted ninety-five theses, or topics for discussion, on the church door in the university city of Wittenberg to spark an academic debate among his fellow scholars. In doing so, Martin Luther launched the Reformation, and the world was forever changed. Of course, the historical reality is much more nuanced than that, with centuries of developments before and after that fateful day, but the October 31st story makes for convenient short hand. Continue reading “Ecclesia Semper Reformanda Est”

A Place of Honor at the Feast

A Homily for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Proverbs 25:6-7; St. Luke 14:1, 7-14


Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who beckons the lowly to places of greater honor. Amen.

Let’s suppose you were to describe Lutheran culture. What is it that sets us apart? Just off the top of my head, I can think of organ music and congregational singing, certainly a big part of our contribution to the wider Church. And there are also foods brought over from the old country, whether it’s lutefisk from our Scandinavian siblings or plantains from our Afro-Caribbean kindred. And food is important, because of course Lutherans love potluck dinners. (If you have a choice at the potluck, go with the plantains, not the lutefisk.) Then there’s that ubiquitous Lutheran trait: sitting in the back of the church.

Oh, I’m sorry, did I say Lutheran? I meant Back-Row Baptist. Or Methodist. Continue reading “A Place of Honor at the Feast”

Look to the Heaven and Count the Stars, If You Are Able

A Homily for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Genesis 15:1-6; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; St. Luke 12:32-40


Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, the one we are waiting for. Amen.

Before Father Abraham had many sons, before he was Abraham, when Sarah was known as Sarai, the Lord came to this wandering family and made a promise:

I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

And at the time, it seemed like a ridiculous thing to say. Both Abram and Sarai were advanced in age, past their child-bearing years. More than that, they were homeless nomads; who were they that the Lord should take account of them?

As time passed, the divine promise was long-delayed, enough so that Abram and Sarai had reason to doubt. More than that, Abram’s many shortcomings became readily apparent. The family ended up in Egypt, where the Pharaoh took notice of Sarai. Fearing for his own life, Abram asked his wife to pose as his sister; for his own safety, he sent her to live in Pharaoh’s palace as a royal spouse. (Oddly, this part of their story didn’t make it into that old VBS song or the Sunday school felt board, and I don’t think I’ve seen that episode of Veggie Tales.) Continue reading “Look to the Heaven and Count the Stars, If You Are Able”