You are God’s People (Sermon)

Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe,
for you are my crag and my stronghold; *
for the sake of your Name, lead me and guide me.

Ps. 31

In the 11th century, an unknown medieval writer, probably a monk or nun, copied and illustrated a document that we call the Harley Psalter. What’s amazing about this work is that for all 143 psalms… (it is incomplete)… there’s at least one illustration, sketched plainly in brown ink. It’s not the sort of thing you would expect from a medieval psalter, most of which are illuminated in bright colors. But sometimes these simple illustrations are incredibly profound.

The illustration for today’s psalm, Psalm 31, shows clusters of people, standing around on things that look like clouds. Perhaps like trying to walk around in a field of cotton candy. The only solid thing is a castle, which an angel, or perhaps Christ, stands outside of, helping souls out of the net which has been secretly set for them.

The only solid thing in the picture otherwise full of wavy lines is the castle: steady, full of straight lines. And for those of us who look at it from the 21st century, it is the most recognizable object; the most normal thing in a picture full of strange figures and clouds.

Something normal, in a sea of trouble. In a world that feels distinctly unreal, not normal.

There is no normal. That’s a sentence I find myself saying out loud a lot lately, when it’s so easy to make comparisons between the world as it used to be two months ago, and the world as it is now. For most of us, things have changed quite a lot.

Maybe in big ways. Maybe homeschooling your kids, something you didn’t sign up for this year, or ever.

Maybe working from home, or not working at all.

Maybe nothing much has changed, except you can’t run errands anymore, or go see friends or family.

The world has changed, and there is no more normal.

This morning’s lessons are a bit strange to read in a time when we’re so unmoored. When we live in a time where the world doesn’t seem normal at all, the certainty expressed in every single reading today is almost disconcerting. Stephen, even in the face of death, refuses to give up his faith. Peter talks about our role as cornerstones, as God’s people. Christ talks about our place in the kingdom of God, and his relationship to the Father.

But amidst all this disconcerting certainty, there’s some room for doubt, some room for feeling so far away from normal, whatever that is.

Our psalmist sounds so very certain to begin with: “In you, O Lord, have I taken refuge”.

But this confidence is riddled with the desperate plea for help that comes next: “Take me out of the net that they have secretly set for me”… God, I need your help right now.

“My times are in your hand; rescue me from the hand of my enemies” … I feel so very vulnerable right now… please help me.

Things are really bad for our psalmist. And perhaps you don’t feel like you are “forgotten like a dead man, out of mind”, but maybe you do. Maybe all of this is just too much—too much quiet, or not enough. Too much time to think, or too little, or too many things to worry about. Too much that isn’t normal. Too much uncertainty around when things might ever become ‘normal’ again.

But grief and pleas for help are not the only things that the psalmist names. In Psalm 31, the psalmist has this persistent, annoying confidence that despite this grief and trouble, that God will protect them.

Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe,

for you are my crag and my stronghold; *

    for the sake of your Name, lead me and guide me.

Our psalmist takes for granted that God is, in fact a strong rock. That God is righteous. And that God is capable of making things better.

Our psalmist is very clear about who they are placing their hopes in: you, God, are my crag and my stronghold.

We need normal. We need something routine. Something regular that we can rely on.

We rely on the seasons to change, for winter to melt into spring, for spring to usher in summer, and the bountiful harvest that feeds us, and gives jobs to so many. We rely on fall, and a chill in the evenings, and we count on a winter that will be cold enough to reset insect populations and pollen.

We rely on things to be normal in order for our world to work. In order to eat.

But things aren’t normal, are they? Work looks different now. Eating looks different now. Even the weather looks different now: just a few days ago, it was reported that the western half of the United States is suffering from a monumental drought that has lasted twenty years.

If we’re being honest with ourselves, the world hasn’t been normal for a long time, has it? Twenty years of drought? An economy brought to its knees by a virus originating in bats and pangolins? And so, we find ourselves in the midst of a time when we suddenly have to notice how bound up we are in each other. How much we rely on each other for food and conversation and company. How much we rely on having enough yeast, or flour, or toilet paper, or meat in the first place. How much we rely on everything functioning optimally at all times.

And so when it doesn’t, whether it’s through a drought or a virus, it can feel like we’re swimming in a sea of uncertainty.

So perhaps that’s where you are right now: in a sea of uncertainty, beset by questions.

We are the figures of people, wandering through the clouds, the barren net-filled landscape of the illustration from the psalter. We are standing on ground that feels like it might dissipate.

One of the things I find most interesting about this illustration is the fact that all of these figures… these figures who we might feel a lot like right now, are mostly looking at the castle.

They’re looking at their strong rock, a castle which keeps them safe, who is their crag and stronghold.

They are looking at the heavens which parted, when Stephen could see Jesus sitting in glory at the right hand of God, even as he is about to be stoned to death.

They are looking at the cornerstone, the stone that the builders rejected which has become the very head of the corner.

They are looking at Jesus Christ, who says to us, Do not let your hearts be troubled, for I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Do not let your hearts be troubled, friends. The world has changed, and we must now change along with it. We must allow our hopes and desires, and our very normal lives and ways of being in the world, to be changed by the needs of this time.

But one thing remains our constant. One thing remains our crag and our stronghold. Upon one rock can we place all our hopes, our grief, our fears, our questions: and that is the rock of Jesus Christ, who has redeemed us, and who loves us, and who says do not let your hearts be troubled.

Friends, what has not changed is this: that we are still God’s people.

“Once you were not a people,

but now you are God’s people;

once you had not received mercy,

but now you have received mercy.”

Friends, we are God’s people. We are God’s field and vine. And in a world where very few things seem normal, I hope you know that you are loved by God, that you are redeemed by Christ, that you are guided by the Holy Spirit. I hope you know that YOU ARE God’s people.

And in this strong rock, and in this castle—in life or in death, in joy or fear, in health or sickness, in hope or sorrow—we are safe. For once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people. You are God’s people.

Sermon Audio

Who could have imagined this future? (Good Friday Sermon)

“He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;

like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.

By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future?”

Isaiah 53:7-8

Who could have imagined his future?

He was a bright kid, from a good family. Straight-A grades in school. Hard working, he’d have been a great carpenter like his father. He was good at whatever he tried, the Midas touch and all that. So of course it made sense that he’d be a good preacher and teacher. When he told us that “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”, quoting the prophet’s words, the Spirit of the Lord was upon him, and we believed him… in wonder. How is this Jesus, the carpenter’s son?

Who could have imagined his future?

See, we wanted him to be a prophet. But not like that. We wanted him to play by the rules, to heal, but not on the Sabbath. To honor the temple, but not literally flip the tables. To teach, but not rebuke the Pharisees. And if he was going to do all that, to be the Messiah like he said he was, he could have at least kicked out the Romans in the process.

Who could have imagined his future?

It seems so horrible that all this potential, all the work, all the teaching, should just end like this, hung up on a cross between two criminals, his mother and the other women weeping. And silence, horrible silence as the world just seemed to carry on as this potential slowly suffocated, suffocating all of our hope that this one might be the one to redeem Israel.

We couldn’t have imagined this, this future. We couldn’t have imagined a world where everything hangs in thin air, caught between past regrets and a terror that life won’t look any different from now. Silence, stifling all that could have been.

Who could have imagined his future?

Who could have imagined this future?

Who could have imagined that this is what the world looks like now? Waging war against an unseen virus that confines us to our houses, desperately hoping that we, or our loved ones won’t be the next victim of a reality that seems completely unreal, completely impossible.

Who could have imagined that in four weeks, our regular patterns, jobs, rhythms, community structures, and grocery-shopping routine could disappear? Who could have imagined not being able to plan for a future, in a present that is so uncertain?

Who could have imagined the silence and the loneliness that creeps in, despite our best efforts to erect digital barriers to keep us from remembering the fact that our world has gotten smaller?

Who could have imagined our future?

The question that the prophet Isaiah asks, that we are asking today, is found in a passage about the Suffering Servant, which Christians, from the gospel writers and beyond, have interpreted in light of Jesus’s death and resurrection. And so just a few verses earlier, Isaiah says of this suffering servant that

“Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.”

Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases. Surely he has taken up our mistakes and should-haves. Surely Christ has borne our sadness, our disappointment. Surely Christ has borne our deaths, our positive COVID tests, our loneliness and isolation.

And yet, we accounted him stricken. Alone on the cross—a potential lost, the end of a promising career. We accounted the silence as the end.

Who could have imagined his future?

In the narratives of the other gospel writers, the silence at Christ’s death on the cross is not so silent. In Luke, the sixth hour through the ninth hour are enveloped by complete darkness in the middle of the day. Luke and Mark both talk about the veil of the temple being torn in two. Matthew, whose account we read on Palm Sunday, tells us something even more incredible: that as the veil of the temple was torn from top to bottom, “the earth shook and the rocks were split. The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised…”

We could not have imagined this future. We who thought this was the end.

But it’s not the end, is it? This is not the end—I’m reminded of that every time I step outside into nature, which has decided that spring is still going to come. The azaleas are still putting out buds and a few timid blossoms. The lilac by the driveway has exploded into flower, and the rosemary bush by the front door is sending out tentacles of green and purple. Our human world feels silent and morose, as if we’re still standing at the foot of the cross.

But while we stand in silence, the earth shakes. The rocks are split, and the things that we thought were dead are alive again: from the smallest branch to the mightiest oak.

Who could have imagined this future?

Today, this Good Friday, perhaps, more than ever before, it feels as if we are sitting at the foot of the cross. It is tempting to see the silence as the end. It is tempting to think of an uncertain future as an indication that there is no future.

And it is when we give in to this despair that the voice of God’s creation is the loudest, when it comes into its own, beckoning us towards a future that isn’t ours, but God’s. The rocks are split, the earth shakes, and the persistence of springtime reminds us of the hope of resurrection.

So sit here, at the foot of this cross. We may be here a while. But look outside at creation and remember that this is not the end. God moves over the face of our deepest fears and terrors, reminding us that this grief, this life, is not the end.

We could not have imagined this future.

But God did. And God continues to imagine a future beyond today or tomorrow or two months or six months from now, when we will join with all creation in proclaiming that He is Risen, shouting hosanna as we too, are risen.

Video link to sermon on Youtube.

on being a deacon now

I can’t remember the last time I posted a non-sermon post on this blog. I keep thinking about resurrecting this site as something more than a storage system for sermons and articles, but of course, life gets in the way. Until it doesn’t.

On March 7th, I was ordained to the transitional diaconate in my diocese. The next day, I served as a deacon for the first time, in-person, at my placement parish. Just a few days later, my seminary moved all classes online, I went on self-quarantine due to contact with a COVID case (*I am fine, as is my friend who had it), and life changed dramatically, as it has for much of the world.

What does it mean to be a deacon? What is my role? A few weeks ago, I could have told you the liturgical roles a deacon has. I could have told you that my work was to serve, to connect the church to the needs of the world, to joyfully welcome all who enter.

A few weeks ago, I had no idea that I’d be waking up on Sunday morning, putting on clericals and grabbing a cup of tea before sitting down at my computer to read the Gospel off a screen and greet congregants through chatbox conversations at virtual coffee hour. I have no idea what I’m doing. But what I do know is that some of the needs of the world are virtually the same needs my congregation has right now: social isolation, loss of employment, kids at home, and a terrifying number of screens to juggle in order to “function”.

It’s a learning curve… for all of us. From providing instructions about Zoom, to calling parishioners on the phone, to recording audio for podcasts, and video for Holy Week, this isn’t what I thought my diaconate might look like. The “tools” I need for ministry are now the same ones that I learned fooling around on in high school in the late-2000s, doing HTML work-arounds and producing written and visual content every day.

Perhaps one of the people I research for described it best when she thanked me for my ministry as a deacon of technology. And that is the truest description of my ministry right now: the call to serve in this moment looks like connecting members of the church to one another, facilitating spaces for prayer and connection, patching technology together to make this new format work for as many people possible.

It’s not glamorous. It’s mostly emails, and conquering my very millennial dislike of talking on the phone. It’s “being loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them” by following diocesan directives around everything from gathering sizes to abstention from ‘new’ or ‘innovative’ (and unauthorized) ways of doing the Eucharist. It’s making “Christ and his redemptive love known, by your word and example” even when the boundaries between home, and work, and worship meld into one unwieldy list of Zoom meetings. It’s being “faithful in prayer, and in the reading and study of the Holy Scriptures” even when that’s the hardest thing to do, when days and the concept of time no longer seem distinct.

I refuse to end this with platitudes or some pat way of describing what life and ministry is like in an unfathomable time. We aren’t ready for takeaways yet… or at least, I’m not.

But my “other duties as assigned” as a deacon of technology are showing me one thing: that sometimes waking up, getting dressed, and doing the next right thing–be it an email or a phone call or a troubleshooting session–are all good and holy things. Grace must be found in the minutia, when our national narrative is one of fear and unknowns.

And perhaps, as we enter into Holy Week where things change so very quickly… where we go from lauding Christ with palms to shouting “crucify him!”… where Christ goes from supper to torture to death and astoundingly, to life… perhaps we may find ourselves surprised by the hope of doing the next right thing. The hope of my present, and perhaps yours too, is in knowing that no one actually knows what they’re doing right now, but that we must get up and serve, and trust that the road to Golgatha leads to the tomb, which leads to Resurrection.

A blessed Holy Week to you, my friends.

Can these bones live? (sermon)

After graduating from college, I did a very normal thing, and decided to go live in a monastery for a year, as an intern. And if you know anything about monasteries, you know that there is a very strict schedule for how your time is spent: a very necessary thing when you go to chapel five times a day. So, work is scheduled, prayer is scheduled, and social time is… scheduled.

Every Saturday, the brothers and interns would have afternoon tea in the cloister, and at the end of that hour, the superior would ask a question, as if it had just occurred to him. “Ah, yes, shall we say a psalm? What psalm shall we say?” And there were always one or two jokesters who would pipe up and suggest: “hey, how about Psalm 119?” Everyone would laugh, knowing that we’re not going to say all 176 verses of Psalm 119. “How about Psalm 130?” And so we would always say Psalm 130: “Out of the depths have I called to you O Lord, Lord hear my voice”.

In retrospect, it’s a rather strange Psalm to say to conclude a fun social gathering. “If you, Lord, were to note what is done amiss, O Lord, who could stand?”, and “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits for him, in his word is my hope.” It’s as if the gathering we just enjoyed is not enough. The teatime is just a promise of something better. Something better, for which we are willing to wait, more than watchmen for the morning. More than watchmen for the morning.

This morning’s readings are all about waiting.

Mary and Martha wait through illness and death and grief, in hope of a future where their brother is alive again.

The bones of the house of Israel have been waiting for years, dry and deserted, for God to speak aloud an unspeakable hope, “Mortal, can these bones live?”

It is not an easy thing, this waiting.

It is not easy to wait.

But we wait, sitting inside our houses, for a future that is perhaps for the first time in our lives, unknowable.

We wait for the lines at the grocery store to slow enough to pack the empty shelves full of food and supplies, wondering when our work will no longer be hazardous.

We wait for more PPE and weigh financial stability and serving others with the risk that we could die from one of the many patients flooding in the hospital doors.

We are waiting for this to end. Waiting for the present to become ‘normal’ again. Waiting for the work to return, for the economy to kick back into gear, for the return to a world that seems increasingly distant.

When we are waiting, when our worlds have been so disrupted, when we are waiting, it is easy to forget what hope even looks like.

One of the things I find incredible about the reading from Ezekiel is how quiet the prophet is at the beginning of the narrative. He is set down by God in “the middle of a valley [which was] full of bones. He let me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley and they were very dry. He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’”.

Can these bones live? This first question is spoken by God, and to be honest, I think that’s a bit strange. Ezekiel has been walking around this valley, seeing all of these bones. Why doesn’t he ask about them? Why does God have to bring it up first? I don’t know about you, but I feel like I’d have a lot more questions to ask God about why we’re walking through a valley of bones in the first place. But, Ezekiel remains unnervingly silent.

Why? Does he not feel the need to ask anything of God? Is he silent because he is waiting for God’s vision?

Or, is he silent because he is walking around a valley of bones—the bones of his own people, left exposed to become dry and brittle in the hot desert sun?

Perhaps this graveyard, this overwhelming sense of tragedy and grief, takes the words from his mouth. Perhaps there is nothing to say, nothing to ask, in the face of such hopelessness. Perhaps this is the only future Isaiah expects to see: one of death and defeat, where there are no questions and no answers.

Perhaps some of our days in quarantine feel like this too, this silent waiting. The resignation that this present might be our future… for some time, at least.

Maybe we find, for our own sanity, that we can’t even ask questions about the future. We can’t say a word in the face of such calamity. Perhaps for you, for me, some of our days are about putting one foot in front of the other, and walking through the valley of impossibly dry bones.

And so God speaks into this time of uncertainty, our own inability to imagine a future better than a return to whatever normal was before all of this.

“Mortal, can these bones live?”

When you and I are unable to speak. When we are unable to name our hopes and fears in the face of tragedy. When everything seems so very quiet, God speaks.

“Mortal, can these bones live?”

Here we are. At the end of Lent. Perhaps the strangest, most disruptive Lent of our memories that shows no signs of ending anytime soon.

Except that it is, in fact, ending. Not the pandemic, but the season of Lent is nearing its end. Next week is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week and soon, we will proclaim the good news of Christ who is risen.

It might not feel like we can even get to Easter right now. That we can celebrate Christ’s resurrection from the dead amidst the death of so many, amidst our valley of dry bones.

And that is okay. I think what is most hopeful is that Ezekiel, in the midst of his grief, didn’t have to speak. It’s okay not to speak right now, not to even know what to pray for, because God has already asked the question. The question that we, in our wildest dreams, couldn’t dare to hope for. The prayer that we couldn’t quite name.

““Mortal, can these bones live?”

I answered, “O Lord God, you know.”

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them:

O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.

Thus says the Lord God to these bones:

I will cause breath to enter you,

and you shall live.”

In the midst of our valley of dry bones, we hear a word of hope. A promise for the future: the promise that we name in the Nicene Creed, that “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”

In the midst of our valley of dry bones, our Lent, we hear the promise of Easter, which will come whether we can celebrate it in person or not.

In the promise of Easter, God answers God’s own question: “can these bones live?”

And in the coming hope of Christ who is risen, we can once again pray for a breath of life to enter our dry bones, to utter aloud a hope, that this too, shall pass.

And so we wait. Our souls wait for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning. Because in God’s Word, in God’s question, in God’s breath of life, in Christ risen and the world renewed, is our hope.

Preached for Lent 5, 2020, on Ezekiel.