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.

Video

Your special superpower

What is your superpower?

I’m pretty sure that we’ve all been asked this question. After all, it’s pretty common—whether you’re in school, talking with your friends about the latest Marvel movie, or participating in an icebreaker exercise at work, you’ve probably had to think about what superpower you’d pick.

Invisibility. Teleportation. Strength. Shapeshifting. Time travel. Or maybe your superpower is something else I haven’t listed. or maybe you’re actually Spiderman—I wouldn’t know.

And I think the thing that we love about superheroes is that they’re at their best when they stop hiding from whatever superpower they have, and start using it.

That’s always the best part of the movie, right?? When Thor or Wonderwoman or Dr. Strange suddenly realize that, oh, I know how to fix this. That their superpowers will actually make a difference.

So I want to suggest that the writer of today’s Psalm definitely had a superpower. And the key to this superpower is in verse nine, where they say that “Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him…”

“Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him…”

Surely. Surely is a weird word, right? It’s an adverb, which, means that it’s modifying the verb “to be”. The Psalmist is sure that God’s salvation IS. The Psalmist is sure that God’s salvation EXISTS.

Lexico describes surely as a word that is “used to emphasize the speaker’s firm belief that what they are saying is true and… their surprise that there is any doubt of this.” It means that you really believe what you’re saying is true.

Being sure is a superpower, and the Psalmist definitely has it. In the earlier part of Psalm 85 that we didn’t read today, they begin by reciting what God has done… to God!

“Lord, you were favorable to your land”

“You pardoned all their sin”

“Restore us again, O God of our salvation”

“Will you not revive us again?”

“Show us your steadfast love, and grant us your salvation”

God, you were awesome…. and you should do that again.

The Psalmist is so sure about who God is, and what God does, that they have the tenacity, the bravery, to demand that God make things good again.

“Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him”

“Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet”

“The Lord will give what is good”

The Psalmist’s superpower is being sure about who God is, is knowing the TRUTH about God. That God has been good to us in the past, and that God CAN and WILL be good to us now, and in the future.

That’s a lot of confidence to have in God. So yes, it is a superpower, but I think that it’s a superpower that we can claim today.

When we have a really bad day in school, or a really bad week at work.

When our faith is more questions than answers.

When all we want to do is ask, with the Psalmist, “Will you be angry with us forever?” Will things ever go right?

Perhaps we can stop, and remember our superpower: maybe we don’t know for sure what will happen in the future, but we know the truth about who God has been for us in the past.

We can name the deeds of God, from creation to crucifixion to right now, and say that yes, Lord, “you were favorable to your land”. “SURELY his salvation is at hand”, and that SURELY “The Lord will give what is good”.

So next time you need a superpower, remember this: that you too know the truth about God.

That God is good, and “the Lord will give what is good” to his people, now and in the age to come. May this truth set us free to be doers and witnesses of Christ’s work in the world.


Preached on 2/20/20, on Psalm 85, for the Thursday Night Live Service at Virginia Theological Seminary

To grow a garden

When I was in England a few weeks ago, I started watching a TV show that introduced me to a brand new world… the world of English gardening. It’s called “Small Spaces, Big Dreams”, and is hosted by Monty Don, who is so famous that he’s basically the Oprah of BBC gardening shows. The title sort of gives it away—in each episode, Monty coaches an ordinary person through designing their own garden in a tiny backyard or plot.

I’m pleased to say that after watching three whole seasons of this fantastic show, I’ve learned a few things.

First of all, it doesn’t matter how many resources you have. You’ve got to have a plan that’s realistic. You can’t plant desert plants in a swamp, and you can’t spend all your time digging—at some point, you’re going to have to put something in the ground and wait for it to grow.

Secondly, it’s probably going to work best if you’re friends with a few sturdy folks who don’t mind helping out with the planning or digging. Two, or four, or five, are better than one, right?

Thirdly, the amount of money that you pour into the garden won’t make a difference if you don’t have realistic plans and supportive friends. Money can only go so far towards making your garden personal and meaningful.

So in order to build your very own dream garden, we need three things: we need a plan, we need friends, and we need more meaning than money can supply.

Today’s Gospel is a hard one to hear. This part of the Sermon on the Mount, the one that we love to hear the beginning of: blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek. But in Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount actually continues on for three chapters, and includes today’s passage.

Jesus takes some of the Ten Commandments, and other parts of Jewish teaching at the time, and instead of saying that the commandments don’t matter, he says, that yes, they do matter, and here’s how to live into them.

There’s a common theme for how to go about living into these commandments. Not only is it about the ACTION that you do or don’t do, but it’s also about what you think.

Yes, don’t commit murder, but just walking around feeling like you want to murder someone isn’t good for you or that person either.

Offering a gift to God won’t be an adequate substitute for the work of making peace with my brother or sister or friend or enemy.

What Jesus says about the law is this: that the bare minimum is not okay. In order to live with each other, we have to do more than just check boxes. The work of following Christ requires us to be all in, not just operating on technicalities.

If God was a gardener, which our 1 Corinthians reading suggests, you might say that this ideal of how we live together in peace and dignity is, in fact, the master plan. It is the plan that God conceived for humanity in the Garden of Eden, when the world was still echoing God’s voice speaking it into being. It is the plan that Jesus wanted to tell a world that was and still is obsessed with technicalities. How little can we do, or how badly can we act, and it still be “legal”, or “moral”?

If you read the news these days, I’m not sure we’ve changed a whole lot. We still want to know how to be “good” with the least amount of effort. But the master plan is a bigger dream than that, a dream that imagines a future where we will be reconciled with each other, where we will live faithfully, where murder, and lawsuits and divorce won’t be necessary because we will have learned to see each other with God’s eyes.

I don’t know about you, but this master plan seems a bit daunting to me. On a good day, I can only remember even one of these instructions, and most of the time, Jesus’ teachings from our Gospel lesson don’t actually seem that helpful.

Take, for example the teaching on divorce.

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

What do we do with that? How can we possibly follow a teaching that is far more suited for the original Biblical context, where men controlled the relationship, and where divorce would absolutely impoverish a woman? It seems to make sense in that context: Jesus is admonishing the men in the audience not to abuse their power in the relationship, to do more than the bare minimum.

But knowing that context doesn’t do much for us, does it? For a lot of us who have experienced divorce in the 21st century, it’s much more complicated than that.

When my parents were going through the divorce process, I remember feeling a profound sense of relief. Thank goodness they’ve finally realized that it’s not going to work. In my parents’ case, both of them did as much as they could to make it work. But sometimes, through unequal effort, abuse, or a multitude of other reasons, a relationship just doesn’t work. And perhaps you’ve experienced this in your own family, or with friends, where you realize that ultimately, the healthiest decision is to separate.

This takes us back to the second step for creating our dream garden—sometimes, we need to find a friend, or two, or five. And perhaps, the person that we started the journey with will not be the person to help us plant, or water or prune the garden. In the Gospel’s ideal world, we would spend the whole journey with the friend or partner we started with. But sometimes, the digging is too much. And so we need to find another friend, another community, another group of people to support us as we aspire to the ideal–God’s master plan.

And this brings us to the final piece of gardening advice in this sermon: that you can’t substitute money or possessions for the hard work that ultimately makes a garden beautiful and meaningful. As the gospel says, you can’t substitute a gift at the altar for reconciliation with others. You can’t let a judge decide how reconciliation will happen between you and a friend.

This is the world that we want to live in, where we reconcile with one another, where we prioritize our relationships with others over our money or success. This is the world that we commit to working towards every time we renew our baptismal vows, whenever we say that we will “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being”.

And I love this honesty in the baptismal vows, because they don’t say that there is already justice and peace and respect among all people.

Instead, we promise to strive for it. We promise to start again and again whenever things don’t work out. We just promise to keep trying to work towards God’s master plan.

“What then is Apollos? What is Paul?… I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth….”

“For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.” We are working in a great big garden, with a Gardener whose plan is bigger than ourselves, than our country, than our moment in human history. So, grab a friend, or two, or five, and let’s keep striving towards a more just, faithful, and peaceful world as we water our corner of this great big garden.

Audio Recording: Preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Waldorf, 2/16/20

A new name

When I was a child, I spent a lot of time in the truck with my dad, driving to and fro as we did errands for the farm. I don’t remember much of what we actually talked about on those long drives, but one of the few things I remember is a question that only an eight year old would ask… one of those questions that those of you who are parents probably think about with dread.

“Dad”, I said, “if I was named something other than Amanda, would I still be me?”

If I didn’t have my name, would I still be me?

Now, I have no memory of what my dad said in response. It was probably some attempt to answer what is an actually an impossible question. (sorry, Dad)

If I didn’t have my name, would I still be me? If you didn’t have your name, would you still be you?

Names are important. Just think about that moment when you see the person who is dearest to you in the world after a long absence, that moment when they say your name: so full of joy, of love, of warmth. When someone we love says our name like that, it is a feeling, at least in my experience, that I’m fully known by that person. Speaking my name feels like an acknowledgement that they accept and love me for who I am.

And despite that old rhyme about sticks and stones, words hurt. Names can hurt. Anyone who’s ever been called a horrible nickname by a bully on the playground knows what it’s like to have someone mess with *who we are*, a little piece of ourselves, our identity.

Names matter. What we call people, matters. A name can be weaponized through anger, or it can become the most beautiful music when said by someone we love. Names matter in the Bible too—just a few weeks ago in Advent, we spent an entire Gospel lesson hearing names upon names upon names: Jesus’ genealogy.  

Names matter. And so in Isaiah, we find God promising a new name to a sad and broken land.

“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,

and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,

until her vindication shines out like the dawn,

and her salvation like a burning torch.

The nations shall see your vindication,

and all the kings your glory;

and you shall be called by a new name

that the mouth of the Lord will give.

You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord,

and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.”

Isaiah is a book of the Bible where we find the Israelites struggling with their identity. They’ve been wandering away from God for so long that they don’t know how to be God’s people anymore. The readings from this book alternate between God expressing anger at Israel’s unfaithfulness on the one hand, and the promises God makes that say there will be hope and life at the end of all this war and evil.

And all of this promise, this hope for the future, is symbolized by a new name.

“you shall be called by a new name

that the mouth of the Lord will give”

Isaiah is not the only reading this morning that talks about names. The gospel, that famous passage from the first chapter of John, is also about new names. In it, the Word of God, the son of God, takes on a new name.

“the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

The Word became flesh and took on a new name, the name of Jesus Christ.

Christ is, as Paul says, born under the law to redeem those under the law. Jesus Christ, born in a manger, the redeemer of Bethlehem, Nazareth and Calvary.[1] Jesus Christ, who took on a new name so that you and I might know him, love him, and adore him.

So as I conclude, I’d like to return to the question that we started with:

If I didn’t have my name, would I still be me? If you didn’t have your name, would you still be you?

After reading today’s lessons, what I would tell my childhood self is this: the new name which you might be called to: a new vocation, a new orientation—a new way of following God in this world, is not changing your identity. I will still be me. You will still be you. The new name to which we are called is more “us” than we could even imagine.

A new name is the fulfillment of promises hoped for. God has already called us by a new name: his people. And perhaps when God calls us by a new name, (a new call, a new way of being in the world), we will recognize it as the fulfillment of everything we’ve ever hoped for—all of God’s promises to remake and redeem us—fulfilled in the Christ who took on a new name for all of us.

As we approach the beginning of the new year, may we remember that regardless of what resolution we take on, God is always calling us by a new name, drawing us ever closer to himself, and the promise of a world renewed. Will you answer?


[1] See this lovely sermon for reference: https://www.ssje.org/2019/12/24/the-poverty-of-bethlehem-nazareth-calvary-br-james-koester/

Sermon preached on 12/29/19 at Little Fork Church, Rixeyville, VA.