Thursday, May 17, 2018

Together


Propers: Whitsun (Pentecost), A.D. 2018 B

Homily:

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Holy Spirit takes Jesus—all that He has, all that He is, all that He does—and puts Him into you.

Think about Christmas. Think about Easter. Think about how scandalous it is to say that in Mary’s womb, the finite contained the infinite, the Creation birthed the Creator. Now think about Pentecost and realize how much crazier it sounds to confess that not only did God become Man, but that God now makes all of us into Him.

And He does this by breathing His Spirit into us, pouring out the Life and Breath and Blood of God into our mortal bodies, that we might all, as one, become His Body, knit together in the Church, bound inextricably in flesh and blood, nerve and bone, to Christ who is our head—a Risen Body housing a deathless Flame, so that Christ Himself still walks this earth to heal the sick and speak the truth and feed the poor and raise the dead—only now He does this in and with and through and even in spite of us.

We are the Church. The Church is the Body of Christ. And Christ is nothing other than God and Man made one, His Spirit binding us together in flesh and blood and mind and soul. That’s what all of this means! That’s why we gather here every Sunday, so that we might be Christ for the world! And yes, we are broken. And yes, we are sinful. And yes, we often get it wrong. We get darn near everything wrong. But Christ meets us here, every Sunday, to cleanse us of our sins, to raise us to new life, and to make us one in Him in the Body and Blood of our Lord at His Table.

It’s easy to keep Christmas private. It’s easy to keep Easter private. But we cannot for the life of us keep Pentecost private. Because it’s our turn now, our time to step up. We are the only way that people can know the living Christ, His goodness and truth and beauty, we and our baptized brothers and sisters throughout this benighted sphere. We are the hands of Christ now. We are the voice of forgiveness. We are the dead who have risen from our graves. We sainted sinners are now God’s Body in this world.

And maybe we wish He would save the world in some other way. Maybe we’d wish for something more spiritual, more private. Less intrusive, less offensive. But God sent His Holy Spirit out into this world and the first thing He did was burrow deep into your soul and make of your body His Temple. And believe me, once He’s in there, He ain’t ever coming out. You are a Christian, whether you like it or not, to the end of the line. Because God does not break promises.

Confirmands: for three years now, we have read and studied and prayed together. You, your pastor, your parents and guardians, have worked through the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament, and the Catechism of our church. You have faithfully attended worship and participated in the liturgy attentively through a full three-year cycle of our lectionary. And I pray to God that this has changed you, deepened your faith, and brought it more fully into your homes.

The faith that matters is the faith at home. And I know that can be hard, what with all the directions in which we find ourselves pulled, all the subjects demanding our attention. But it doesn’t take much. A few verses here and there. A few prayers offered up in sincerity or desperation or duty. Luther liked to say that husband and wife are the bishop and bishopess of the house, and the house itself like unto a monastery of the Lord, with the everyday made holy and prayers for each hour of the day or of the night.

Our Sunday worship is a pattern of gathering and sending, breathing in, breathing out, like the steady beat of a living heart. We come together to be fed and forgiven, nourished on the Word and the Sacraments, sent out to be Jesus for the world. And this is all to support the faith of the home, to support the family and the community whom Christ has come to save, not in the abstract, but in the messiness and struggles of everyday life.

That’s why our gifts to you might seem unusual. We used to give to our confirmands tokens of remembrance, small crosses, necklaces. And those were all well and good. But now we give out hymnals—which at first might strike us strange. But these hymnals have always been intended for home use. They have within them the Catechism for instruction in the faith. They contain a cycle of prayers and Scripture readings, both day and night, for every day of the week and every season of the year, all in harmony with the Sunday lectionary.

And of course our hymnals contain songs. Songs of joy and lamentation. Songs of life and songs of death. Songs from throughout the many centuries and cultures of Christ’s Church. Wedding songs, funeral songs, healing songs, grieving songs. Ever since the microphone, we don’t sing the way we used to. Most people don’t seem to think they can. But God still wants to hear your voice, the voice of His beloved child. And you’d best get used to it, for I have it on good authority that Heaven is full of song.

You’ve got your Bible, your hymnal, and your prayers. You’ve got the love and support of this community and the entire Body of Christ. You have been prepared the best that we know how—prepared to begin your own journey and life of faith. Confirmation’s not the end. It’s just your ABC’s. In Christ there will be no end of struggles, of comforts, of discoveries, of revelations. We welcome you today no longer as children but as fellow pilgrims and fellow-soldiers in Christ.

Which is why we slap you, by the way. Gently, I promise, but I thought I should give fair warning. You are anointed this day with Oil of Confirmation, blessed at the bishop’s own Chrism Mass, as a sign of our unity in Christ and of God’s Spirit within you. And then you are slapped in the face, symbolically, as a reminder to be brave, my dear Christians. Be strong and loving and fearless. For the Lord your God is with you wheresoever you may go.

And that goes double for our graduates. Don’t think I’ve forgotten about you. Today we have the bittersweet honor of sending you out into the wide and wild world, embarking on adulthood, no longer a child. And you will find, if you haven’t already, that as we grow stronger, the world tends to get tougher. Life has a funny way of keeping things balanced.

Perhaps you’re off to college. If so, I hope you enjoy your time there as much as I did. (Maybe a little less. I enjoyed perhaps a bit too much.) But as you shoulder new freedoms and new responsibilities—a tad cliché, I know—I would warn you to keep the first things first in life. You will find, as did Pascal, that the world is full of divertissement. That is, diversions, distractions. Neat things to do, neat things to buy. Things that are fun or risky or addictive or diverting. And certainly some of them are harmless enough.

But we’ve reached the stage in our society where we can, if we wish, keep ourselves diverted for life. We can push off the big questions of meaning and value, of religion and death. We can keep ourselves so busy that we never truly grow up. Don’t get distracted. You don’t have much time. I know it feels like you do, but as every old person you’ve ever met has surely told you, it goes quickly, like sand between your fingers. Keep your eye on what’s important, what really matters in life, what kind of person you want to be. What is it really that you want on your tombstone?

The world is full of people floating aimlessly about from one pleasure to the next, one more distraction unto death. Don’t be one of them. Read. Give. Pray. Don’t waste even one more day not putting others before yourselves. You were confirmed here. You were baptized. You were bought with a price. And you inherited with all those promises the duties of a Christian: to be Christ in the world; to love, to forgive, to sacrifice, to strive. And we are with you in this life together. You will always have a home here.

Sooner or later everything ends up in the grave. Everything ends up as ashes and dirt. The only things that really matter are the things that rise back up, that outlive death. And you’re not going to find those at the bottom of a bottle or on a credit card statement.

In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out My Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams … Then everyone who calls on the Name of the Lord shall be saved.

Let’s do this, brothers and sisters. Together.

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Mother


Propers: The Ascension of Our Lord, A.D. 2018 B

Homily:

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

We don’t know her name—not the original, anyway—but we know she was just over 30 years old when she got sick.

It wasn’t the first time plague had swept through her town. An earlier wave may well have killed off her husband and any children; she was likely a widow. And in 1373, it seemed that she had come to her deathbed. Paralysis slowly crept above her waist and throughout her upper body. Soon even her eyes were fixed straight ahead. The household sent for the parish priest to administer Last Rites.

And the priest held a crucifix before her eyes and said, “Daughter, I have brought you the image of your Savior. Look upon it and be comforted,” at which she managed then to move her gaze to focus upon the face of Christ.

And that is when the crucifix began to bleed.

This is the story of Julian of Norwich: mystic, theologian, anchoress, and one of the most important Christian authors of Middle Ages. She is in fact the first woman in history to write a book in English—a book about what happened to her that night. Lying there, upon what she thought to be her deathbed, Julian received astonishing visions of Christ’s sacrifice for her and of His overflowing love for the world.

Her experience of God’s grace in these visions so completely overwhelmed her that she could see no anger in God at all, no blame, no judgment. Only mercy and sacrifice and self-giving. All of sin was as nothing before God’s life and light and love. It was a love that filled and upheld and forgave all things, pouring out upon the cosmos as the blood poured from that crucifix. They were visions of depth and complexity and promise, intended, she believed, for the comfort of all Christian souls.

And she warned of the temptations of the devil, yes. She warned of damnation’s despair. But she also proclaimed that all men and women of goodwill would at long last be drawn to God through Christ Jesus; that God would work some wonder at the end of time so great that all of our pain, all of our brokenness, all the farthest-reaching echoes of our Fall, would be as nothing compared to Christ’s mercy poured out for the world.

She was shown that deep within the heart of all humanity, no matter how twisted, no matter how wicked we become, there still lies within us the image of God. And God will draw that image in all of us back at last to Him. He sees us all as one, she said, as Adam. And He sees Adam as Jesus Christ.

This was an age in which the Church spoke incessantly of hell. Julian’s own bishop was a man of violence and brutality—“the fighting bishop,” they called him. And Julian affirmed the beauty and indispensability of Holy Church, that she is the gift of God, the Body of Christ, the source of our salvation. Yet the God of whom Julian wrote bore little resemblance to the wrathful deity preached from the warrior’s pulpit. Not only is God not angry, she proclaimed, but God cannot be angry. That is not who He is.

Indeed, the image to which Julian kept returning was of God, of Christ, not as judgmental Father but as Mother, nourishing, forgiving, stalwart and sustaining. Hers was a feminine perspective of God. But please note what we mean by feminine. We’re not talking about some sanitized, June Cleaver, 1950s faux feminine façade. We’re talking about the fourteenth century, when women were in charge of the household with all its muck and mire, dirt and disease, butter, blood, and bones.

Back then, only one in five men could write. But those who could were trained in argumentation, in law, in conflict and theory and persuasion. Think Harvard Business School. It was an aggressive, assertive literary culture. But Julian wrote—in the vernacular, mind you—as someone who got her hands dirty; someone who knew the pain of childbirth and the agony of child loss; someone who butchered her own meat and skinned her own fish and mopped up the filth from the floor. She knew that motherhood is messy, demanding, and hard.

And she saw that in Christ’s love. For her, Christ’s wounded side was nothing less than the womb of our rebirth. His sufferings on the Cross were pangs of labor for God’s New Creation. Even His nourishing Blood, poured out for the life of the world, was likened to mother’s milk—which it is, mind you. Milk is basically processed blood, life poured out from mother to child, and medievals knew this centuries ago. I cannot stress how incarnational all this truly is.

Julian recovered, of course, and became an anchoress, living in a single cell within the Church of St Julian in Norwich, hence the name by which we know her today. And her writings, Revelations of Divine Love, have been a source of comfort and hope for Christians throughout the world lo these many centuries since her death. The mercies of which she writes, so expansive as to seem scandalous to those who prefer visions of an angry God, are revered by Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans and Orthodox alike. They truly are revelations of love for the entire Church of Christ.

So why all this about Julian? Why tell you her story today, of all days? Well, for several reasons. First up, May 13th is Julian’s feast day on the Roman calendar. Fair enough. But today is also Mother’s Day, which I would fear to sentimentalize. Now, it is true that Scripture uses male imagery for God. This is because the father, in the ancient world, represented authority and power, which are rightly due to God. The mother, in complementary manner, represented the home: intimacy, familiarity, safety, nourishment, love. But also pain.

Mothers suffer for their children. They suffer to bring us into the world. They suffer to keep the filth and chaos of the household at bay. They suffer to feed and provide, to comfort and heal, to keep the peace between warring siblings and offer a refuge from the harshness of the outside world. We take our mothers quite for granted. And that’s God too. God is the Mother who cannot forget Her nursing child. She is the householder who searches diligently for the missing coin. She is the mother hen who yearns to gather her chicks safely beneath the pinions of her wings. And all of this we find in Scripture.

Which brings me to the third and final reason I’ve chosen to speak about Julian this day. And that’s because today is the Feast of the Ascension. Today marks the 40th day after Christ’s Resurrection when He returned to Heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. And I want to make it clear what exactly He returned to do.

Jesus ascended into Heaven to cast Satan out from the presence of God. Here’s what I mean: Even after the devil’s fall, Scripture speaks of him standing before the Throne of God as Satan, the Accuser—the prosecuting attorney, if you will. He stands before God and accuses us, lifts up our sins, lays bare our faults and our flaws and all the evils we protest yet so willfully choose for ourselves.

And Jesus returns to Heaven to cast him out! To throw Satan down from the heavenly court, back down into the pits of hell, so that no one now stands before God to accuse us of our sin. Instead, Jesus stands there—God Himself—bearing the wounds of His Passion, the Blood of His Covenant, and pleads on our behalf. He pleads as our Mother, His hands still bloodied from the work, His side still open from our birth. And He pours out all the love He has for us unto His Father—so that God Himself defends us before God, not on our own account but on His! Imagine such a Judgment as that which awaits us. Imagine the depths of such mercy.

In Jewish tradition, serious prayers are often offered up to God not on account of the sufferer, but on account of his mother. Think of his mother, Lord, we pray. But now imagine that whenever we pray, we are in fact praying to our Mother: the One who suffers for us, bleeds for us, lays down Her life that we have new birth; the One who is always on our side.

Don’t get hung up on the genders. I’m not here to reinforce stereotypes. Focus on the love. Consider those who love you most, who sacrifice for you, who lay down their lives for you. Think to your mother and your father and all the love they hold for you. And then know that God loves you infinitely more than mother or father ever could.

Daughter, I have brought you the image of your Savior. Look upon it and be comforted.

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Adventure


A Funeral Homily

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Christ’s commands to “Go!” and to “Love!” are anything but sentiment. Rather, they are calls to a life of high adventure! They are God’s own exhortation for us to explore, to risk, to dare, to strive, to fall and to rise again, living without limit, living without fear.

For love, in the Christian tradition, is not merely emotion. It is the willing choice to put the good of another before our own, to pour out ourselves for our beloved. And that is sacrifice. It hurts, giving of ourselves. But therein lies all true joy. This is how God loves us. He lays down His life for His friends, for His beloved children. He pours out His own life from the Cross, pouring out the very life and breath and love of God into us, into our wounds, so that we may at last be made whole.

And because He does this for us, we are freed—freed from fear or despair or timidity, freed from our age-old slavery to sin and death and hell. And we are not simply freed from, but freed for. Freed now to lay down our lives for our friends. Freed to dare and to risk, to explore and to love, freed to pour out ourselves for others as Christ pours out Himself into us.

David got that. What’s more, he lived that. His life was that of high adventure! He learned and he fought and he built. He traveled the world as both soldier and civilian, and he reached back through history in his love of ancestral roots. He found his place in the great story of his family, the chain of loves that led to us, and he passed on that gratitude, that passion, to the next two and soon three generations.

David was good and he was kind. He loved his neighbors, loved his family, and adored his wife. He was humble and he was successful by any mortal measure. And he lived long enough and well enough that today’s services, while solemn, are anything but tragic. He has returned, now, to the wife who loved him, and to the Lord who surely welcomes him with that greatest of accolades: “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Master.”

For you see, brothers and sisters, we are Christians here. And as such, we believe strange things, scandalous things. First and foremost, we don’t believe for a moment that David’s story has ended. Yes, he has died. Obviously that’s why we’ve gathered this morning. But as a Christian, David knew that his real death happened decades ago, when he was drowned and resurrected in his baptismal Font.

In Baptism, David was joined to Christ’s own death, already died for us, that we need never fear death again, and to Christ’s own eternal life, already begun. As the monks of Mt Athos like to say, “If you die before you die, then you won’t die when you die.”

David was not afraid to live—indeed, he lived his life to the fullest—and that can only really happen when we’re not afraid to die. For the Master we serve, the one who has claimed us in our Baptism, has already gone before us into the grave, into the abyss. And He has conquered!

Thus we need never fear, and may tread boldly in His footsteps, living without temerity, loving without fret for the cost, boldly going to the ends of the earth and the farthest reaches of history in order to reflect the Light and Love of the Risen Christ out into a needy world.

Thanks be to Christ for the witness and life of Michael David Krey. May we do honor to his legacy in our own lives, until we are at last reunited, in our own good time, at the great feast of life that swallows up all death.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord.
Let perpetual light shine upon him.
May he rest in peace.

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

No Greater Love


Propers: The Sixth Sunday of Easter, A.D. 2018 B

Homily:

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

We live in an age of cheap friendship and cheap love.

I don’t mean to pick on social media, but it does offer us our clearest illustrations. Our user accounts often have hundreds, even thousands of “friends,” most of whom we wouldn’t know from Adam. They aren’t friends in any real sense. They aren’t even acquaintances.

Social media gives us innumerable opportunities to “love” things that we don’t really love: causes to affirm, accomplishments to acknowledge. But it doesn’t cost us anything. We share a ribbon, change a profile pic, and suddenly think ourselves activists. Virtue signaling, they call it, or better yet, hashtag activism. But can it be virtue if achieved only virtually? There’s no sacrifice, no real world result. And so it is not love, because we give nothing of ourselves. We just look trendy.

And because of this context, so very far removed from the world of our ancestors, today’s Gospel loses its teeth. Jesus says, “You are my friends.” Jesus says, “Go and love.” And we’re like, yeah, sure, whatever. Isn’t that the default? I’m friends with everybody. I love everything—except what I don’t love, that’s hate speech.

But the world of Jesus’ day, indeed the world of our grandparents’ day, had a very different understanding of friend. Romans didn’t have many friends. They had patrons and clients. They had allies and rivals. They had neighbors and fellow workers. But a friend was something rare. Something cherished.

The love of a good friend was considered greater than the love between husband and wife, between parent and child. A friend was someone closer to you than a brother. And that kind of love cost you, hurt you, because it made you vulnerable in a way that you weren’t toward anyone else. In those days, marriage was a hierarchy. Family was a hierarchy. All of life was made up of hierarchies. But not friendship. Friendship was closer than blood. Friendship was that rarest of things—the free and loving lifelong bond between equals.

It’s no great exaggeration to say that the life of a friend was often dearer to you than your own. And so, yes, friendships were rare. But they were of inestimable value. One true friend is worth ten thousand half-hearted loves.

When Jesus says to His disciples, “I do not call you servants any longer; you are My friends,” a gasp goes throughout the room. A shock. How can this Man say such things? They have seen Him calm the storm and walk on waves. They have seen Him throttle demons and raise the dead. Truly they have seen in Him the face of God on earth. They follow Him, yes, love Him, yes, even come to worship Him. But to be called His friends? Friends of the Messiah? Friends of God?

It is no less intimate than a marriage. It is as though the two now become one.

You know, this talk of Commandments—of obligations, of onerous demands laid out by Jesus in this farewell discourse—seems a heavy weight. To love one another, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends, would appear an impossible burden. It’s hard to imagine living in this way, forever pouring out oneself for one’s neighbor. Unless, of course, you’re in love. When you’re in love, that pain becomes joy.

Love is a sacrifice, after all, the willing choice to place another’s good before your own. But when you’re in love, that very pain is the fondest desire of your heart. It’s what you want to do, what you need to do. You give and give and give from the sheer joy of pouring yourself into your beloved, and your beloved pouring herself out into you. That’s why our word passion means at once both love and pain.

And so it is that Christ’s call for us to love one another, to lay down our lives for our friends, is not some sentiment, some saccharine, anodyne fluff designed to float us meaninglessly through a soft and spongy life. No! It is the call to high adventure! To go out and live bravely, to explore, to risk, to fight the good fight, forever finding the face of God hidden in our neighbor, forever pushing forward the frontier of the City and Kingdom of Christ.

We are called to a life of risk and pain, sacrifice and joy, bold new discoveries and ancient bedrock truths. And forever is our Lord’s command to “Go!” coupled inextricably with His promise that He is with us, in and around and above us, sending us out to the ends of the earth, gathering us in to the heart of the world. For we are His friends! And He lays down His life for us, every day. He pours His life into us, every day. He comes to us in Word and in water, in Spirit and in truth, in Body and in Blood, forever forgiving the darkness of sin, forever raising us up and out from the dead.

Why do we come to Church? Why believe in Christ? Because He is our friend. Every day He raises us to new life in Him. Every Sunday He meets us, here at this Altar, to lay down His life for our own. Every time we gather at this Font we are reborn. Every time we eat from this Table we are immortal. Rejoice, dear Christians, for you are the friends of God! He lays down His life for His friends. And in this infinite liberation, we are now freed in turn to lay down our lives for our friends.

Because what would life even be, if we had no friends for whom we would lay down our lives out of love?

Go and live as those who know that God is with us, and so no power on earth can hold us back, and no grave can hold us down.

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Dark and Lovely

Propers: The Fifth Sunday of Easter, A.D. 2018 B

Homily:

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Africa is the great blind spot on our map. It is a continent so enormous that we often struggle to understand just how big its countries truly are. You could fit the US, Mexico, Eastern and Western Europe, India, China, and Japan all inside the borders of Africa and still have room to spare.

In our literature we represent it as primordial savanna or the heart of darkness, but in truth Africa is home to widely varied cultures and peoples, with not just many languages but many language families. The peoples of Africa built empires and cities and trading networks while Europe was still sussing out the fall of Rome. The wealthiest man in history, Mansa Musa, was a medieval West African Emperor, whose country became the largest producer of gold in the world.

The richness and depth of African history is so great, and its stories so astonishingly variegated, that it should come as no surprise to us that Judaism and Christianity were well established in these lands long before the faith was legalized in Europe. We don’t often associate Judaism with Africa, outside of the Exodus, but in fact Jewish believers—or rather I should say Israelites—have roots in Ethiopia running so deep that no one can quite agree on just how long ago they got there.

Ethiopia is an ancient kingdom south of Egypt along the Red Sea, part of the Horn of Africa, just across from the Arabian Peninsula. The Bible calls it Nubia and Kush. Some say that the Black Jews of Ethiopia—Beta Israel—came down after the Exodus, led by sons of Moses. Others say that they came over after the Babylonian Exile. But the most famous and beloved story has to do with the Queen of Sheba.

Perhaps you remember this one from the Bible. Solomon, son of David, was the greatest and the wisest king of Israel. His father had been a man of war, of conquest, but not Solomon. While he had blood on his hands, as it seems all rulers must, he was at heart a man of trade, of peace, and of profit. Under his rule, God’s people Israel flourished as never before.

And in that time, few people were better at trade than the Saba to the south. They were an Arabian tribe, so close to Africa that they were noted for their darker complexions. Ancient peoples had many faults, but racism seems not to have been one of them. If you were pretty, and wealthy, they would happily marry you regardless of the color of your skin. The Saba, or Sheba, controlled a great trading network, and appear to have held a monopoly on frankincense, which was well worth its weight in gold.

The Queen of Sheba came from Saba to see if the tall tales told of Solomon were true, and indeed both his wealth and his wisdom exceeded all expectations. They seem to have been quite taken with each other. Legend has it, though the Bible is somewhat coy, that the King of Israel and the Queen of Sheba fell in love. The Song of Solomon, the great love poem of Scripture, praises the king’s beloved as both “dark and lovely,” and goes on about her enthusiastically and at great length. It’s rather steamy for the Old Testament.

She bore him a son, or so the story goes, and that son led the people of Sheba across the Red Sea—a quick jaunt next door—to settle in what is today Ethiopia, a land that still speaks a Semitic language, and even claims to have the Ark of the Covenant hidden away, passed on by Solomon to his son for safe keeping.

No matter how you slice it, no matter how literally one takes these tales, Ethiopia already possessed a thousand-year tradition of proud Black Judaism before Jesus Christ even arrived on the scene. And so when we read today in Acts that a royal eunuch of the Ethiopian court—a man of great wealth and power and prestige—has come to Israel to worship at the Temple, and goes home reading the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah, we should not be in the least bit surprised.

We may wonder at first glance how this man from Africa has found himself in possession of such a scroll, in a seemingly alien context. But in fact Ethiopia is far closer to Israel than we are, and they knew of the One True God two thousand years before our own ancestors finally put down the spear of Odin to take up the Cross of Christ.

Ethiopia is in fact the oldest Christian nation on earth, long before Greece, long before Rome, coming to Christ hundreds upon hundreds of years before nations like Russia and England were even dreamt up. Only the Armenians can claim a pedigree of comparable nobility and length.

And the churches of Ethiopia—ah, the churches! Instead of building great cathedrals up from the ground, stone upon stone, they dug them down into the living rock, towering houses of worship hidden in manmade canyons, built in the shape of a cross. They are astonishing to see, unlike anything else in Christendom. And they are laid out to recall Jerusalem, the site of Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection, and the home of their ancestor Solomon from some three thousand years ago. African Christianity is not new. It is as ancient as ancient can get.

So what’s my point? Why tell you all this?

Because, brothers and sisters, we are but one small branch on an ancient and life-giving Vine. That Vine is Jesus. And for as long as we abide in Him, we flourish, even in the midst of adversity, even under the harshest of persecutions. We are proud of our traditions, our histories, the expressions of our faith. And insofar as these reflect the Life and Truth and Way of Christ, we should be proud, rightly proud. If we boast, we boast in the Lord.

But the Vine is ancient and deep and strong, with tendrils reaching out all across this marbled sphere. The Christians of Russia with their astonishing literature. The Christians of Japan with their ancient strength. The Christians of India with their witness of peace. The Christians of South America with their passion for justice. The Christians of the Middle East, witnessing in an ecumenism of blood. The Christians of China, 100 million strong, who now outnumber members of the Chinese Communist Party some five or six to four.

And of course the Christians of Africa, the eldest of our brothers, who still worship in beauty and truth, who still maintain traditions older than Christ, and whose synthesis of things African and Middle Eastern, Jewish and Christian, reminds us all that the barriers we erect to define ourselves—barriers of race and class and wealth and creed—are one and all broken down in the Church, the Body of Christ. Here, our worth is not determined by such things. Here, we all have equal value, infinite value, the value of Jesus Himself offered up for the world.

We are not alone, dear Christians. We have never been alone. This congregation, this nation, this Lutheran Church—we stand amidst a great cloud of witnesses stretching throughout time and space, history and geography. Wherever we go, whomever we meet, there is Christ. There is God in the flesh. There are poor to be fed and sick to be healed and truth to be told and injustices to unmask. There are sinners in need of forgiveness, and there is a Savior who lifts us out from death.

The forms are different, the shape of things different, but we are all of us part of one whole. We are all the Body of Christ. We are all members of the Risen Jesus still at work in this world, no matter where we are or whence we come. There is one God; one Baptism; one Lord, one faith, one birth. We are all branches of Christ the true and living Vine. And that Vine will continue to grow, to take deep root and bear good fruit, until at the last, as the Psalmist sings:

All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; all the families of the nations shall worship before Him … To Him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down … And future generations will be told about the Lord, proclaiming His deliverance to a people yet unborn.

We are all links in this chain, branches of this Vine, whose root is Resurrection and whose fruit is the healing of the nations for the redemption of the world.

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Midsummer Son


Pastor’s Epistle—May, A.D. 2018 B

Our life adheres to seasonal rhythms, and the Church is no exception. Much like the school across the street, we take a hiatus from most of our educational ministries during the summer months. Confirmation, Sunday School, Pub Theology, and Adult Formation do not meet in June, July, and August. Folks are traveling, hitting the lakes, taking vacations while the kids have summer break.

But that doesn’t mean things come to a halt. This year, working with our Music and Worship Committee as well as your responses to our congregational Time and Talents survey, we’re trying a new summer schedule.

During Ordinary Time—that is, the long summer season between Pentecost and Advent—we go back to communing on odd Sundays of the month rather than every week. On even Sundays, then, and by popular demand, we’ll be bringing back the Folk Service liturgy, a favorite of local congregations. St Peter’s will celebrate the Folk Service on non-communion Sundays June through August.

For years now, the people of St Peter’s Lutheran have gathered for midweek Vespers during the seasons of Advent, Christmas, and Lent. This June we’ll gather for summer Vespers as well. Vespers are a lovely service of evening prayer and song well beloved by our community, and will offer an additional worship opportunity for those traveling on the weekends. Summer Vespers commence at 6:30, Wednesday nights in June. Weather permitting, we may spend a few of those nights gathered around the fire pit.

Everyone needs a break, especially all of you who so generously volunteer so much of your time, talents, and treasures to the people of St Peter’s throughout our academic year. Let this summer worship be for us all a time of sublime rejuvenation for the healing and heartening of our souls, basking in the Light of Christ as surely as we do in the bright warm rays of the midsummer sun.

Soon the graduates will have graduated, the confirmands will have been confirmed, and we can all breathe a sigh of well-earned and accomplished relief. Let us gather then in worship throughout these long summer days to find rest and renewal for our souls.

In in Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

To the End of the Line


A Wedding Homily

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Brian, Meghan, congratulations. This is a blessed day. And we are all honored to have been made a part of it.

I intend to keep my remarks relatively brief—at least for a preacher—as I still maintain that the two of you could certainly teach all of us a lesson or two about  marriage. You know very well what you’re getting into, and you’re each going in with eyes and heart wide open. That right there is a sermon in and of itself.

The Lord truly does love a good wedding. According to John, that’s where His ministry begins: with Jesus miraculously providing 120 gallons of wine for the reception. It is no coincidence that wine, and by extension marriage, are symbols of joy in the Scriptures. Wine, like marriage, gladdens and strengthens the heart, even though wine, like marriage, always comes with a note of danger, a note of risk. We make ourselves vulnerable to those we love. We pour out our lives daily for the life of our beloved. And therein lies all true joy.

Little wonder then that the most pervasive metaphor used to speak of God’s love for His people throughout the Bible is that of marriage, of a wedding. For there is no closer covenant, no more intimate bond. Even the love we share with our children is a love designed to send them out on their own, to outgrow us—while the love of marriage, as Chesterton quipped, is a duel to the death, which no man of honor may refuse.

Marriage is the promise that, come what may, we will face life and death, weal and woe, joy and sorrow, together. I’m with you, as it were, to the end of the line. And that’s the difference between a covenant and a contract. A contract is an itemized agreement: I’ll do A, B, and C, while you do X, Y, and Z. But a covenant is an open-ended promise. It contains neither terms nor conditions. This of course is not a license for abuse, but a promise to love and trust and cherish, to speak truth, to hold each other accountable, and to forgive as often as we repent.

God’s love for His people is a covenant, is a marriage. He’s with us to the end of the line. He will not put up with deception or wickedness, and neither shall we with each other—love is not a force with which to trifle, after all—but our God will love us even unto death, even death on a Cross. We will fail at A, B, and C, but He will go infinitely beyond X, Y, and Z.

My point is that the love we share with one another, the love between husband and wife, is a beautiful reflection of the love that God pours out endlessly upon His people, upon all of humankind. This sort of love is not an emotion, or a passion, or any sort of fleeting fancy. Rather, it is the willful decision to pour oneself out in love—to give all that one has and all that one is—for the good of another, our beloved.

I am yours, and you are mine, entirely. We come to this altar bearing our very selves as gifts, the gift of bride to groom and of groom to bride. And in this sacrifice—for sacrifice indeed is what selfless self-giving is—of who we are poured out for the one we love, we most closely resemble the Lord of Love, who pours out Himself for us all.

Weddings are always a blessing. Marriage is a good and a godly thing. It humbles us, strengthens us, opens us, resurrects us.

May the love you share, and the life you forge together, stand as witness to the world of the love that God has for us all.

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.