Easter Sunday, April 20th, 2014 – Sermon on Matthew 28:1-10

Matthew 28:1-10

1 After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” 8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

On Friday night, we heard that Jesus’ body was laid in a tomb. And, according to Matthew’s version of the story, the two Marys, Mary Magdalene and Mary, Jesus’ mother, were the only ones there when the stone was rolled in front of the tomb. They were the only ones who stuck around for this graveside burial. And then the next day, the chief priests and the Pharisees were so frightened that someone would come and steal the body and then proclaim that Jesus had been raised. So Pilate told them to go and make the tomb as secure as possible. And they did. They sealed up the tomb.

The next morning, this morning, the two Marys go back to the tomb. Maybe because they just still couldn’t believe it. That their Lord and teacher really had died. We do that too. Sometimes we just need to go and stand by a grave, so as to feel a little closer to the one we’ve lost. And to let the truth of it sink in. And so that is what they were expecting that morning. A grave. But as they came to the tomb, suddenly there was an earthquake. Which is to say that the foundations of life on which they stood, were shaking and crumbling. But not just for them. For the entire world. The whole world is about to change.

And an angel of the Lord appears. Not quietly. Not sweetly. But like lightning. Loud and illuminating. His clothes were like snow. And it all was just too much for the guards, and (I love this part), they became like dead men. The two guards standing in the cemetery to protect the dead man suddenly melt and become a graveyard themselves.

And then the angel finally speaks, and its very first words are those wonderful, wonderful words. They are the words of parents to their children in the dark of night. They are the words of nurses into the ears of surgical patients. They are the words of teachers to their students on concert night. Do not be afraid. Such loving words.

“Do not be afraid;” the angel says, “I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.”

And it says that right then, the two Marys did just that. They left the tomb. It says they left with great joy. But also with fear. You would think that if an angel of the Lord tells you to not be afraid, you would believe it.

But they still went away afraid. And that’s what I can’t seem to let go of this Easter season. The fear. I mean, we, the church, have got the joy of Easter down. Trumpets. Easter dresses. Easter lilies. Easter breakfasts. Many of you I know have big plans with your family today. Which I realize doesn’t always mean great joy, but the effort is there. We all know about the joy of Easter morning. We’ve done that. But what about the fear? The fear of Easter morning. If we are true to the story, how come we don’t ever practice Easter fear?

Did you know that Easter is the only church day of the year that is set by the moon? Easter always falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the spring equinox.[1] I find that very peculiar, because so often Jesus is associated with the sun. The sun is the light of the world. And Jesus is the light of the world. The sun falls at night, just like Jesus’ death. But the sun rises in the morning, just like Jesus’ resurrection. That is why we have a sunrise service on Easter morning. Because the Son rises. It’s perfect for that Easter joy that the two Marys experience. But what about Easter fear. If we wanted to spend sometime with that, then we might consider a moonrise service. When you think about the fear of Easter, setting it by the moon seems like the perfect choice. First, the moon is much more frightening than the sun. The way it glows through tree branches, triggering thoughts of werewolves and spooky sounds. But also, did you know that for three whole days each month, the light of the moon is hidden from the world. Three whole days the moon does not shine. No wonder it takes three days for significant things to happen in the Bible – Jonah spent three days in the belly of the fish, Jesus spent three days in the tomb. “From the earliest times, people learned that was how long they had to wait in the dark before the sliver of the new moon appeared in the sky. For three days every month, they practiced resurrection.”[2]

So, if we really want the full Biblical experience of resurrection, we may need a little more moonrise, along with our sunrise. A little more fear, alongside our joy. Because that would be a little more honest. I mean who are we kidding? Not everything is perfect after today.

At the announcement of the resurrection, the angel tells the two women to not be afraid, but to go and tell the other disciples what has happened. And they do! With joy. But also still with fear. And isn’t that our reality too? I mean, don’t we also live lives tinged by both fear and joy. Fear of what may happen to our children in a dangerous world; joy at the blessing they are to us and, we pray, they will be to the world. Fear of whether we will have a job in the year to come; joy at the fact that we do have a job. Fear about the fate of a loved one struggling with illness; joy in the gift that person has been to us. Fear about the future amid problems both national and global; joy in the present moment surrounded by those we love.

Fear and joy. That’s our life. And so maybe today, for as joyful as it is, it’s not going to calm all of our fears. After all of the celebrations are over this day, most of us come crashing back down to earth, with our nose back to the grind. Our homes and lives still a mess. Bills to pay, loneliness to avoid, doctors appointments to make. We too, just like the two women at the tomb, leave here, after the announcement of the resurrection, with a mixture of both joy and fear.

But did you notice what happened next in the story? In the midst of both joy and fear, the women come face to face with the risen Christ. Maybe the best part of the story is the risen Christ shows up, when they were joyful and still afraid.

And so it is with us. Maybe the great news of the resurrection is that we will continue to encounter the risen Christ, God incarnate in the world, after we leave here today. In the midst of our beautiful and messed up lives. And maybe that will give us the courage, just like it did the two women, to keep the faith and to keep on keeping on even in the midst of our fears. To keep doing our duty and sharing the good news in spite of our anxieties. This is the very definition of courage. And courage is precisely what Easter is about. “For while some preach that coming to faith in Christ should smooth all the rough places of life and still the tremors of this world, I believe that the gospel gives us the ability to keep our feet steady even when the ground beneath us is shaking. And it enables us not just to persevere but even to flourish when life is difficult.”

“’Do not be afraid.’ These lovely, lovely words — repeated by Jesus when he encounters the women — gives us insight into the very nature of our lives in this world. For there is, indeed, much to fear in our mortal lives. And yet the resurrection of Christ creates the possibility for joy and hope and courage and so much more. Why? Because it changes everything. In the resurrection, you see, we have God’s promise that life is stronger than death, that love is greater than hate, that mercy overcomes judgment, and that all the sufferings and difficulties of this life are temporary — real and palpable and sometimes painful, for sure, but they do not have the last word and do not represent the final reality. Fear and joy, despair and hope, doubt and faith, these are the two sides of our lives in this world. But in the end we have heard the resurrection promise that joy, hope, and faith will ultimately prevail.” [3] May it be so. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Home By Another Way, p. 109.

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark, p. 108.

[3] David Lose, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3174

Good Friday, 2014 – Sermon on Matthew’s Version

On Sunday, after church, I came home and I went to check the news on my computer. I pulled up CNN’s webpage and was confronted with these words, “Gunman opens fire at Jewish center.”

And for a moment, I could barely breathe. Surely it was no accident that on the first day of the holiest week for Christians, and the day before the beginning of the holiest week for Jews, this man opens fire on a Jewish community. It reeked of religious violence. And it made me think of this night. This night, when another Jew was put to death in the name of religion. When Jesus was killed because of the grace-filled, freely forgiving God that he embodied and proclaimed.

But it didn’t just remind me of the violence done to Jesus tonight, it reminded me of the history of violence done to other Jews on this night. “(T)oday has long been one of the most frightening days of the year (for Jewish people). In parts of eastern Europe (just) during the last century, Jews knew better than to leave their homes on Good Friday, when Christians stoked up by the passion narrative they had just heard in church poured out into the streets to do as much damage as possible in the Jewish part of town.”[1]

Throughout history, Christians have been trying to avenge Christ’s death. And the irony is thick. Because Jesus’ gospel of loving your enemies and doing good to those who hate you has been twisted into a 2000 year nightmare of racism and revenge. And you can imagine those Jews turning to the very same Jewish scripture that Jesus turned to when he died on the cross – Psalm 22…

Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani. My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?

As Christians, we believe, we trust that Jesus reveals to us God. When we’ve seen Jesus, we’ve seen God. So what does tonight say about God? What could it mean when God in Jesus cries out the most human prayer we can utter – My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  What could it mean for God to feel forsaken, abandoned by God?

And the only way I can make sense of it is, is there any greater despair, any greater suffering than to feel abandoned by God?

Is there anything lower than that?  When we’ve lost our sense of value. When feel like we have no worth. That is when we’ve hit rock bottom. And if God has forsaken you, God the one who made you in love, for love, and by love, if you feel forsaken by that God, then there is no further you can go. Than to feel that the one who brought you into being has forsaken you. And so it is like Jesus has hit rock bottom.

One of my friends is a pastor at a church, and she has a member who is struggling with alcohol addiction. And she said this to me. “He hasn’t hit rock bottom yet.” So often we know that before things can change in someone’s life, things actually have to get worse. Sometimes, we have to hit rock bottom. And on the cross, Jesus – God – hits rock bottom. Because is there anything more terrify and awful than God feeling forsaken by God?

But it is at that point. At the lowest of the low, at rock bottom, when things can finally start to change.

For so long, God has been viewed as the sin counter. The one keeping track of all of your wrongs. And Jesus comes along and he just starts forgiving people’s sin. Freely. And it upset people. They said, “You can’t do that.” And Jesus said, “Watch me.” And as Jesus continued to show a loving, grace-filled God, the angrier and angrier people got and they killed him. And so on the cross, we see a God who would rather die than be the sin counter anymore (Nadia Bolz-Weber). God doesn’t want to count sin, God wants to give love.

So what could it mean for God to feel forsaken by God? When given a choice between siding with humanity and siding with God’s own self…God sides with humanity! God comes to us on a cross to transform the world with love from the inside out. From inside the world. Not outside the world.

To have a God on a cross. To have a dead God is not to have any angry God who needs payment for your sins. It is to have a God who is so in love with this world that God would leave God’s throne and dive into the deepest and darkest parts of humanity, so as to be there with us. At Christmas, we claim Jesus as Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” And never is God with us more than on the cross.

To have a God that dies on the cross is to have a suffering God. Not a God who sits in the clouds but a God who sits beside you in the pain clinic. An all-vulnerable God who enters into the lawyer’s office with you. A God who stands alongside you when you are bullied at school. A God who holds you when the money runs out. A God who dies alongside Jews killed by Christians. In the rock bottom suffering of the world. That is where God will meet us. Not when we are at our best but when we are at our worst. God will come to find us.

When the soldiers of the Roman rulers nailed him to a cross, the wails of God filled the universe. Together God and Jesus entered into the watery depths of chaos. Together they bore the pain of the world.[2] This is our greatest hope on the darkest day.

 

[1] http://www.explorefaith.org/homiliesLent/20000421b.html

[2] Daniel Erlander, Manna and Mercy, pg. 56.

Maundy Thursday, 2014 – Sermon on John 13:1-7,31b-35

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.” After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

 

He loved them. All of them, the text says. Judas was there, which means he loved Judas too. Even though Judas was the one who would betrayed him. The one who would hand him over to be crucified, as we will see tomorrow night. But it doesn’t just say that he loved them. It says he loved them to the end. Which means he never stopped loving them. He never stopped loving Judas, even as he traded Jesus’ beating heart for a lifeless bag of silver. He never stopped loving Peter, even as fear got the best of him and he abandoned Jesus as his friend, not one but three times. He never stopped loving the other disciples, who scattered the moment the Roman police arrived to break up their after hours party in the garden of Gethsemane. Leaving Jesus to take all the heat on his own. He loved them. All of them.

And to show this, he does the unthinkable. He stands up from the dinner table, takes off his robe, and kneels down at the feet of each disciple. He unties their sandal, takes their calloused and dusty feet into his holy hands, and washes them clean. It is the role of a servant Jesus is taking on. And they could hardly believe their eyes. This wasn’t the job of someone like Jesus. This was a job for someone lowly and discardable, like a servant girl or a house slave. Not someone like Jesus, their Lord and teacher. But that’s what he does. He washes their feet. He shows them what Divine Love looks like. Vulnerable. Humble. Self-giving. And then he tells them to do the same. To wash one another’s feet. And he gives them a new commandment: to love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another, Jesus says. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

Friends, welcome to Maundy Thursday. If you ask me, tonight seems to be the least well-known night of the Easter trilogy – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter. Of course, Easter is at the top. When I ask people about their Holy Week traditions, it is usually just Easter morning with the family, they say. Which is no surprise. It is the day when it feels like the world starts over again. The whole world seems to come out of its tomb and life springs forth not only from the earth, but from within us as well. Good Friday is quite well known too. If anything, it is because it is the most honest day of the church year. The day when we hear that haunting story of Jesus’ death and crucifixion. It speaks to the darkness of the world that we all know and we all fear. Both the darkness outside and inside of all of us. And perhaps the comfort of Good Friday is that we learn that God is no stranger to death and darkness. But that in fact the dead and dark places of our lives are where God will be found. On the crosses of the world. But Maundy Thursday always seems to be the third, oops child of Easter week. It gets very little time and energy from most of us. In all honesty, I don’t know that I knew what Maundy Thursday was until I went to seminary, and even then I didn’t know how to spell it. It always just sounded like Monday Thursday. Which was confusing. But it is Maundy Thursday. Coming from the Latin word for mandate, or commandment.

I wonder why tonight hasn’t gained more popularity in the Christian church. Perhaps it is because it is the night when Jesus shares the last supper with his disciples, and, well, we’ve all been to communion before. So, nothing new there. Or perhaps it is because the idea of Jesus washing his disciples feet and then asking us to do the same, makes most of shutter and hide at the thought of having to touch someone else’s feet, or worse, having someone touch ours.

Or maybe it is because Jesus gives us a new commandment and we don’t really like be commanded to do much of anything. Or perhaps we just don’t know if we are up to the task.

I don’t know about you, but I always find it interesting that anytime people talk about how important the commandments and how we need to have them outside our court houses and how our children need to learn them, no one ever mentions this commandment. The new commandment that Jesus gives us tonight: to love one another, just as Jesus has loved us.

We forget that before Jesus dies on a cross for us in love and before Jesus breaks out of that tomb of death and despair, he actually asks something of us. That we love one another. That we humble ourselves to act in loving service to one another. Even Judas. That we love and welcome even the Judas’, the betrayers, in our midst.

A couple of weeks ago, a well know blogger, Glennon Melton told the story about being at the grocery store with her son Chase. She and her son Chase were grocery shopping in the produce section and Chase was having a blast weighing each new bag of vegetables they collected. She handed him a bag of tomatoes and he walked over to the scale and waited patiently in line. As she watched, an elderly man walked up behind Chase, scowled at him for a moment, and stepped in front of him, bumping Chase out of the way. Chase looked shocked and scared. The mother left her cart and walked over to Chase, stood by him and said loudly, “Are you all right honey? I saw what that man did to you. That was very, very wrong and rude.” Chase said nothing, the Grumpy Old man said nothing. Chase and his mom held hands and waited.

When the man was finished weighing his bag, he turned around quickly and all of his onions spilled out of his bag and on to the dirty floor. Everyone froze for a moment. Then Chase looked up at his mother and she motioned toward the floor. Together, they got down on hands and knees and started collecting onions while the old man grouchily and grudgingly accepted them from their hands and put them back into his bag. After Chase and his mother retrieved the last onion, the old man walked away. They did too, and they didn’t discuss the event until they got back in the car.

On the drive home, Chase said through tears, “Mommy, I’ve had a frustrating day. That man cut right in front of me and that was wrong. And we had to help him pick up his onions! Why did we do that? That didn’t make any sense.”

Chase’s mother took a deep breath and said, “Chase, that man was acting horribly wasn’t he? He seemed to have a very angry heart. I’m so sorry that happened to you. But if we didn’t help him with his onions, do you think we would have made his heart softer or angrier?”

Angrier, Chase said.

“Since we did help him, do you think that might have made his heart softer?”

“Maybe,” Chase said.

“But you know what, Chase? I understand how you feel. I didn’t want to help that man with his onions. You know what I wanted to do?”

“What?”

“I wanted to kick him really hard in the shin. I was very angry with that man for treating you badly. But sometimes doing what we really want to do, if it’s going to add more anger, isn’t the right thing to do. Even if it feels good at the time. If we wouldn’t have helped that old man, we might have felt good for a second, but then I bet we would have felt really, really yucky about ourselves for a long time. You and I, we have a lot of love to share. Maybe that man doesn’t have much. Maybe we offered him some today. People who behave badly still need love.”[1]

This story may seem obvious. I hear people all the time say that they just try to be nice to others, even when others are mean. But do we recognize that it isn’t just being nice. It is fulfilling God’s commandment? To love one another as God has loved us?

Pope Francis made headlines a year ago when on Maundy Thursday he broke Vatican tradition. Instead of washing the feet of 12 priests, who represent the 12 disciples, he went to a prison, and washed and kissed the feet of inmates. Among the inmates were women and Muslims. He said to them, “This is a symbol, it is a sign — washing your feet means I am at your service. Help one another. This is what Jesus teaches us. This is what I do. And I do it with my heart. I do this with my heart because it is my duty.”[2]

This is how God loves. God is always picking up the messes we make, the onions we spill on the floor. So as to soften our hearts and send us out to love and pick up the onions of others. Before his death, Jesus is trying to shape a community. That we might be the bearers of God’s love for the world as he is. Through vulnerable, self-giving love.

In a couple of minutes, you will be invited to part take in a hand washing service.

If you so choose, it will mean reaching out your hands in vulnerability to receive love and care and compassion. What will it all mean? Jesus says to us, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Which means I can’t tell you what it means for you. Perhaps for you, it will mean a cleansing away of sin. A fresh start. Or perhaps it will mean a washing away of all of the lies you’ve told yourself about who you are, and instead will reveal the beloved child of God that you really are. Or perhaps it will simply be divine compassion coming in human form of someone touching your body and claiming it as blessed and beloved.

Whatever it is for you, may it remind us not only of this new commandment to love one another, but of what comes before the commandment. He loved them. All of them. Even us. To the end. Amen.

 

[1] http://momastery.com/blog/2013/03/04/chase-and-the-onion-man/

[2] http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2013/03/28/pope-frances-washes-feet/2028595/

Sunday, April 6, 2014 – Sermon on John 11:1-45

Gospel
John 11:1-45

1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4 But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. 7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11 After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” 17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” 28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” 38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” 45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

One of the tasks of a preacher is to live with the Scripture text all week. To let it soak into the life around you and to let it speak. And I once heard a preacher say that the best thing we can do as readers of scripture is to fall in love with the text. To fall in love with it. To dig into it and live with it until we love it.

I am thankful for this preacher’s wisdom, because without it, this week would have been difficult. Because I’ve struggled with this week’s reading. And let me confess to you why – I don’t know if I believe it.

Did it really happen? Did Jesus really raise Lazarus from the dead? If cell phones with cameras existed back then, could we have recorded Lazarus stumbling out of the tomb? I don’t know. And all week, I try and I try and I try to really believe it, that it happened, but it just doesn’t work. Maybe it is because there are so many people who haven’t been raised from the dead.

So I don’t have a clue of how to make sense of what happened the day that Lazarus died and then came back to life. I don’t have a clue.

But as I have wrestled and fought with the text, in the end, I have fallen in love with it. Not because I understand it, but because there is truth in this story. And so, I just want to share with you some of the truths that have brought me some comfort out of a story that is quite uncomfortable.

The story begins with illness. Lazarus, brother to Mary and Martha, friend of Jesus, has fallen ill. They send word to Jesus, but Jesus doesn’t seem concerned about it. He says, “This illness does not lead to death.” Which seems pretty confident. So, he and his disciples stay two days longer where they were.

But then for some reason, something changes and Jesus says, “Let’s go back to Judea. Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep and I am going to wake him up.” Lazarus had fallen asleep – it was a metaphor for death. But the disciples didn’t get it, so Jesus had to be clear: Lazarus is dead, he said. And then there is this quick but beautiful line from Thomas, of all people. Thomas said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” And this is the first truth that jumps out at me in this text – We need to go into places of death…together.

We weren’t made to face death on our own. When someone has died, it is important that we not leave people to face it on their own. But rather we face death as a community. Together. As a people. Because let’s be honest, a death in the community is a tear in the social fabric for all of us. It impacts the entire community. “Let us go also,” Thomas says. When a community gathers at a funeral, we don’t come as individuals to pay our respects to the person who has died. We come as the body of Christ. And together, we carry this beloved child of God to their place of rest. We need to go into places of death…together.

So they go. The disciples and Jesus travel to Bethany. And when they arrive, they find out that Lazarus has already been buried for four days. Martha sees Jesus coming, and so she goes out to meet him. And then she says those haunting, haunting words…

Lord, if you had been here.

Lord, if you had been here.

I don’t know if there is a more truthful and heartbreaking phrase than that one. Lord, if you had been here…but you weren’t.

As many of you know, this past week, Ryan’s brother-in-law, Adam, was killed in a car accident. He was 30 years old, a wife and 2 kids. And all week long, those words kept echoing throughout my thoughts, “Lord, if you had been here.” Where were you, God? Where were you when the collision happened?! Where were you when he breathed his last? Where were you when his heart stopped?

Lord, if you had been here. We can all say these words, I suspect, about some part of our life. Lord, if you had been here, my marriage wouldn’t have fallen apart. Lord, if you had been here, I wouldn’t need to numb myself with another drink. Lord, if you had been here, my body wouldn’t be the source of such pain. Lord, if you had been here, planes wouldn’t vanish from the sky. Lord, if you had been here, then killers wouldn’t storm army bases. Lord if you had been here, then soldiers wouldn’t suffer PTSD and become killers.

Lord, if you had been here. But you weren’t.

It is a phrase that is on the lips of Mary and Martha. Both of them speak those words. And it brings comfort to hear someone so close to Jesus, like Mary and Martha, to ask the same question that we so often ask.

And it is a pretty brave thing to say too. To speak that way to Jesus. There is a lot of blame in those words. Lord, if you had been here. Sometimes we get mad at God and sometimes we don’t think we can say things like that, but this text shows us that we can. Because it does. Twice. And notice what Jesus does – he doesn’t go anywhere. He stays right there with each of them. And so the second truth I hear in this text is that we can say hard things to God. We can be mad at God. And the greatest news is that when we do say those words, Jesus won’t run away. But rather he will stay there with us. When you are kicking and screaming mad at God, God will remain with you, when life is at it’s worst.

And then Jesus will ask you to take him to places of death in your life. Jesus’ very next words to Mary are, “Where have you laid him? Take me there.” Jesus wants to know where the tombs of our life are. So that he can go there, with us, and bring life out of them. Where have you laid him? Where are the dead parts of your life? Show me. Take me there. God journeys with us to the dead places and seeks to bring about life in those places.

And so they do. Mary and Martha take Jesus to Lazarus’ tomb. And the first thing Jesus does is he cries. He weeps. And it is the shortest verse in the Bible, because nothing can describe pain this deep. Only tears will do. We try and we try to use words but they fail us, don’t they? No words can match what we feel inside. “When death comes, there is nothing you can say. There are only oceans of pain to feel. Jesus, because he is human, feels it, too.”[1] The first thing Jesus does when we show him the dead places in our life is he weeps. With us. And for us. Because as we all know too well, words just won’t do.

And then Jesus says, “Take away the stone.” But the people protest. They say, “Lord, no, he’s been dead for four days. It’s begun to stink.” We don’t like to look death in the eye. We don’t like to see it. We don’t like to smell it. In fact, we’d rather avoid it at all costs.

Jesus says, “Roll away the tomb.” The people say, “But it stinks.” Jesus says, “Do it anyways.” Because Jesus knows that the only way to shine light into the darkness is to go into the darkness. The only way to bring life out of death is to face the death.

The stone is rolled and away and Jesus hollers out, “Lazarus, come out!” And he does. But notice what the text says. The text doesn’t say, “Lazarus came out.” No, it says, “The dead man, came out.” Isn’t that strange? It doesn’t say, “The previously dead man” or “The one who was dead.” It says, “The dead man.” This is a dead man walking and his hands and feet and face are still bound in burial clothes. There is this sense that he is still dead! He’s not fully alive yet. There is something left to do until the resurrection is complete.

And Jesus says to the people, “Unbind him and let him go.” You, unbind him. And let him go. Jesus’ raising of Lazarus is not complete without the help of the people. And this may be the greatest truth that comes out of this story. Like, I said, I don’t know if it happened the way it says. But what I do believe, is that God is always, always, always seeking to bring life out of death. And God invites us to participate in it.

God needs your help to bring life out of times of death. And I see it happening in our community. When you show up to serve a meal to hungry people and you show love to strangers you’ve never met, you are bringing the dead to life. When you go to Al-anon, and you support other people who struggle with an addicted loved one, you are bringing the dead back to life. When a friend drives all the way up from Iowa just to attend your mother’s funeral and then has to leave before they can even say hello to you, that friend is bringing the dead back to life. When you watch a handful of kids who have to sit at the funeral home for hours, so that the community can support a grieving family, you bring the dead back to life.

It’s a hard text. I don’t know what it all means. I don’t know what happened that day. But I love this text. But there is truth in it.

Truth we need to hear… We are called to face death together. We can take everything to God and God will not leave us. And God invites us to participate in bringing life out of death. Amen.

 

[1] http://www.goodpreacher.com/blog/index.php?page=34

Sunday, March 30, 2014 – Sermon on John 9:1-41

John 9:1-41

1 As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6 When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7 saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8 The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9 Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10 But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11 He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, “Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 12 They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.” 13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14 Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15 Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” 16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. 17 So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.” 18 The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19 and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20 His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21 but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23 Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” 24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” 25 He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26 They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27 He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28 Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30 The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34 They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out. 35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36 He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38 He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. 39 Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see,’ your sin remains.

In our gospel last week, we learned that Jesus comes as the stranger for the stranger, so that we will not be strangers. Last week, we got to meet the nameless woman at the well, who was an outsider. She was a woman. A Samaritan, with whom the Jews did not interact. And she was one who had experienced an incredible amount of pain in her life through the loss of five husbands, whether through death or divorce. And as a result, she was on the margins of society. She went to the well at noon, when no one else would be there. She was a stranger. A nameless somebody.

It was at that well that she meets Jesus. But she doesn’t recognize Jesus. To her, he is just a thirsty somebody. A stranger. She does not recognize Jesus. We learned that it can take time to see Jesus in your life. Because Jesus comes as the stranger, for the stranger, so that we will not be strangers.

Today, we get to meet another person who is on the margins of society. Jesus and his disciples are walking along and they come across a man who has been blind since birth. A blind man who has not part in society other than to sit on the road and beg. Now, he also does not have a name in the story, but we know his name. His name is Adrian. I’m very mindful of the fact that little Adrian, just four and a half months old now, was also born blind. And so this story comes close to home for us.

This blind man was on the margins of society. He was not fully integrated into the community because as a blind person, he was considered impure and unclean. He was excluded from the community because his blindness was viewed as a moral defect. You see, there was a commonly held belief back then that people get what they deserve. Therefore, if something bad happened to you, if you fell ill or you lost your job or tragedy struck, it was understood that you must have done something to deserve it. If you were healthy and wealthy, you were blessed by God. But if you were suffering for any reason, then you must have done something to deserve it. You get what you deserve, they believed.

Such was the belief with this blind man. We see this in the disciples’ question, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” They believed that in order for him to be born blind, someone, either him or his parents, had to have done something to deserve it.

Now, here’s the thing. This is still a base assumption in our society. It is still commonly believed that people who are born with handicaps or have suffered some physical ailment must have done something to deserve it. I went to seminary with a woman who was born with a physical defect, and people her church said to her dad that it was his fault.[1] He must have sinned.

This was the idea that God was punishing them for some sin they had done. It was commonly believed in Biblical times, and we still carry this assumption today.

Now, here is the good news. Unlike many other times in scripture, Jesus actually gives us an answer to a question. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents?” And Jesus says that wonderful word, “Neither.” Neither of them sinned.

“In that one word, Jesus carves out room for innocent suffering in the world.” In that one word, he contradicts what people believed about suffering – that you get what you deserve. “He says that sometimes people who suffer are innocent.”[2]

Maybe that is enough good news for today. That if you have had something happen to you in your life, and people told you that you deserved it, or that God was punishing you for it, Jesus says to you “No. That’s not how it is.” Suffering is not punishment from God for your sins. Maybe that’s enough good news.

But the story goes on. And we have to pay very close attention to Jesus’ next words. There is a problem with the English translation here. Turn to your inserts. In verse 3, it says, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day.

Now, I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t sound any better. This makes it sound like he was born blind not as punishment, but so that Jesus can showoff with a miracle. Like a pawn in God’s magic show. But here is the thing, those words, he was born blind are not present in the Greek. Therefore, the text should read, Neither this man nor his parents sinned. So that God’s works might be revealed in him, we must work the works of him who sent me while it is day.

Jesus is saying is, “No, he doesn’t deserve to be blind. BUT God’s works can be still revealed through him. God can work through his life.” But when you exclude someone, you limit the possibility of God working through them for the sake of the community.

This man’s blindness has lead him to be excluded from the community, and now Jesus wants him to be included, so that the works of God might be revealed in him. So that the community might benefit from God’s work in his life. God is at work in those we exclude! But if we exclude them, we will never get to see how God is at work in their life.

Jesus wants to bring this blind man, who has been excluded from the community, back into the community. He wants to include him. Now watch what he does. He sinks his hands into the earth and he makes mud. And then he rubs it on the blind man’s eyes.

Now, we are in John’s gospel and John is a fan of the book of Genesis. In fact, John starts out the gospel the same way Genesis does – In the Beginning. And so John also knows that in Genesis, God sunk God’s hand into the earth, and takes mud and creates humanity out of it. In God’s image.[3] And so when Jesus takes mud and places it on the blind man’s eyes, he does so to remind him of who he really is. He is not a worthless, sinful somebody who deserves to be excluded. He is a human being. Made out of mud by the hands of God, in the image of God. He is a creation of God, just like everyone else.

It is like any parent who is worth their salt. When a son or daughter comes home and says that the kids at school have been calling them names – like loser or fat or ugly or stupid, what the parent does is remind the child of who they are. The parent says, “That’s not who you are. You are my son. My daughter. You are my pride and joy. And you are loved beyond measure. That’s who you are.”

And that’s what Jesus does, when he rubs mud on the man’s eyes. Jesus reminds him who he is, rather than who others say he is. And as a result Jesus brings him back, includes him, into the community of human beings. And now the man can really see. He’s no longer blind to who he really is.

Okay, so this man tries to go home, but it doesn’t go so well. Because no one recognizes him. Who’s the blind ones now?! They only knew him as the blind man and now that he’s not blind, they don’t know who he is. Some think it is him, but others aren’t so sure.

So they bring him to the Pharisees, the religious leaders. And with the help of the man’s parents, they discern that it really is him. But then the religious leaders try to get him to turn on Jesus, because Jesus healed him on the Sabbath, and it was against the law to heal on the Sabbath, therefore Jesus must be against God, not of God. Notice how the excluders turn against the includer. Anytime someone tries to include a person who has been included, they themselves are likely to be excluded as well.

The Pharisees try to get this formerly blind man to turn on Jesus but he doesn’t do it. So what happens? They turn on him. Again. As it says in vs. 34, and they drove him out.”

The blind man who was excluded, is included by Jesus. And now, once again is excluded. Kicked out of the community. And when Jesus hears that, he goes out to find him. Jesus goes out to be with the excluded one. Remember the creation story says it’s not good for a human being to be alone. God went to find Adam and Eve in the garden. And now Jesus goes to find this man, who has been excluded for a second time.[4]

At the start this seemed to be a story about a miraculous healing of a blind man. But what if it really is a story about inclusion and exclusion. And the real message, the real good news is that Jesus won’t stand for exclusion. Because when we exclude someone, we limit the possibility of God working through that person within the community.

This past week, an 8-year old girl in Virginia was asked to leave the Christian school she attended because she didn’t act enough like a girl. She liked to keep her hair cut short, wear boys’ clothes, collect hunting knives, and shoot her BB gun.[5] She was indeed a tomboy, but that, according to this Christian school, was not okay,. Because it wasn’t girly enough. And so they excluded her. They kicked her out.

But Jesus won’t stand for exclusion. And Jesus goes out to find the excluded one. And Jesus came for this young girl in the form of a pastor who did not know her. Pastor Emily Heath wrote this 8-year old a letter and listen how Jesus works through this pastor to include the exluded one. Pastor Emily writes,

“Dear Sunnie, I was a lot like you when I was eight years old. I didn’t like dresses. I liked playing football and collecting baseball cards. My favorite things were airplanes and science kits. And I liked cutting my hair short.

A lot of people called me a tomboy. I think they meant that as an insult, but I actually thought that was pretty neat. Maybe you do too. Or maybe you don’t. Which is okay, because if you don’t you can call yourself whatever you want. You get that choice, just like you get to choose what kind of clothes you wear, and what hobbies you like.

But here’s what bothers me most of all, Sunnie. These people who are saying you can’t go back to school with your friends are telling you that Jesus is the reason. Like you I was raised in the South. I spent the first part of my life in Virginia, just like you. And my parents always taught me to respect adults. But I was lucky because my parents also would tell me that sometimes adults are wrong. Sunnie, the adults that told you that Jesus doesn’t like the way you dress, or that Jesus wants you to act “more like a girl?” They’re wrong.

Jesus does love you, Sunnie. You know how I know? Because Jesus loves me too. And Jesus loves everyone like us, who grows up preferring shorts to skirts, and jeans to dresses. Jesus loves us when we cut our hair short. Jesus loves us when we outhit the boys in baseball. And Jesus loves us when we don’t want to wear a pink bow in our hair.[6]

Pastor Emily went to find Sunnie, so as to include her when she was excluded. Because Jesus won’t stand for exclusion.

So when we tell children to include people, rather than exclude, we do so not because it is to just be nice or to be a good person. We include people because God is at work in that person’s life. And when we exclude them from the community, we limit the possibility of God being at work in the community through that person!

In closing, I can’t help but wonder when you have been excluded in your life? Or when have you been the excluder? Maybe you being excluded caused you to be blind to your own value and worth. Or maybe you being the excluder caused you to be blind to the value of another person. Whichever it is, my prayer today is this: May God give us eyes to see those who have been excluded. And may we have the courage to include them. So the works of God might be revealed in them. For the sake of the community. Amen.

 

[1] Sermon Brainwave, March 23, 2014, from workingpreacher.org.

[2] Alan Storey, http://www.cmm.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/3-4-2011.wma

[3] Ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/28/christian-school-tomboy-_n_5051934.html

[6] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-emily-c-heath/an-open-letter-to-sunnie-kahle_b_5031291.html?fb_action_ids=10100526019354838&fb_action_types=og.likes&fb_source=other_multiline&action_object_map=%5B271