Archive for April, 2011

April 24, 2011

The Disruption That Changed Everything

Easter 2011: Matthew 28:1-10

Stories that conclude without happy ending drive me completely nuts. I’d almost rather not hear the story if I don’t know everything is going to work out ok in the end. Sound familiar to anyone?  This is especially the case when I go movies. When the plot line finishes unresolved, with couples who don’t kiss and make up, or the final scene being a summary of this is how life stinks when we are alone, I feel like my hard-earned 10, 11 or even now 12 dollars (growing all the time these days) is wasted.  For, I didn’t need to pay money to be reminded of unfair life can be. And, I’ll leave the theater in a bad mood. (Kevin knows this is so true).

Such sentiments of gloom would be perfectly understandable too in the case of where we left our gospel story when we last read together on Friday.

After a humiliating trial and unrelenting crowds shouting, “Crucify Him” and six hours on a cross facing a cruel Roman execution, Jesus dies. No happy ending. The beloved teacher, friend, and one said to be called, “The King of the Jews” on whom many hopes of the coming of the kingdom of God were placed, dies.  So much promise, carrying on his shoulders so many hopes, yet he dies. It was the original unhappy ending. 

Just as Jesus cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” the followers of Jesus must have felt pretty abandoned too at this point. All the good talk Jesus had engaged in about “the kingdom of heaven is near” and “Trust God, trust also in me” seemed like a bunch of bologna as Jesus breathed his last and word got out in the community that had trusted him heard Jesus was dead.  Anger and bad moods too were probably shared all around too.  

How foolish the disciples and the women must have felt! They’d given up everything to follow Jesus and he was dead.

If you’ve recently lost a loved one, you know that one of the first things that we do immediately following is not always full-out “cry a river of tears” posture. While there are tears, yes, there’s a lot of quickly trying to jump to what is next. There are funeral arrangements to be made, family to inform, decisions about what to do with the body trying to unsure that the deceased has a proper burial.

The natural human instinct, for many, is a desire to move on and move on quickly. You begin imagining life without this person. You might even find yourself supposedly comforted by others of by the notion of “Ok, now, that he or she is dead, let’s just get on with our lives.” You begin to change the focus of your gaze from hope for your life together with the loved one to how you can get over this wrenching pain as quickly as possible.

I can imagine that the women, the two Marys, that Matthew speaks of at the tomb of Jesus, that early morning, were seeking to move on with their lives too. Though the past day and a half had probably seemed like the most emotional, longest time of their lives, they were seeking to close the loop on their friendship to Jesus by morning.  It was why they got up so early.

I think “drama” is the last thing that they were looking for or even expecting. They believed and hoped that everything was in good order—they were just going to make sure. Therefore, all that the scene needed was a powerful melodic closing song and it could win the Oscar for the saddest story ever told.

Yet, like any good plot, when all seemed lost and bleak, the unexpected entered the scene and changed everything.  For, it would not be the unhappy ending they were living and preparing to keep on living. What would come next would be the disruption that changed everything!

As Matthew tells the story, as soon as Mary and Mary found themselves in the place where Jesus’ body had been laid, all of nature erupted in an earthquake.

We’ve all done a lot of thinking about earthquakes recently, sending our hearts out to our friends in Japan, so we know how shocking and overwhelming such an occurrence can be. The ground that you trust so much to lift you up and keep you safe is taken from beneath you. But this was not all.

Verse two goes on to tell us more about this disruption. As the earth itself opened up, simultaneously, a messenger appeared an angel of the Lord from the heavens. Matthew gives us some good metaphors to deal with here because he writes that this angel was “like lightening” with “his clothes white as snow.”

It was a sight to behold. A disruption to normal in more ways than one and not only just for the women: scripture tells us that the guards who had been sent to guard the tomb were greatly shaken and fell to the ground like dead men.  No longer were the powers of the state—those military men—able to have a say in what God was up too.

This was now the Lord’s day and the women were about to not only to see something of earth shattering proportions, literally, but there were going to get a word about it too.

Look with me at the disruptive message from the angel after the stone to the tomb has been rolled away in verse five: “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come see the place where he lay. Then, go quickly and tell his disciples that he has been raised from the dead.”

“What?? Are you kidding, me?” would have been the reaction most of us would have had that day if the angel spoke the following to us. Sure, the earthquake and the divine light show were cool and all, but Jesus is alive? If we believed this, nothing was going to be the same. Nothing!

For those of us who are faith observers and faith seekers alike is that we automatically jump here to the conclusion that the message of resurrection is all about heaven. Jesus arose from the grave so that we too, if we believe in him, might have life forever in heaven, just like him.

While that is good and all, and I’m sure heaven is a great place and I’m sure that Jesus is there right now. I fear what we do when we read this gospel story and reach this last scene where we too are faced with the possibility that resurrection might change everything for us too, we automatically want to go to a place of thought of some sort of one-time decision—belief in Jesus—that somehow then gets us a ticket inside the pearly gates. In the meantime nothing has to really change at all.

But contrary to popular belief or notions, I can imagine that going to heaven was the last thing on the minds of Mary and Mary as they began running, yes, running, from the tomb to tell the other disciples the good news. Resurrection shifted for them, the paradigm of the here and now.

You see, for Jesus to be alive, to not be bound to the tomb, as he had predicted to his followers on countless occasions meant something huge—God could be trusted.  Yes, indeed God could be trusted.

From now on, when religious leaders and government officials ruled with an iron fist and fraudulent practices, such was not the end of the story.

What they saw in front of their eyes in moments of deep loss, soul crippling pain, and heaps of sorrow was not the end of the story.

When they felt abandoned, forsaken and as if the whole world was against them, such was not the end of the story either. 

And, the icing on the cake that morning came as the women were beginning the four-day journey, all 63 miles of it, from Jerusalem to Galilee. Because, I feel, they had eyes ready to behold the disruption—after accepting the word of the angel—Jesus appears to them on this road and they see him! He greets them, allowing the women to touch his feet (to know for sure that he was real) and said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

You and I would not be sitting here today, hearing this ancient story once again, if this disruption of major proportions was not received into the lives of the Marys and then later the other disciples.

For while the story of resurrection was Jesus completing the work of love he came to do, it had a dependant human element to it: resurrection would mean nothing, absolutely nothing if those who experienced it did not share it.

In Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan’s book, The Last Week, they write, “Easter is about God even it is about Jesus.  Easter discloses the character of God. Easter means God’s Great Cleanup of the world has begun—but it will not happen without us.”

The disruption—the transformation, the new life-giving opportunity that the resurrection on Easter morn would give all of humanity—would be not one at all, if the women and then all who came after them at the empty tomb, and generations and generations that followed those first eyewitnesses had not allowed the disruption to sink into their beings and become a part of who they were. Resurrection was more than a proclamation on that Sunday.

For the women at the tomb that morn, resurrection was the disruption that gave them purpose beyond being the traveling companions of this great teacher. They were charged to bear witness to this divine truth: God could be trusted to see the darkest night of our lives through.

Because in the end, this was all they were asked to do—not give theological accounts as to the science of the resurrection, not to be able to connect every dot of this point in the faith story to that one, not even to convince those whom they told with persuasive and passionate arguments so that they would believe too, they were just to live into the disruption by announcing it not only with words, but in presence too.

Such of course, was harder said than done, for the meaning of the resurrection, for the earliest eyewitnesses was a complete mystery even as it is for many of us now. Even if they wanted words to explain it, they couldn’t. And, as mystery, there would be days when they would fall and wonder what in the world they were doing believing in such. It wasn’t as if even for Mary and Mary they had Jesus’ bodily presence to reassure them every step of the way. Faith had to enter the picture.

And, so too is the disruption of the resurrection as it enters our lives.

I can’t tell you how many people, even some of you, have told me through the years, “I really don’t believe in the resurrection. It just makes no sense to me at all.” And, let me you in on a secret, I totally understand, because sometimes, even I have a hard time believing too even as much as I want to.

For when we look at the broken pieces that this world has handed all of us in one way or another: families who love us imperfectly, loved ones who die much too soon, lost opportunities without just cause, financial ruins after years of hard work, and friends who betray us at our darkest times, resurrection seems like a lost cause— a concept that is meant for fairy tales that just aren’t real. Resurrection is not real life, we say.

Yet, with all of this true, I can’t help but think that we all need the disruption of resurrection now even more than ever.  It’s the end to the story that the voids in each of our lives desperately need.

We need resurrection because it liberates us from shame, guilt, loss and disappointment of what is “normal” about life in this world.

We need resurrection because it frees us from isolates us, what punishes us, and what annoys us the most about where we find our lives planted.

We need resurrection because it’s hope that while broken, the earth where we live is not without joy, joy God is longing to give us through relationship with one another.

We need resurrection because it gives us the unconditional love that we call grace—love that we do not earn or create for ourselves, but God gives us anyway. Resurrection is the definition of love.

I must warn you, resurrection, as recorded in the gospel story has a timeline of its own, though. We have to remember that we had to wade through Good Friday and Dark Saturday to get here.  We might not see evidence of it in our lives the way we want, when we want. But, like the first disciples of Jesus, following him, is always about embodying its hope until new life has a chance to spring forth.

So, this morning I want you to practice. Those of you who were at the early morning service will remember this litany written by Sharlande Sledge. And, this is your part: we are resurrection people with Easter in our hearts. Say it with me.

When others dismiss your story as an idle tale, who will you be?

We are Resurrection people with Easter in our hearts

When the world seems to be crumbling around you, remember who you are:

We are Resurrection people with Easter in our hearts

When despair would seem to squelch all hope, believe in who you have become:

We are Resurrection people with Easter in our hearts

When it is hard to persevere against all odds, trust in God who names you:

We are Resurrection people with Easter in our hearts

As we follow Christ into the world, may God help us remember who we are . . .

We are Resurrection people with Easter in our hearts

So today, I say again, covering you my beloved, with the hope of this very good day—that whatever place of life you find yourself in this morning that in Christ, that even in the most difficult circumstances of our lives and in death too, we are people of the resurrection. Thanks be to God.

Let us proclaim: Christ is Risen. Christ is Risen Indeed. 


April 22, 2011

I Surrender All

The Last Word from the Cross:

Jesus called out with a loud voice:“Father into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.” Luke 23:46 

“Father, into your hands, I commit my spirit.”

As we sit here with the very last word of Christ, death has come. We have reached the end of our watching and waiting by the cross. For the first followers of Jesus sitting by the cross that day, there was nothing more to do. Nothing.

If we read earlier in this passage, we know that symbols of this death were all around before Jesus spoke his last.  Darkness fell over the whole land. The sun literally stopped shinning in disapproval.  Many signs of God’s presence in creation were gone. It was a shattering moment— a moment that people of faith or no faith at all were forced to recognize. Everything was changing. Everything had changed with those last breaths of the one who was called God with Us.

There’s an old gospel song that I imagine many of you know: “All to Jesus, I Surrender, All to him I freely give. I will ever love and trust him and know that thou art mine.” And it was in those moments that the cross presented Jesus a choice. What would he do with his final breaths? Who would he bless? Who would he curse? Or, would he surrender to something greater than himself?

Yet, if you have sat beside the death of any, you know that the last of the last words are always hauntingly important. They are the words that stick with us, that we hear played in our head over and over after they have passed. We recite them to others. We remember them often times more than anything else the dying person has said previously.

So, if you only listen to one word of Christ, hear this:

When Jesus uttered his last, we hear in this utterance an acceptance of his death. What we hear is not a combative last wish, or an “I wish I’d done more of this.”  Or, “Why aren’t there more people here mourning my death?” But, an, “I accept the fact that even though this all is so painful and uncertain I WILL leave this earth in acknowledgement of my Father God.” I will surrender my life the plans of the one who sent me here.

“Father, into your hands, I commit my spirit.” 

Even more so, what we hear in Christ is a TRUST in the Father to handle what he could not—the mystery. There was no provable assurance of what would come next. There was much pain and few comforting presences gathered around him.

Sure, there was the hope of resurrection. Sure, this hope meant there could be good things to come. But in the pain and the agony of that moment of that very last breath type of moment, none of this was present, none of this was certain.

I believe this is where the cross often leads us, if we are going to be people who follow in its way. When we leave the cross, there is nothing more we can do than surrender. There is nothing more we can do than to lift up our hands acknowledge there’s a God who has a plan and who is working to bring even the most difficult circumstances for the good—even when we feel the most lost, forsaken and in our deepest pits. There’s nothing more we can do than sing, “I surrender all.”

It’s a difficult choice to give up our ability to control, to have our say, to seek to make things go as we wish. It’s frightening to just do the simple thing of “letting go.” It’s anxiety producing to look death in the face and not run away.

Yet, “Into your hands I commit my spirit.”

But, my friends, Jesus taught us that day that we aren’t just surrendering to anybody. We aren’t surrendering our lives to one that will toss us aside, ignore us, or not feel the agony of every tear we cry.

No, we can have confidence in the one in whom we are surrendering too: a God who was present with Jesus at Calvary, a God whom meets us in death.

Nineteenth century pastor and writer, Andrew Murray said this about surrender, “God is ready to assume full responsibility for a life wholly yielded to him.” It’s God’s job then to take our lives, take our deaths and make something useful of them once our surrender has been given.

So, In the darkness we surrender. In the pain we surrender. In the unknowing we surrender. Because yea though we walk through the valleys of the shadow of death, we will fear NO evil. For we know, yes, we know who is with us; a loving God in whom we can commend our spirits.


April 17, 2011

A Conversation with Mary

John 12:1-15

Palm Sunday 2011

My name is Mary and I know you’ve heard a lot about me as I have about you.

We need to get a few things straight this morning before we go any further. I need you know who I am, not who many of you think I am.

So first of all, I am not Mary Magdalene, or I never have been. These rumors began in the 6th century with Pope Gregory. He preached a sermon calling my story that of Mary Magdalene, and thus I’ve had a case of mistaken identity ever since.  (You know how it goes when a man in power says something; everyone believes him as if his words were always true . . .) It’s easy to get us confused. Yet, I am merely Mary from Bethany as recorded in John’s Gospel, not the unnamed woman in the other accounts.  

Second of all, you need to know that I am not a woman who works in what you people today like to call the adult entertainment industry.  Though Luke’s account of a woman anointing Jesus adds the phrase twice that this woman was a “sinner” (and we all know what a woman who is a “sinner” does in the Biblical stories—prostitution of course), this is just not me.

Of course I’m not without fault. Of course I’ve made my mistakes throughout my life—which Martha, my overbearing older sister has never allowed me to forget. But, I’ve never been a person who has to sell her body to make money for the family. Lazarus, my brother, has always been a very good protector and provider in this way. He has made sure that my sister and I have what we need and my work has usually kept me close to home.

Yet, what does make me special, I believe, is the relationship that my family and I had with the Galilean Rabbi named Jesus.

If you’ve ever met someone who has to travel a lot for their vocation, you know how taxing this can be both on their body and their spirit. When you are or the  itinerant lifestyle you know that one of the best gifts you can have is the comfort of having a “home away from home” . . . somewhere you can go for a hot meal, some good wine and a share an evening of conversation with people with whom you share a history with.

Such was the role that my brother, sister and I played for Rabbi Jesus.

When he first came to our town of Bethany, we hit it off right away. There was a comfort level between us that let us know that this was the kind of guy that was not only going places in this world—doing really important stuff—but that we were meant to be friends. So, we promised him that anytime he was in town, he just must stay with us!

Over the years, we developed a strong bond with this teacher. Our mutual friendship and love for one another grew. I just was amazed each time Jesus stayed with us, the patience and compassion in which he showed not only me, but everyone. I couldn’t help but want to soak up whatever I could from his stories and ideas.  I was mesmerized by his presence around our table. I just couldn’t learn enough from his wise words. It was a delight for Jesus and his disciples to come into our home when they did.

In general, because I wasn’t married, still going about the business of existing in my childhood home, I often felt like an outsider. Yet, never when Jesus was present among us—though there were, I know, countless others who adored him as much as I did, I always felt like an “insider” around him.

So, the choice for me that evening at dinner was an obvious one. I had to do something to show my appreciation for all that Jesus had done for us, what his presence had meant to us . . . little did I know, though, that what I choose to do would lead  countless centuries of folks to either praise me as a “model of womanhood” or wondering if I had completely lost my mind.  . .

It began like this: I went into the quarters of our home where important things were kept. I grabbed the bottle of pure nard that had been in our family for as long as we can remember, but technically belonged to me, in hopes that I was the sister in the family that would actually get married one day. It was a beautiful jar—I had admired it for as long as I could remember.

And, just before dinner began, I got down on my knees at the foot of the reclining table where Jesus sat and began to pour the nard from the jar . . . not on his hands (just trying to make him smell better) and not on his head (so to anoint him as king as others had done before) but intentionally on his feet.

You might wonder why would I choose to do this. Didn’t I know that Jesus’ feet smelled and that it would not be worth my while to get down there? But furthermore if you are familiar with Jewish customs at this time, you would know that to anoint the feet of another was an act of death.  Anointing feet symbolized preparation for burial.

Seems like a strange way to “welcome” a house guest, doesn’t it?

And so you can imagine the strange looks that I got as soon as I opened the jar and directed it toward Jesus’ feet.

Judas, one of Jesus’ disciples, in particular especially objected saying that I could have better used this jar of pure nard as a mission offering for the poor.  Judas was right about one thing—this was a good bottle of fragrance.

It was known to have origins in the mountains of far away regions of the East and so a rare treasure.  If I were to translate this into terms that you folks out there listening to me today would understand, I think that would be over $30,000 US dollars. Truly, a year’s wages for many. . . .

But, while, yes, Judas had a point, this perfume jar could have been used in others—maybe more useful ways in fact in the eyes of others—I had this hunch, this intuition if you will, that this just might be the last time we ever saw Jesus alive.

The crowds following him were growing by the day. The word on the street was that the religious leaders of the day had it out to make sure the upcoming Passover would indeed be his last. And, there was something inside of my spirit that said, “Now is your time Mary. God is calling you to this. Don’t hold back. Show with your extravagant gift who this man really is to you.”

But, it is not what you think. I didn’t love Jesus in the way that many of you in this room love your boyfriends or your girlfriends or your partners.

Sure, I let down my hair and wiped his feet it, but what else was I suppose to do.  It wasn’t like Martha was approving enough of this act that she’d willing go and get me a towel.  . . .

Truly, I loved Jesus because he was the greatest teacher I’d ever met. I knew that he was God, though countless contemporaries of mine and even some of you would debate me on this point.  And so because he was God in the flesh, I needed to show to the world who Jesus truly was and I needed him to know that I saw what the future held for him.

Was I scared you might wonder? Sure I was. Taking down your hair as an honorable woman was just not something that you did in a room full of men.  I wasn’t expecting praise.

Others would later tell me that  I was following in the tradition of the prophets from the Hebrew scriptures who had often been asked of God to do things that seemed laughable too— prophets like Ezekiel who was asked by God to each the scroll of the law as a sign of the Word of the Lord inside of him, or like Jeremiah who smashed clay jars to show God’s judgment on Judah and Jerusalem or Isaiah who worst of all, was asked by the Lord to walk around naked and barefoot (ouch !) as a sign of judgment against the nations.[i]  Yet, for me, I wasn’t thinking about getting famous or being compared to a man of greatness right then.

What mattered to me most in those moments were for all eyes to be on my Lord. I desired for him to get the recognition and support he needed to face all the challenges that lie ahead of him, that would quickly find him soon after he left the ease of life as a guest in our home.

And, looking back on that day, and the criticism I took from my family later—relatives coming up to me saying, “Why did you waste your perfume on him? What were you thinking Mary?”– I don’t regret what I did. Because soon after he left our home the next day, the Lord found himself nearing Jerusalem—the city that would praise him as king at the beginning of the week by laying down palm branches and shouting, “Hosanna, Hosanna!” would by the end of the week would be shouting, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!”

As hard as it was that day to get down on my knees and risk the chance of deeply felt rejection and humiliation, I am so thankful I shared my moment with Jesus that evening. He needed that perfume more than any other worthy cause ever did. Soon he would be taken from us too quickly and it was right and good to join not the majority who praised him when it was easy, but the few of us who stuck with him even when the outlook seemed grim.

For on that day:

The Spirit of God asked me to love Jesus, even though the answers to all of the “big picture” questions weren’t clear . . .

The Spirit of God asked me to sacrifice the best of what I had to offer even when others would automatically disapprove . . .

The Spirit of God asked me to posture myself on a journey of service at the foot of Jesus even though there were countless “Martha” types in my life that kept begging me to control things through busyness to things that didn’t really amount to much of anything in the end . . .

The Spirit of God asked me to be with Jesus in the unknowns of this thing called the Road to Calvary especially because we knew that death happened there  . . .

And in the same way, I can imagine that the Spirit of the Lord is asking you the same things as you enter into this Holy Week observance this year.

It’s true, as a pastor from this pulpit has been telling you each week about other characters (You wonder how I know: I’ve been listening to her sermons on the worship section of the church’s webpage), God didn’t and doesn’t love me anymore or any less because I gave him this gift of love found in a cracked bottle of nard.

Nothing I did that evening “earned” the love or grace Jesus had for me. But, yet, it was in the experience of following Jesus past my comfort zone and being led by faith in service that I found myself in the amazing encounter of participating in the divine life.

For just as that jar was broken and spill out before my eyes, I got a glimpse of what Jesus would soon do for me in just days when he would push through the crowds, carrying his cross and willingly allow his own body to be broken for me and all of you.  Yeah, I lost a bottle of good perfume but Jesus lost his very life: an act of love unprecedented before or since.

So, today, I can imagine that some of you will hear my story and still go home and think this Mary from Bethany was a little bit crazy (and that’s alright), but may you really remember that if you find yourselves in this journey of following Jesus, on the floor in tears with broken pieces your hands of a life you thought you wanted but is now unrecognizable that this, yes, this, is exactly where Christ can welcome you—all of you—the most.

Thanks be to God for broken jars, broken pieces and the fragrance of lives fully committed to Christ in our midst.


[i] Idea taken from Barbara Brown Taylor. “The Prophet Mary”


April 14, 2011

What is Grace? Thursday Edition

Grace is like  . . . tulips that pop up in your backyard that you did not plant.

We moved into our new home last May. Our backyard has been an untamed pasture ever since (as we never seem to be home long enough to do anything about it).  It has great potential to be cool, I’ve heard from countless friends. But, having potential has done little for us. The weeds are overwhelming and the leaves are everywhere.

Yet, what a pleasant surprise to find these tulips growing in our yard this week. A tender reminder that there are many good things in our lives that we have no control over. Beauty can find us even we do nothing to create it.  This is grace!

April 12, 2011

Broken Pieces

“This is not the life I’d hoped for myself.”

Such is the sentiment that often seems to be on the lips on folks both in my faith community and among others that I love. And, it is a scary place to be, to even say aloud. It’s dark. It’s lonely, and it’s found in a state of being without a lot of comfort. There are sleepless nights, actually many of them. And from our weary voices we cry, hoping that someone hears:

I’m 36 and not married and really want to have children with a partner I love . . .

I always imagined I’d make more than minimum wage . . .

I thought I’d be growing old with the person I said, “I do” to 40 years ago until cancer came. . .

I thought this job would last forever and I’d retire from here until . . .

I always believed my son would one day have a father. . .

I imagined four generations around this Thanksgiving table . . .

It’s the land of broken pieces that our journey has brought us too.

And like seeking to put together a 5,000 piece jigsaw puzzle without the box top for a guide, we throw up our hands and say, “This is just too hard for me! I want to quit.”

Quitting looks so appealing . . .

Yet, consider this: what if the broken pieces weren’t simply named for what they weren’t, but what they were.

Sure, such pieces are cracked, ugly, and will never to be mistaken for perfect.  But, what if they had their own unique gifts to share?

Gifts like being given over to a new puzzle that is more beautiful. Or, being able to connect with other similar broken pieces in ways that was impossible before?

What if the broken pieces were the way things were to be all along? That in the brokeness, the unexpected wasn’t exactly “bad” but just the unexpected with new opportunities to learn to love ourselves and others more in the meantime?

There’s nothing worse, I realize sometimes that realizing that your life is forever in a thousand little pieces, but what I fear in many is that the new pieces stop the joy of what could be next.

There’s one thing I know for sure, once you’ve been broken, you don’t really like being around the nice and shinning pieces as much as you did before. The most beautiful pieces become those like yourself who have looked their ugly brokeness in the face and have not let its blessings run too far away.

So, maybe the calling is for all the broken pieces to unite, to stand together, and to say “this is what real life looks like.”

As a Christian pastor, I say this is what church looks like. This is what community feels like. These are the lessons of life that many of our mommas never taught us, but will serve us well to get to know better in our search of this beautiful broken thing we call eternal life.

April 11, 2011

No Matter if You Want It Or Not: Resurrection

Lazarus,  John 11:1-45

Characters Welcome: Lent 2011

As much as I tried to start with a nice and tidy opening this morning, I just couldn’t because the more I thought about this passage, the more frustrated I got with it. Not because it is a story that is unknown to me (or many of you) . . . not because there aren’t thousands of commentating perspectives to read about this passage to give us interpretative assistance . . . but because of our character of focus for this morning, Lazarus. He’s the man who has no lines at all in this narration. We do not hear from him at all, though only to learn that he was ill and died.

 I was kicking myself for poor planning for a while thinking “Why did you pick Lazarus? Why not the character of Mary or Martha or from the perspective of the disciples?”  Why pick a dead guy? For, what in the world could I say about a character’s life that spends all his time, according to this passage in his bed, or lying in a tomb, and from who we don’t get to hear a personal word at all?

 (Note to self: don’t plan a week of a sermon series about a guy who is dead).

 However, as I realized on Friday that the bulletin was printed and I was stuck with Lazarus, I settled down a little and stuck close to verses 2-6 to try to uncover what I could.

 You know the story . . .

 After making a trip to Bethany and being anointed as Lord by Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, Jesus leaves town. However, soon afterwards, Lazarus becomes ill—more than just cold or seasonal allergies, he is seriously ill and his sisters fear the worst. The end could be near . . .

 Lazarus’ sisters, caring very much for him, seek out the counsel of their dear teacher and family friend, Jesus. Having faith in Jesus as Lord, they ask him to come to their brother’s bedside for reasons that are implied in this text: they believe Jesus can do something to make him well.  They send a messenger to find the place where Jesus is staying and tell him, “Come quick, Lazarus is sick. Our family needs you.”  

Unfortunate for them, the panicked concern of the sisters is not shared readily by Jesus; for, we do not read of Jesus hurrying to get to Bethany, home of Lazarus. In fact, the word in our translation of verse six does not do the reaction of Jesus justice when it simply records in English that Jesus “stayed two days.” When studying the original Greek, the more appropriate verb is tarried. Jesus heard of his friend’s suffering and he was in no rush to get there quickly, though we know that he loves this family dearly.  

 And what was more shocking, the more I thought about it was Jesus’ reasoning as to why he didn’t get there sooner when the disciples record him saying, “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.”

 “What??” I wondered. Is the God, you and I know really that cruel? How can love look like this? Didn’t Jesus know that the tears, the anxiety, and the suffering his dear friends were going through? Like the response of Martha, I wanted to exclaim, “Lord, if you had [there], [Lazarus] would not have died.”

 Yet, as Jesus and the disciples make it to the tomb, to see the place where Lazarus lay, we find all those closest to Lazarus doing things—Martha is busy trying to control the situation, talking to Jesus about what she thinks he should have done and now should do, Mary having her head in the clouds, participating in her own solitary grief at the house away from the others, and disciples standing by shaking in their pants a little worried about Jesus being back in the part of the county where they weren’t warmly welcomed.

 But, where’s Lazarus? Does he have a say as to what his friends and loved ones are saying or doing on his behalf? Nope. He’s dead.

 Though we don’t hear directly from him, we know, that it was believed in Jewish tradition that when Jesus went to the graveside on the 4th day, the spirit had gone from the body. Thus, he was legal pronounced dead. He was really dead, not just sort of.

 But soon all would see a miracle when Jesus says in verse 43: “Lazarus, come out!’” In this moment, Jesus extended an opportunity for Lazarus to participate with his whole being the coming of the kingdom of God.  Lazarus was going to get resurrection no matter if he wanted it, hoped for it or approved it or not.

 Yet, even with all of this true, I wonder what he thought when Jesus called him back to life?

 Those in modern times who have had near death experience, often say that their lives change in drastic ways— many even becoming more spiritually focused they were previously.

 Suzanna Gutherie, an Episcopal pastor in New York, writes of her near death experience after giving birth to her son when she writes, “I didn’t want to come back. My consciousness hovered somewhere above the body lying on the gurney. It was all over, I thought.  . . . I experienced a blessed clarity, freedom and relief, and a stunning sense of the illusory nature of the life I’d left behind. Then the recovery room nurse enforced an alternative plan for my life.

 Someone was shaking my body and calling me by name. No! NO! Unprepared and inept, I slipped, as if falling on ice, into that lesser “reality” in a helpless panic of anguish and anger. Suddenly I was back in the confines of that little life of mine. Now I carried a memory of the futility of this “fake” life. It was as if I hadn’t had time to drink the magic “forgetting potion” that makes you immune to truth. I came to consciousness disappointed, frustrated, unspeakably sad — and in excruciating pain.”[i]

 As it was for Rev. Gutherie, I can imagine similar thoughts went through Lazarus’ mind again too. He was just getting adjusted to the new reality called, life beyond, only to hear the Lord, calling him to come out of his tomb.  His spirit was at peace too, and why in the world would anybody want to take this from him? Because as nice as the joy of family, friends and fun things to do was in his life, coming back to his other reality called suffering, might not have been atop Lazarus’ new to-do list.

 Rev. Gutherie goes on to explain her speculations about Lazarus drawing attention to this: “Unbind him and let him go,’ said Jesus. But go where? Home? Could Lazarus dwell contentedly at home again in the house of Mary and Martha? If you come from eternal life, how do you settle for anything less than eternal life? But Lazarus, the ultimate human witness to the way, the truth and the life, is called forth from eternal life . . . to mere everyday life. “[ii]

 Because after you’ve seen the other side, counting coins or shearing the sheep or trading goods for food just doesn’t seem that interesting anymore . . . while everyone else around him, were undoubtedly excited, as we would be too, that they had their beloved brother and friend back when a few minutes earlier he was lost forever, Lazarus probably wasn’t sure.

 It’s important to note here that while Lazarus was resurrected from the grave, it wasn’t exactly like Jesus’ experience that we are all familiar with. Lazarus was still only a human being after all. It was messy. It was smelly. I can imagine the odor could be perceived for miles . . .

 And in the end, Lazarus would not live forevermore and ascend into haven some days later, as his Lord did. Remember Lazarus did not have a heavenly body. Lazarus would have much more suffering ahead, more hard relationship moments to navigate, and bodily aches and pains to bear both physically and emotionally, especially now because everybody knew his name . . .  (the games had just begun)

 And, worst of all, this horrible death he lived through, would come again. Unlike most everyone, Lazarus would get the “joy” of dying twice and the second time it would be for real. Though he would be soon flooded by emotional tears of relief from his two adoring sisters, Lazarus, simply didn’t have it as good as might have seemed at first.

 Resurrection, though, for Lazarus, became a moment of crossroads. God had worked in his life through the power of Jesus. Now, the question is what was he going to do about it?

 While Lazarus had no control over his sickness and the condition of his progressing illness or any future illnesses that would most likely hit him again at some point, he did have this opportunity to respond to what healing looked like in his life when it came.

 First there was the route of making an extra dime on this encounter. Lazarus could make his story a religious circus show seeking to make money on the remnants of his “blessed” bandages the Lord brought him from. He could seek to bring glory to himself as if the purpose of the resurrection was just for him.

 Or, out of fear, Lazarus had the choice of going home, locking the door and not talking to the crowds gathering outside his door. He could allow the exhaustion and the unknowns of a life of discipleship ahead to keep him from how God longed to use his story in the community to help others find their faith.  He could simply hide out and refuse to share—even when his local Rabbi invited him to share his story at the local temple or curious onlookers came to hear more.

 Or, to the contrary, Lazarus could embrace both the joys and frustrations of his new life—as opportunities to continue to journey with Jesus and learn more each day what resurrection would mean for him.

 Sure, just as we’ve been talking about all through Lent, Jesus accepted Lazarus, just the way he was, no matter what he did or not to share from this experience. He could have crawled in a whole or pulled all the covers over his head or drank all the wine out of the kitchen for days on end, and yes, the Lord would have loved him the same.

 But, this was his divine charge: to live into his resurrection. To take the brokenness of a very strange experience—with no friends to call and compare notes with on—and continue to participate in the calling God had placed on his life, to also lay down his life, as Jesus modeled, for not just the good of himself or his household, but for the common good of all.

 Yet, for those of you who aren’t ill, aren’t dead, and furthermore, haven’t been raised from the dead this week (if you have I’m sure you would have already let me know), you might be wondering what in the world might this text mean for us?

 No matter if we’ve recognized the encounter or not, all of us have had experiences of resurrection in our lives.

 God has met us in our hours of need.

 God has blessed us time and time again with everything we truly need.

 God has touched our lives through answered prayer.

God has met us with comfort through the care of a loved one. God has shaped our lives through the life experiences of those in this community.

And, the question today before us is how do we respond to resurrection when it comes to find us (even if we didn’t even ask for it either)?

 Are we open to acknowledge God’s gifts of grace in our lives? Are we testifying to them in our church during “prayers of the people” are we entering the waters of baptism saying “Jesus is Lord?” if we have not—just as Ally will model for us next Sunday? Are we sharing our talents and time with our community from what we’ve received much? Are we taking the risk to follow Jesus even though the path might be rocky and moments of suffering and dying to self might not be over?

Easter is coming, my friends, it is only two weeks before you and I get to shout from the top of our lungs, “Christ is Risen, Christ is Risen Indeed”  with all the joy of Christ’s resurrection that we can muster.  Yet, as we stand on the edge of Easter, on this the last Sunday of Lent, it is our Christ who asks us to commit anew to share of how it has been sweet to trust him, just to take him at word and to know thou are with us, and will be with us to the end.

When resurrection comes to meet you this day, this week, this year, what will you do with it? What will YOU do with its gift?

 Let us practice together as we sing together now—all characters are welcome.


[i] “Back to Life: John 11:1-45” (first printed in Christian Century, 2005)

[ii] Ibid.

April 2, 2011

Traveling Mercies

It was just a normal Tuesday afternoon at the office. Lent was quickly approaching, and I was racking my brain trying to put together our spiritual formation class for this season of the year. I knew a worship sermon series called, “Characters Welcome” had already been planned. So, whatever, I chose to had to involve stories. But, which ones? And how?

Reading spiritual memoir? Some individual writing? Group spiritual direction?

I just wasn’t sure.  . . . until I remembered my fondness for an author I’d begun reading back in seminary: Anne Lamott. She might be the one, I thought, to bring even more spiritual and emotional honesty into our congregation. And, then I knew, yes, this was what we would do.

If we were going to read Lamott, I  knew we’d have to start with her first religious book: Traveling Mercies. Seemed like an easy enough choice.

Yet, I had no idea I was making a provocative recommendation. Honestly, it has been years since I read this one. I knew Lamott was not for the prude or extra holy but I had forgotten many of the specific details of her story which include graphic accounts of drug abuse, underage drinking and an abortion.

But when the flyer went out about this class called “Spiritual Stories” with Lamott as our guide, the word on the street around the church was: “I can’t believe what OUR pastor is asking us to read.” Many who chose to attend the class confessed that they’d loved this book for years, but thought it would never be appropriate for church.

The thing is when you read Lamott, you either love or hate her. There’s not much in between. Yet, in our case, I think those gathered on Wednesdays nights for the last several weeks are loving her more and more as we go. 

It’s true, Traveling Mercies, is not for those who want to pretend that “Life is always great and knowing Jesus just makes it all better,” (If you did, you’d be rather disappointed by page two).

Rather this book is for those who are wading in the deep waters of grief, failure, and suffering and find themselves staring at the sky and wondering “Why??” It’s a book for the broken in spirit. It’s a book for those who truly want to be faithful and authentic at the same time and need some encouragement.

In the course of only four weeks, we’ve cried together over the deep pain of loss. We’ve talked much about our negative experiences in more traditional faith communities. And, we’ve read passages of Traveling Mercies aloud and said, “Yes, yes, that is exactly how I feel, and I never had words to describe it just like this!”

The format of the class has been simple. We’ve gathered to hear some words of devotion and prayer, we’ve talked through passages within the week’s reading, and done some memoir writing of our own on topics such as, “Who is God to you?” “What was a time when you found it hard to forgive someone?” and “Tell about a time when you felt deeply lost.”

Last Wednesday in class, one of the most profound moments came for me when our discussion centered around forgiveness and what it means to be broken as a result of life’s harsh realities.

One class member said, “When I was attending another congregation, it seemed that in group meetings like this one I’d always be the only sharing a problem. Everyone else seemed to be always trying to do each other talking about how great their lives were (when of course this was not always true). I was tired of the only one being honest until I found this church. Here, I feel I can be myself, problems and all and surprisingly, I found all of you are seeking to do the same.”

My pastoral heart leap when I hear these words. This is exactly why churches like Washington Plaza exist.  To journey authentically alongside one another in Christian community sharing broken parts of our lives as well as what is good.

I’m glad for the gift of Anne Lamott is for our church this Lent. I’m thankful for the ways her gift of beautiful words has given us more beautiful ways to speak to each other. I’m hopeful for what sharing even more spiritual stories in this group in the weeks ahead will mean for those of us gathered.

%d bloggers like this: