“Living Alive,” John 11:1-45 and Romans 6:1b-11, June 25, 2017, FPC Holt

“Living Alive”
John 11:1-45 and Romans 6:1b-11
June 25, 2017, First Presbyterian Church of Holt
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Mary and Martha. These two famous sisters are in several stories throughout the Bible. Our first introduction to Mary is when she comes to Jesus gathered together with his disciples, breaks a jar of expensive perfume to anoint his feet. At this time she is simply introduced as “a woman who was a sinner”. The disciples criticize her for her wastefulness, but Jesus comes to her defense praising Mary for the love that she showed him, and saying, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Then there is the story of Mary and Martha welcoming Jesus into their home. Martha buzzes about the kitchen, going about the work of welcoming Jesus. To Martha’s chagrin, Mary sits with Jesus, simply being with him. When Martha comes to Jesus to complain that Mary’s not doing her share, Jesus says, “Mary has chosen the better part.”

Today we have another account of these sisters. Their brother, Lazarus is ill, and so they send word to Jesus to let him know it was a matter of life or death. Jesus dismisses this news 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.” We are told in our passage that Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, but still, Jesus stays two days longer where he was.

What sort of love is this showing? Saying that God will be glorified through their brother’s illness? God’s goodness and grace is present in all circumstances, but Jesus’ summation of God’s glory in this situation rings of all of those aphorisms that we tell to grieving people when we’re not sure what to say. “It’s God’s will,” “everything happens for a reason,” and “no use dwelling on it,” can ring hollow to someone in the depth of grief and sadness. The emotions of a grieving person are not to be assumed and can only be truly understood by the person experiencing the grief. I think my seminary professors would say that Jesus is offering terrible pastoral care.

Mary and Martha know that things are not well with their brother and send a message expecting a reply, but Jesus stays away. And then, it’s too late. Lazarus is dead.

Jesus does not show up to support Mary and Martha until Lazarus has been dead for four days. Four days. Throughout scripture, God acts on the third day. The third day is the day of redemption, heroic recoveries, second chances. But even that day is past. Hebrew beliefs of death say that the spirit hovers near the body after someone has died for three days. On the fourth day, when the spirit sees the face of the deceased turn color, the spirit leaves, never to return. At that point, this existence ended and life was no more. Jesus shows up on the fourth day, the day beyond hope, beyond existence.

It was a matter of life or death.

If you turn on the news there are a terrifying number of situations where innocent lives are killed because of those complex sins of fear, bias, and hatred, all stemming out of a deep well of pain.

I watched a very important and troubling video these other days about parents and grandparents explaining to their children how they should respond if stopped by a police officer. I’d like us to watch it together, fully acknowledging that this will likely be uncomfortable for many, but also, that that discomfort can stem from the privilege given by the color of our skin and that for many of us in this room, these are not conversations we’ve ever had to have with children. For others among us, these conversations are likely far too real, perhaps even with your own experience of how who you are has warranted undue attention from law enforcement.

https://www.facebook.com/thismatters/videos/714035155442346/

In the video, each adult is adamant that there are both good and bad police officers, even when a high school girl tries to dismiss them as all bad, a mother says, no, there are good ones too.

My heart ached at seeing an 8-year-old recite a well-rehearsed speech, saying her name and that she is unarmed and has nothing that will hurt them. Her father sits next to her and tells were about a time he was stopped in the mall and tased, not because of anything he’d done, but because he was mistaken for someone else. She becomes visibly upset and goes to get a hug from her dad who then is also crying.

There’s a grandmother talking with her two grandsons, pointing out that the lighter complexion child will likely not have to deal with this. Another mother says to her daughter with her voice being to crack, “do everything that you can to get back to me.”

Where is Jesus in all of this?

Martha and Mary were angry.

Jesus shows up and by all signs of logical reason it is too late.

Martha leaves her home full of mourners and goes out to meet Jesus. She is beside herself, crying out to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!”

Later Martha goes to get Mary and Mary echoes the same refrain, kneeling at Jesus’ feet she says, “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Mary is weeping, the other Jews with Lazarus’ sisters are weeping, and then we are told that Jesus himself is weeping. Lazarus’ sisters are angry, upset, deeply grieving, but still, they do not lose hope. Martha says, “Even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” She affirms Jesus as the Messiah with confidence in his ability to work out God’s will even in the shadow of their brother’s death. Even on this fourth day. Even beyond any logical reason for hope.

In their grief, Mary and Martha bring Jesus to the tomb, a cave with a stone in front of it. Jesus says, “take away the stone.” Martha is hesitant, saying, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Martha asked Jesus to come, practically demanded a miracle and then when he was on the cusp of something great, Martha is afraid of the smell.

“Come out,” Jesus says, and Lazarus emerges. In the hopelessness of the tomb, on this hopeless fourth day, Jesus calls out, and life is restored. Hope is restored.

This is such a strange story.

With all of the believers in the history of time, why is Lazarus selected out to be the one revived from death? His story is not a very long one. He is acknowledged as a man of poverty, a man in need of God’s grace, but aside from that, what is his legacy? Why does he get to come back? Why do Mary and Martha get to continue to have their brother in their lives? We are told explicitly that Mary is a sinner. Martha’s voice throughout her stories is loudest when she’s complaining. What have they done to deserve this?

What about all those other brothers of weeping sisters? What have they done to deserve this? When is Jesus going to intervene for them?

It is in asking these questions we become confronted with the uncomfortable reality that we are Christ’s hands and feet in this world. We are tasked with creating justice, restoring what is right. Sometimes resurrection doesn’t look like a man stepping backward out of a tomb. Sometimes it looks like a community surrounding a family in the face of loss. Sometimes it looks like lobbying and rallying. Often, it looks like listening, watching, and not turning away from the pain and death of those who do not look like we do, knowing full well that they, too, are created in the image of God and by knowing them, we are better able to know God.

In the strange story of Lazarus, Jesus uncovers hope beyond hope, and new life after death. We affirm in the Apostles Creed that we believe in the resurrection of the body. That after our own death we, like Lazarus will be called out of the doom and gloom of the grave and called to “come out,” into life everlasting.

This call is not one only to be heard after we are gone from this world. When we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior we are also being called to “come out,” of the smell of our lives of sinfulness. We are called to live a new life in the world surrounding us, in the bodies we are currently inhabiting, in the lives we are currently living. We are people of second chances. We know that death doesn’t have the final word. We are people of the resurrection. We are called out of the stench of sin into new life. We are called to live like we have already died. When we accept Christ into our lives we are called to die to sin, so that Christ may be alive in us.

And with the Holy Spirit’s breath circulating through us, we are called to speak out for justice, for hope, and for new life devoid of the hatred and pain that have changed us all so completely.

Lazarus was dead. But then, he wasn’t. This is the great hope we have in Jesus Christ: There is life beyond the sin that contains us. There is life beyond this world that constrains us.

God is not through with our world yet. Thanks be to God. Amen.

“Who Belongs?,” Matthew 19:13-14 and Romans 5:1-8, June 18, 2017, FPC Holt

“Who Belongs?”
Matthew 19:13-14 and Romans 5:1-8
June 18, 2017, First Presbyterian Church of Holt
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What is your earliest memory of church? My earliest memory is sitting between my Mom and Grandma in church at Washington Congregational Church in Toledo and asking for gum. My grandma always had gum in her purse. I’ll be honest, I don’t remember a whole lot about what was said or all that was going on in the front of the church, but I know what was going on in the back, and that was me, sitting at church each Sunday morning with people who loved and cared about me, and that it was important to them that we were there.

My family started going to First Presbyterian Church of Maumee when I was five and my earliest memory there comes from our very first Sunday attending when I went to Sunday School. I remember walking up to my now best friend, Claire, and asking her if she would be my friend. Twenty-five years of friendship later, I’m still glad she said yes. It was in that Sunday school room and throughout that church that I really started to figure out who this God was that everybody was talking about. In that church, I felt God’s own call for my life and was nurtured by so many Sunday School teachers, Vacation Bible School leaders, youth group leaders, and pastors.

Who are some of the people who have helped you to form your faith? Who are the gum providers who’ve sat beside you and helped you find your place in the hymnal? Who are those who, seeing your need for extra assistance, in any season of life, have come alongside you, helping open a door when you approach with your walker, or providing a worship bag as you’ve been a frazzled parent.

When I was in seminary my very own Grandma away from home was named Lena Love. Lena and I met my first Sunday at that church when, seeing her sitting by herself, I came and sat beside her. We talked every week after service and eventually would go out to lunch from time to time. She was a great listener and I felt like I could truly be myself around her, telling her about stresses and struggles, heartaches and hopes for the future. In my last few months of seminary, at the age of 93, she became ill, her health declined rapidly, and she died just a few days before my graduation. In our short time together she taught me the importance of investing in the lives of others and making family where you find it.

The first time we had lunch together, I was a bit reluctant, not wanting to take up her time, and she said, “I’m taking you out because I hope someone is doing this for my granddaughter.” She always made me feel at home, sitting beside her in the pew, in a restaurant, or beside her bed in those last days in hospice.

In our scripture today we hear about children coming to Jesus to receive his prayers. In the familiar scene of many children’s Bibles, disciples try to hold the children back, but Jesus insists that come forward.

I’ve heard this story, and I’m guessing more than likely you’ve heard this story too, focusing on the disciples actions and Jesus’ correction, but something that stuck out for me uniquely this time around was reading the emphasis not on the children themselves, but on the push and pull between those who brought them close to Jesus, and those who wanted to turn them away. It is those bringing the children that are reprimanded for their actions. Let’s read this part again:

“The little children were being brought to [Jesus] in order that he that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them.”

How do you see yourself in this Biblical narrative? Certainly, we’d all like to see ourselves as those acting as an encouragement. I feel like often the Gospel writers cast the disciples somewhat of dunces. In this passage it seems like Jesus is saying, silly disciples, sermons are for kids!

But if we’re honest with ourselves, it’s not always easy to be the ones inviting in energetic children or welcoming every guest. I get it, it’s been a long week, you’re dealing with a lot. Can’t you just have one hour a week to take some time alone with God? The thing is, corporate worship is just that, corporate. It is the time when we come together, the separate parts of the body of Christ making the whole. If it were easy, I really don’t think Jesus would’ve had to mention it so often.

And one of the incredible things about corporate worship, is that each one of us gathered, is created in the image of God, so when we are all together we are better able to understand the full nature of God. And when I say all together, I mean all. Those who have sat in these pews for 50 years and those whose energy has them dancing down the aisles. Together, we are the church.

I’ve often heard those familiar Whitney Houston lyrics, “children are the future.” This is said in the sure and certain knowledge that when we are gone, today’s children will be tomorrow’s elders, deacons, and pastors. They will be the ones shaping what decisions the church makes in who and how it will serve.

But, and this is quite important, the children are not just the future, they are also present in the here and now. As much as we are called to model what it is to listen and engage with worship, they simultaneously are teaching us what it is to be so moved by a song you can’t help but dance, how to mourn deeply, when they’ve lost a beloved pet, and many other important lessons. They’re not afraid to ask questions and seek adults who are willing to be vulnerable in asking questions, too.

Christian Education Director and blogger, Christina Embree, wrote an excellent post about children in worship, saying that worshipping with children not just about keeping kids occupied so as not to distract from the worship the adults are doing, but it’s about Jesus’ repeated call to value the contributions of kids in worship.

Embree writes, “I can’t imagine Jesus’ church being a place where children are not engaged with His body.  I can’t conceive of His church being one where children and adults grow separately in their own spaces rarely if ever, sharing in Christ as one.  I can’t believe that Jesus the preacher would be okay with never having the chance to be a part of the lives of the kids.”

She continues, saying: “Collectively, we must say, ‘We welcome you, with all of your idiosyncrasies and distractions, with your questions and your confusion, with your gifts and your talents, with your hearts and your praise, with your child-like faith we so desperately need, we welcome you!’ And then, I don’t think it will really matter to us if a baby is crying and needs attention or if a little one is bored and needs to color or if a child is fidgeting and needs to move around a little.  After we create and embrace that culture of welcome, we can engage strategies to invite and welcome kids into worship…We need them as much as they need us.”

As a congregation, it is vital that we support all who come to into this space looking to grow in faith, from the very youngest to our most established members. I know many in this church have been members for over 50 years. To say that is incredible is an understatement. Someone doesn’t stay a member for 50 years because they think it’s a pretty building or because they’ve always gotten what they wanted. If you’ve been here for 50 years, chances are you are here because this is the place that you’ve experienced God at work, maybe in the friendship of those you’ve come to know through a mission trip, Circle, or work on a committee; perhaps through the care of Deacons as a new parent or after the death of someone you loved. You know the body of Christ because you’ve seen it in action through this congregation and you’ve had opportunities to act as this body too.

I’m not sure I can put into words how important I think it is that we’re all in worship together with one another. We call this body of believers our church family and at baptism, we promise to support one another as we each grow in faith. In order to do that, we need to know one another. We need to be attentive to times when someone is in need of a pew buddy, a helping hand, or just a whole lot of grace.

May we be this sort of church to one another. Amen.