“Saints and Sinners”; John 11:1-45; October 28, 2012; FPC Jesup

“Saints and Sinners”
John 11:1-45
October 28, 2012, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

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.”[1]

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.”[2]

Today we have another account of these sisters. Their brother, Lazarus is ill, and so they send word to Jesus to let him know. 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.[3] Jesus shows up on the fourth day, the day beyond hope, beyond existence. [4]

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!”[5]

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.”[6]

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.

It is this hope in the face of hopelessness that creates saints from sinners.

Robert Louis Stevenson is attributed as saying,

“The saints are the sinners who keep on going.”

Today we celebrate All Saints Day. This is a day of acknowledging those Christian brothers and sisters who have come before us. We remember them, we honor their legacy, and we look to their examples as we also seek to follow Christ. In doing so, it’s tempting to look only to their saintliness. We look to the examples of Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, and our own saintly family and church members, and we see all the good that they accomplished. We marvel at great legacies of lives well lived. It may be overwhelming to think of all the good that people have done in the name of Christ. As we revere the past, we should be also be aware of the humanness of each of these Christians. Only Christ is sinless, and so we are to remember that each of these people had moments of sinfulness. We acknowledge this not to degrade the legacy of these great Christians, but rather to recognize the possibility in each of our lives. You, too, are called to be a saint.

In the New Testament there are 62 references to “saints.” The Apostle Paul used the word “saints,” used 44 times in reference to the Church on earth. We become saints through our baptism, our acceptance of God’s claim on our lives. We become saintly only through Christ’s power in us. God continues to be incarnate in this world as God works through us. We as God’s people are made holy not because of our behavior, but because of God’s presence among and within us. God desires to be embodied in our lives. God wants us to be saints on this earth. God is not done with us yet. Each step that we take towards this great hope, even in our sinfulness, is a step towards saintliness.

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?

Simply, they had hope that God wasn’t done with them yet. They had hope that God could work beyond their sinfulness, beyond their complaining.

In this strange story of Lazarus we hear a preview of our own fate. Resuscitation from death is not promised, but we are given a different promise, the promise of eternal life beyond this world.

We affirm in the Apostles Creed that we believe in the resurrection of the body. 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 are people of the resurrection. We are called out of the stench of sin, into a life of everyday sainthood.

I heard that this congregation had programming and sermons a little while back themed around the song, “Live Like You Were Dying.” It is great to hear about how that theme transformed this church, invigorated the mission and the call of each of you. We are indeed called to live a life in the now, a life in perspective of God’s greater call on our lives, lives in constant attention to how God’s will may be enacted through us.

We are also 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.

In Romans 6:4-11 we read,

“We have been buried with [Jesus] by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

Lazarus was dead. Martha could smell it. Those mourning with Martha and Mary wept at the reality of it. 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.

There’s a poem by Victor Hugo that speaks beautifully to this hope. He writes:

Be like the bird, who
Halting in his flight
On limb to slight
Feels it give way beneath him,
Yet sings
Knowing he hath wings

God is not through with us yet. Through Christ, though we are all sinners, we are also still saints. Amen.


[1] Luke 7:36-50, There is debate about the identity of the woman who washes Jesus’s feet with her hair, with many claiming it was Mary Magdalene. John 11:2 identifies Mary as “the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair.”

[2] Luke 10:38-42

[5] John 11:21

[6] John 11:32

“Abundance” Ephesians 3:14-21 and John 6:1-15; July 29, 2012

“Abundance”
Ephesians 3:14-21 and John 6:1-15
July 29, 2012

My Grandpa Charlie was an excellent cook. Our family’s weekly dinners at my grandparents house were not to be missed, as he approached the creation of each meal with gusto. I remember once, right about the time that the internet was becoming popular, that he spent hours researching horseradish to transform a giant horseradish root into the perfect sauerkraut. Still, I think his real gift came not simply in his ability to make a tasty meal, but in his ability to take any leftovers and completely reinvent them into an equally delicious and creative meal. As a child born in the aftermath of the Great Depression, he was instilled with the values of thrift and conservation. If there was food, there was a meal. And if people were hungry, they weren’t anymore after a meal with him.

So, when our gospel reading tells us that five barley loaves and two fish fed thousands, I picture my grandfather rooting around the refrigerator and cooking up a feast.

Our gospel passage tells us that as Jesus had been traveling with his disciples teaching, preaching, and performing miracles a large crowd had formed around him.  Jesus asks Philip, “Where are we to buy food for all these people?” Then in the text we get a bit of a “tell.” Our passage says, “[Jesus] said this to test [Philip], for he himself knew what he was going to do.”

Jesus knew what he was going to do, but as he was in the business of training his disciples, he wanted to let them think through it first. I can imagine Jesus’ disciples a bit exasperated. They were the original hearers, the ones personally selected to be part of Jesus’ entourage, but in joining Jesus they had given up many of their worldly possessions and powers. They weren’t joining Jesus so that they could be benefactors or underwriters of Jesus’ mission. They joined Him because they were interested in seeing what would happen next with this rabble-rousing religious man. They wanted to be a part of this church that was not tied to rules or the law. And now, Jesus wanted them to come up with some sort of catering plan for thousands of people?

Philip answers, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”

Andrew assesses the situation and he says, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish.” Immediately he dismisses the thought say, “But what are they among so many people?”

Andrew was looking pragmatically at the facts. If we have five thousand people and five loaves, each loaf divided into a thousand parts, surely would just be one crumb-filled mess.

I’ve always wanted to have a good picture of what these loaves and fish looked like. Were the loaves small dinner rolls? Or were they giant loaves, the sort to hold a sub sandwich? And the fish, were they something small the boy had caught on his line? Or were they something large he had purchased at the market? Like Andrew, I’d like to think that the concrete facts of the case make a difference.

“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish,” Andrew says.

“Make the people sit down,” replies the Lord. The meal is blessed, served, then eaten, and all are satisfied.

Note that the scripture does not say, every one had a snack or everyone made sure others had what they wanted before they ate. In John 6: 11 it says that everyone ate “as much as they wanted.” And when they were done eating, there was still plenty left over. Verses 12 and 13 tell us, “when they were satisfied, [Jesus] told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ 13So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.

They filled twelve baskets. There was not just enough, there was abundance!

The theme of abundance is echoed throughout the Gospel of John. In the 16th verse of the first chapter we are introduced to Jesus as the Word from whose fullness we have all received grace upon grace. The providence of God in creation and God in incarnation are tied together in one timeless blessing of abundance.

Jesus’ ministry is begun when he turns water into wine. In a noticeable act of providence, this is not just any wine, but high quality wine produced from jars of water filled to the very top. Jesus provided abundantly for this wedding celebration.

As Jesus moves in his ministry to Samaria he meets a woman at the community well in the heat of the day. As they both come to the well seeking water, Jesus tells the woman in John 4:13-14, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

In the passage we have read today, the story of the feeding of the five thousand, we hear a familiar narrative. While the four gospels have many similarities, this narrative is the only miracle story that is told in all four gospels. However, continuing the theme of abundance, the Gospel of John is the only one to add the detail of situating this story in the context of Passover. This context would not be lost on those followers with Jewish lineage, as Passover was the time commemorating when God spared the lives of the first born sons of the people of Israel and provided safe passage out of Egypt.  All through their journey to the Promised Land God provided for them with manna. God provided for them abundantly.

Even at the end of the Gospel of John the author seems overwhelmed by the abundance of what is left unsaid by the innumerable actions of Jesus’ ministry. The last verse of the Gospel of John reads, “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

These stories of abundance are not simply something relegated to the history of our faith. As God continues to move in the world, we are made agents of that abundance. In Ephesians 3:18-21 we read Paul’s blessing to the people of Ephesus: “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 20Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever.”

So I have to ask, when was the last time you felt, “filled with the fullness of God,” and “able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine?”

More often than not, our faith is more likely to reflect the pragmatism of Philip and Andrew, than the promise of abundance of Jesus Christ. Sitting here, on the tail end of a recession, it can be hard to imagine we would have anything to give. We are all too aware of the scarcity in our lives. We are afraid of our insufficiency. We are too young, too old, too frail, too busy. We are those loaves, divided over a thousand times, surrounded by crumbs.

Catholic nun and spiritual author, Marcrina Wiederkehr writes of these crumbs in her book, “A Tree Full of Angels.” She writes:

“We stand in the midst of nourishment and we starve. We dwell in the land of plenty, yet we persist in going hungry… we have the capacity to be filled with the utter fullness of God (Eph. 3:16-19). In the light of such possibility, what happens? Why do we drag our hearts? … Why do we straddle the issues? … The reason we live life so dimly and with such divided hearts is that we have never really learned how to be present with quality to God, to self, to others, to experiences and events, to all created things… We are too busy to be present, too blind to see the nourishment and salvation in the crumbs of life, the experiences of each moment.”[1]

There is a provision waiting for us in these crumbs. For when our crumbs are gathered together, there is an abundance. We are “filled with the fullness of God,” and “able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” Why do we wait to serve till it is convenient? Why do we wait to help till it is asked of us?

Artist and author, Jan Richardson wrote a poem inspired by our Gospel narrative, called “Blessing the Fragments”:

Cup your hands together,
and you will see the shape
this blessing wants to take.
Basket, bowl, vessel:
it cannot help but
hold itself open
to welcome
what comes.

This blessing
knows the secret
of the fragments
that find their way
into its keeping,
the wholeness
that may hide
in what has been
left behind,
the persistence of plenty
where there seemed
only lack.

Look into the hollows
of your hands
and ask
what wants to be
gathered there,
what abundance waits
among the scraps
that come to you,
what feast
will offer itself
from the fragments
that remain.

We are to live as those cupped hands, extending ourselves outwards to welcome the feast that is present in the crumbs.

There are some who know how to serve from the crumbs, like my Grandfather’s meals made from left-overs. It is a gift, to be able to see the abundance in the scraps.

I have been blessed to be invited to tables where I know that I am sharing in this sort of abundance. Tea and cookies from an older widow with a fixed income sustain and nourish in a way the greatest feast cannot. Lemonade provided by a woman with physical limitations receiving help with home repairs quenches thirst like the most gourmet beverages cannot.

There is a short but important story about this in scripture. This passage comes to us from Luke 21:1:

“Jesus looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.’”

God’s abundance in our lives is shared not through our ability to give much, but our willingness to give all that we can.

That boy in the crowd had five barley loaves and two fish. We are not told how many meals he was hoping to get from that bread and those fish. We are not told whether the boy was giving out of his own personal abundance or out of scarcity of a life of poverty. We are simply told that he had five loaves and two fish and was willing to offer them to others. Andrew at first dismissed the idea and Philip thought feeding five thousand from such meager resources was an impossibility. But still that boy gave what he had and it was multiplied.

I pray that we would recognize the ways that God has filled our lives with fullness, knowing that God desires to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine. And that we may give to others what we can, even when it seems like mere crumbs.

Amen.


[1] A Tree Full of Angels: Seeing the Holy in the Ordinary, Chapter 3