“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.

“Can You Believe It?” Mark 16:1-14; April 20, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Can You Believe It?”
Mark 16:1-14
April 20, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01Easter morning growing up I remember waking up early, my often-groggy eyes opening excitedly in the anticipation of what was to come. Then my sister and I would wake our parents and rush them downstairs so we could see what the Easter bunny had brought for us. We were excited because to us Easter meant baskets and chocolate and home sewn often-matching Easter dresses. Over the years we celebrate Easter in a variety of locations, from my grandparents house in Chattanooga, TN, to Florida on a spring break vacation, own home, but each time the routine was similar, the feeling was similar: joy, anticipation, and family.

Slide02Two thousand years ago, the first Easter held a very different feeling: sadness, fear, and grief. We are told was early in the morning, the day after the Sabbath, and Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome went to the tomb where Jesus was laid. They likely walked slowly in the morning light, united in the grief that things would never be the same with this Jesus they had all followed, they had all loved. They brought with them spices for anointing Jesus’ body, which meant of course that they were expecting a body. They were coming as they likely had to so many other gravesides, to do the dirty work of grief, washing, anointing, preparing. They were worried about the logistics: who would roll away the tomb, how would they draw close to their beloved Jesus?

They were coming for a funeral, a memorial. What they found was an entirely different scene.

Slide03They approach the tomb and there they find the stone had already been rolled away. At this point I would imagine their adrenaline would kick in, wondering who else could be there, what their motivations were for rolling back that stone. Were they friends or would they wish these women harm?

SLIDE 4 - Angel in TombThey take a collective deep breath and enter the tomb, where they see a young man, dressed in a white robe. They are frightened by this sight and can you blame them?

They were expecting death and found resurrection! They were expecting to see brokenness and saw holiness. It was a shocking sight!

The man says to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

Slide05We are told that they ran from the tomb, in terror and amazement, and “said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Slide06When you approached the church today, this Easter morning, what did you come expecting? That Easter morning 2000 years ago they were expecting brokenness, they had come in grief. Why aren’t we all dressed in black? We’re here remembering the life of Jesus, right?

SLIDE 7 - FPC CrossWell, actually we’re here for much more than that. We’re not dressed for a funeral, because that is not what we’re expecting. Many of us are wearing bright colors, new dresses and ties, colors of Spring, of new life. We have confidence in something more than the death that the women of the Easter morning were expecting, we’ve drawn close to the tomb, not expecting brokenness, but expecting healing. We’ve come expecting not death but resurrection!

What an incredible thing! Can you believe it?! Can you?

If you’re anything like the disciples, an honest answer might be “no.”

Slide08Let’s be honest with one another this Easter morning, it’s easier to show up in this story after God has already worked out all of this gritty and awful crucifixion business and everything is all grace filled and new life and resurrection. It’s harder to walk with Christ every single day of our lives. It’s harder to come to church on an ordinary Sunday without trumpets and lambs and lilies and the palpable feel of new life.

Slide09We are so much like the disciples, ignoring Jesus when it’s inconvenient, only making time for worship in the extraordinary moments of life. We need to be prompted by angels and miracles to remember the magnitude of our great God. We have no problem coming into God’s presence for weddings, funerals, Christmas, Easter, when we know what God’s story holds for us, but aren’t quite so sure what God has to do with us in the in between times. God has so much going on, God couldn’t possibly care about our day-to-day. When there’s nothing special to ask for or celebrate, God still wants to be with us, to remain in relationship with us in the mundane, so that we will trust in God’s faithfulness when things do get rough and complicated.

Why could none of the disciples stay awake through the night of Maundy Thursday with their Lord, Jesus? Where were these disciples when the crowds were shouting, “crucify him?” Why do the disciples scatter into the darkness of Good Friday? Why do we all gather today when the crucifixion and resurrection has all played out?

Slide10We would love to keep the darkness of those three days in the tomb at a distance, because perhaps then we might be able to ignore our own darkness. We don’t often live our lives expecting angels to show up in the places of our deep sorrow and point to the emptiness where our pain has been and trust that God’s grace has now taken root there. It’s easy to put on a white dress and a bright colored cardigan and to enjoy spring flowers coming to bloom in gardens, but it is very hard to accept the newness of life that God desires to spring inside of us.

What is the darkness in your life that you’re spending your time and energy mourning? What would it be like to invite God’s resurrection hope into your hidden pain? What would it be like to accept that there’s an angel sitting in the place of your darkest fears sending you out into the light to share the hope of resurrection?

Slide11Three times in our passage today we are told that the disciples would not believe that Jesus was living again after his death. Three times they are unable to accept that what Jesus had been telling them all along was the truth: that He was the Son of God. That He had come to bring about the Kingdom of God. That they would take part in building the Kingdom of God to come.

If the story had ended at cross, there might’ve been hope of these disciples being off the hook for bring about the whole “thy Kingdom come,” aspect of how Jesus had taught them to pray. If Jesus were simply a man, simply a great teacher who lived an exemplary life, and then died, there wouldn’t be much work for the disciples after his death. For what would this story matter if Jesus wasn’t what He said He was, if their Jesus, wasn’t actually the Christ? It would just be a story of another man with good intentions, who did some nice things for some people who were down on their luck.

Slide12But the story does not end at the cross, nor does it end in the tomb. The tomb is empty, Jesus is resurrected, and the story continues on. Through the disciples, we’ve all come to know the hope of resurrection: that Christ took on the sorrow of the world on the cross, suffered through hell, so that we might share in Christ’s resurrection, so that we might live lives filled with the grace of God.

Slide13What is your response to this resurrection story? Can you believe it? And more than that, does it matter to you? Are you willing to allow God to roll away your stony thoughts of “having it all together,” and allowing him to free you from the tomb of your hidden darkness? It is my utmost hope and prayer that you will allow this story of grace to be much more than a story to you, that it might be a very real chance at new life. May all of us welcome Christ’s resurrection into our hearts, this Easter morning, and always! Amen.

 

“The End?”; John 13:1-17; April 17, 2014, FPC Jesup

“The End?”
John 13:1-17
April 17, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - spoiler_alertI think that this scripture should begin with a spoiler alert. It tells us from the very start that Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world. Like when my Dad asked why I was going to see the Titanic when I already knew the boat was going to sink, we’re all gathered here tonight to hear this text again, draw close to the story of Jesus’ last days, last supper, so many lasts.

When we think of it, the whole ebb and flow of the liturgical calendar SLIDE 2 - liturgical calendardoesn’t hold much in the way of surprises either. At Christmas we expect to hear about Mary’s pregnancy announced by Angels, the trip to Bethlehem, and Jesus’ birth attended by animals and shepherds. When we get into this season of Lent we expect to hear about Jesus’ time in the wilderness, the company of the disciples, Palm Sunday, the last supper, the crucifixion, and without any hesitance or surprise, we greet Easter morning secure in the knowledge that Christ will indeed be risen, and the tomb will be empty.

Slide 3 - Last supperEven though we know how it’s going to end, we are drawn into the narrative of Jesus and his disciples, gathered at the table. It’s a common scene. They’ve been traveling with each other for a while now, accompanying Jesus as he speaks to crowds, brings healing, shares loaves and fish, turns tables, and challenges the establishment.

SLIDE 4 - Jesus Washing FeetAnd now at this common table, Jesus begins washing their feet. Peter is uncomfortable with this act. It seems so out of line that Jesus would be the one to wash their feet. When he resists Jesus says, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Peter balks at this and says “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Given the denials that are to come before the dawn, it seems like a bit of anticipatory guilt in the way Peter so heartily desires to be washed so that he might fully commune with Jesus. After he is done washing their feet he tells them that he has done this as an example to them, telling them that they will be blessed by the service they give to others.

SLIDE 5 - DisciplesIt’s the end of the road for this band of followers, and Jesus knows that not one of them will last the night with their allegiance in check. Jesus being fully God knew every bit of what was to come, but also being fully human he was not immune to fear. Over the three years of Jesus’ ministry with his disciples he taught them a great many things and yet over and over again they showed through their actions that they didn’t quite get what was going on here. How could Jesus have full confidence that this band of misfits would carry his Good News into the entire world? But time was running out from what Jesus could teach them, and so he had to trust in the new beginning that would come from the ministry they had shared.

Slide6Roman Philosopher, Seneca is quoted as once saying, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” If you haven’t been studying Roman philosophy and that sounds familiar to you it might because Slide7it was quoted in the one hit wonder, “Closing Time,” by Semisonic. “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”

After this meal of service, this night of betrayal, and the day of horror to follow, a new beginning was coming: the beginning of a world no longer beholden to death’s power, the beginning of a time when the disciples would be tested to share all they had learned from their brief but intense time in the presence of God’s incarnation. With God no longer dwelling on earth in the person of Jesus, God’s dwelling would need to take root in all who would come to believe. God’s kingdom would need to be brought by these confused, sometimes fickle, human disciples. What a message of hope that is for us, thousands of years later as we seek to know, follow, and share Christ with others.SLIDE 8 - Start Finish

SLIDE 9 - HearWe’ve heard it all before, and so often times we stop really listening to what all of this means, and what it could possibly have to do with us, here and now. Though our story doesn’t change, our response to it can. Will we let these words wash over from our comfortable view on the sidelines of salvation? Or will we take Jesus’s actions to heart, using our place at the table to welcome others, to invite them to the cleansing healing that we’ve found in the company of Christ? May you invite the presence of God in this world to begin again through you, this Holy Thursday and always. Amen.

“Witnessing the Resurrection”; John 20:1-18 and Acts 10:34-43; Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Witnessing the Resurrection”
John 20:1-18 and Acts 10:34-43
Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Video shown at the beginning of worship service:

Audio and slides of the sermon:

 Slide01Try to picture the scene: It’s early. The grass is still wet with dew, which darkens the hem of Mary Magdalene’s clothing as she makes her way to the grave. Her sleeve is similarly damp from wiping away the tears that have slipped out as she’s hurried on her way past a few stationed guards and vagrants scattered among Jerusalem’s streets, quiet in a Sabbath rest.

Now she is before the tomb, but things are not as they should be. The stone closing the chamber where Jesus laid is pushed away. She is in shock, assuming the worst: grave robbers have stolen Jesus’ body.Slide02

Though an empty tomb was not what she had expected, it makes me wonder what she was looking for. She knew that he had died. She saw him mocked, tortured, and hung on the cross. The man that she loved was gone. She knew, or at least thought she knew, that she would never talk, eat, or laugh with him again. But yet, she came to his tomb.SLIDE 3 - Mary and Disciples

Maybe she just needed to see it for herself for it to be real; the giant stone as a final punctuation to the drama of the past three days. That stone would serve to separate and sever Mary from the man she was never too far away from in life. But with the stone removed and the body gone she wasn’t able to have that kind of closure. Though at this point she surely did not picture Jesus as supernaturally exhumed, she knew quite clearly that the open tomb meant that the story still had not ended.SLIDE 4 - Mary Empty Tomb

In the shock of the empty tomb Mary takes off running towards the disciples. Of anyone, surely they would understand her grief, her confusion, her frustration. She runs to them, likely telling them the details of the situation through panting frantic gasps.  They do not seem to wait to comfort her, or to form a plan of how they might deal with possible grave robbers, or to pause to consider that Jesus might have actually meant all of those things he had said about eternal life. No, they simply run, breaking into a race.

In this way they seem like young boys, propelled, partially by curiosity, partially by righteous indignation, eager to see what has happened. I can also see them in their running, looking over their shoulders, making sure to keep an eye out for any legal authority that may recognize them from the crucifixion three days before.

SLIDE 5 – John and Simon Peter at TombThey arrive at the graveyard, the “beloved disciple” first, who seems to peek into the tomb, but not fully enter. I can see him sheepishly grinning at the door, like a child at a funeral too young to really understand the weight of the day’s events.

He lets Simon Peter go in first. Peter goes in and surveys the scene. The burial cloths are rolled up, which is just enough evidence for him to see that, wherever Jesus’ body is, this was not the work of grave robbers. We are told that the “beloved disciple” enters as well, sees, and believes (though we’re not told exactly what it is that he believes).

Slide06This is enough for the two of them, and they run back to their homes. They do not wait to see what has really happened, they do not try to gather more evidence, or to care for Mary. It seems that their mourning is a sort of selfish grief. As a child too young to understand the scope of grief and loss, they are concerned with simply how the death will affect them in their own individual lives. Things are changed, and that is what upsets them, but the tomb doesn’t hold any more answers than they were able to find at home.

This is not enough, however, for Mary. She still does not have any answers, and now she has lost her support as well. She breaks into tears, overcome by the compounding losses. She looks towards the tomb and there sees two angels sitting where Jesus’ body would have been.

Slide07I imagine that this scene would be shocking: two angelic figures, appearing out of thin air; two figures framing where Jesus had laid. I wonder if Mary knew they were angels. Were her watery eyes blurring her vision? Or maybe she thought they were merely others at the tomb to pay respect, mourn, or indulge their curiosity. Whatever the situation, Mary does not react to their appearance in our text, but the angels react to her.

Slide 8 - Mary Crying“Why are you crying?” they ask. I can see Mary getting frustrated at this. She was at a tomb after all. If one cannot cry there without having to explain it, where can you cry? I can see her nearly yelling her response back at them in between sobs. “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

Some have translated the Greek phrase in this text “τον κυριον,” which I have read as “my Lord” as “my husband.” Though there’s ambiguity in translation whether her relationship is read as something authoritative like “lord,” or “master,” or temporal and intimate like “husband, “ what is important here is the closeness she felt towards him. Jesus was likely the man to whom Mary was closest. He helped her make sense of the world, and accepted her just as she was. She lived her life in the context of his, not out of obligation, but out of devotion. To see such a man die, and not only just die, but to be crucified had to evoke the deepest kind of grief.

Slide09It is in this moment of overwhelming grief that Mary turns around, away from the tomb. Maybe she too, like the disciples would’ve broken into a run and left this place of sorrow, which, as the dark morning turned to day, was quickly becoming crowded by others who did not, could not, understand the depth of her pain, but there was someone standing in her way.

SLIDE 10 - Mary and JesusIt’s a man. We, the readers know that this man is Jesus. The gospel writer tells us this plainly. Mary however, is unable to see this at first. To her, he is simply another person who disrupts her. She assumes him to be the gardener, and he too frustrates her with his questioning, mirroring the angels’ questioning, “why are you crying? Whom are you looking for?”

Slide11I can see her, at this point quite visibly upset, still wiping tears away with her now deeply tear-stained clothing. The dawn has come, the city is now likely abuzz with the gossip of the weekend’s events as people make their way to the Sabbath worship. Most everyone else walking about on this morning has dressed in their best clothing, washed, and prepared for the day. They may have felt some ripple effect of the crucifixion, but that doesn’t stop them from carrying on with their Sabbath routine.

In the midst of this morning, this Jerusalem, Mary is mess. Perhaps this is why she is unable to recognize the man she knew so closely. He is separate from her experience. He is put together. He is composed. How could he have anything to do with her situation? To her, he is just another suspect. She pleads with him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

Christ and Mary Magdalene by Albert Edelfelt 1890“Mary,” Jesus says. “Mary,” not “here I am,” not “why could you accuse me?” not “silly woman.” “Mary,” Jesus says. This, she finally understands. I can see her eyes light up, her shoulders relax, and she cries, “Rabbouni!”

I can see her now wanting to collapse into his arms, and Jesus anticipates this too, saying, “Do not cling to me.” It’s hard to imagine her not being hurt by this command. Do not cling to me? Here is a man whom shared much with, whom she thought was dead, now alive in front of her, but yet she cannot be close to him. The relationship has changed. It is still intimate, to be sure, for after all Mary is the first of all of Jesus’ followers to see him in this state and it is intimate as well that he calls her by name, but, still, there is a new distance here.

Instead of enveloping her grief in his embrace, he directs her outwards. Out of the graveyard, out of her grief, to go to tell the disciples that he is ascending to God the Father. And what’s is truly surprising, she goes. The text gives us no sign of any hesitation, there’s no further dialogue between the two. She simply goes. She tells the disciples what she’s heard and seen and all of history is forever changed as a result of it.

This is what shows us the selflessness of her grief. If her tears were for her own loss, she would still be crying, for Jesus’ reappearance at the tomb does not mean a return to life as it was. She will never be close to Jesus in the same way again, but that doesn’t seem to bother her. The loss of her relationship with this man is not what matters to her. What matters to her is that in returning to life, Jesus has made real the promise of resurrection. What was once the theme of many confusing parables is now a lived reality. It is in this, Mary is brought from deep grief to deep joyous peace.

SLIDE 13 - Flower at TombNow take a moment to think. Where would you be in the scene? Are you Simon Peter: running to and fro, curiously searching for tangible evidence of what really happened at the tomb? Are you the “beloved disciple”: wary of the tomb, confused by the loss, but believing still? Are you a citizen of Jerusalem: intrigued by the gossip, the scandal of Jesus’ crucifixion, but not sure that it has anything really to do with you? Or are you Mary: deeply grieved at the loss of this intimate companion but propelled into the world by the greater news that the tomb cannot contain the Christ?

On this Easter Sunday, I invite you to take a place in the scene with the resurrected Christ. Maybe your place isn’t as close, or as passionate, as you would like it to be. Maybe you’re still standing nervously outside the tomb. Maybe you want simply to run in the opposite direction of all the crucifixion drama. Wherever your place, I pray that you may be close enough to hear and bold enough to listen to Jesus speaking your name as well. We’re all invited to know the joy of our Christ resurrected and to speak that joy into the world. Amen.

“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

The Lasting Gift of Liturgy and Art

Yesterday I led a time of devotion at West Village, a local nursing care facility in nearby Independence, IA. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect because this was my first time doing this within this context. While I have lead worship at both The Hermitage in Richmond, VA and Swan Creek in Toledo, OH, this was rather different. The services at the Hermitage and Swan Creek were structured like a Sunday morning worship service, with sung hymns, liturgy, and a sermon. I knew my role in that sort of arrangement and was comfortable preaching from those pulpits.

Here in Buchanan county, members of the ministerial association take turns leading a time of devotion in several different facilities in the area. I spoke with the coordinator and asked her what a typical devotion time at these facilities looks like. She said that there’s usually some a capella singing, a prayer, a story read, and some scripture, but that the aim of the time is really to give the residents some personal attention.

So, I looked through my trusty Presbyterian Hymnal, decided to bring along my copy of “All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” to read one of my favorite (slightly autumn themed) stories, brought a great booklet of prayers and scripture from Westminister Canterbury (Richmond, VA) and decided somewhat last minute that maybe I’d bring along my “I Believe” book just in case it would come in handy.

Yesterday morning, when I got to West Village I saw that this devotion time wasn’t in a chapel setting like at Swan Creek or the Hermitage, rather about 8-10 residents were gathered in a small activities room in a semi-circle. A woman working at West Village introduced me to each resident and then stepped out of the room. More than half of the assembled group were asleep and those who were awake seemed confused.

Thanks to some great seminary professors and lots of time spent at Swan Creek, I know that one of the most important tools in engaging people with issues with memory and cognition, is to utilize well known songs and liturgy. When experience becomes foggy, recalling common liturgy can become a light of something familiar and comfortable.

So, I began the session with prayer and then started with “Amazing Grace.” Some people looked up for the song and smiled, one woman sang with me. After another song, and a reading from Romans, I read to them one of my favorite stories from “All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” which you can read at the bottom of this post. Next we prayed the “Serenity Prayer,” and the same woman as before joined in with me on the prayer.

But the best part of this service came next.

Wanting to engage this place of memory and comfort, I decided to read from “I Believe.” The text of this book is simply the words of the Nicene Creed, but it is set up similarly to a children’s book, with few words on each page, and illustrations throughout. The illustrations are done by Pauline Baynes, probably best known for her illustrations in the Chronicles of Narnia books. She published this book in 2003, five years before her death. She was 81 when she completed the book, likely the same age as many of the people I was sharing this book with yesterday. I have no doubt she knew the timelessness of the words of the Nicene Creed, and the impact of Christian symbology in art.

As I read the book, I would read a page and then walk around and show the pictures to the residents, one by one, talking through some of the images of each page. The illustrations are quite detailed, so there was always something more to discuss. Gradually, each resident woke up, and would engage with the book when I came by.

One woman pointed at the book to an illustration of the Nativity and said quietly and firmly, “Jesus, that’s Jesus!” When I came by with a picture of Jesus on the cross, she said it again. And then when the next picture showed Jesus climbing out of the tomb and then surrounded by light, she giggled and said “That’s Jesus!”

Another woman would simply press her finger to the page and then look up at me. When it was a picture of someone preaching she pointed to me. When it was a picture of doves moving out and towards a man and I talked about the picture symbolizing the Holy Spirit speaking to us and through us, she pointed to several of the birds and then pointed to herself.

What an amazing act of worship. Through the haze, the stories of Jesus and an acknowledgement of the Holy Spirit were able to speak hope and truth to this small gathered congregation.

I individually thanked each resident for coming and one woman held on to my hand, looked me in the eye and said, “I love you.” And I told her, “I love you too and God loves you.” She smiled widely.

As the hymn says, “Surely the presence of the Lord was in that place.”

_______________________________

 

As promised, here is my favorite “All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” story:

In the early dry dark of an October’s Saturday evening, the neighborhood children are playing hide-and-seek. How long since I played hide-and-seek? Thirty years; maybe more. I remember how. I could become part of the game in a moment, if invited. Adults don’t play hide-and-seek. Not for fun, anyway. Too bad.
Did you have a kid in your neighborhood who always hid so good, nobody could find him? We did. After a while we would give up on him and go off, leaving him to rot wherever he was. Sooner or later he would show up, all mad because we didn’t keep looking for him. And we would get mad back because he wasn’t playing the game the way it was supposed to be played. There’s hiding and there’s finding, we’d say. And he’d say it was hide-and-seek, not hide-and-give-UP, and we’d all yell about who made the rules and who cared about who, anyway, and how we wouldn’t play with him anymore if he didn’t get it straight and who needed him anyhow, and things like that. Hide-and-seek-and-yell. No matter what, though, the next time he would hide to good again. He’s probably still hidden somewhere, for all I know.
As I write this, the neighborhood game goes on, and there’s a kid under a pile of leaves in the yard just under my window. He has been there a long time now, and everybody else is found and they are about to give up on him over at the base. I considered going out to the base and telling them where he is hiding. And I thought about setting the leaves on fire to drive him out. Finally, I just yelled, “GET FOUND, KID!” out the window. And scared him so bad he probably wet his pants and started crying and ran home to tell his mother. It’s real hard to know how to be helpful sometimes.
A man I know found last year he had terminal cancer. He was a doctor. And knew about dying, and didn’t want to make his family and friends suffer through that with him. So he kept his secret. And died. Everybody said how brave he was to bear his suffering in silence and not tell everybody, and so on and so forth. But privately his family and friends said how angry they were that he didn’t need them, didn’t trust their strength. And it hurt that he didn’t say good-bye.
He hid too well. Getting found would have kept him in the game. Hide-and-seek, grown-up style. Wanting to hide. Needing to be sought. Confused about being found. “I don’t want anyone to know.” “What will people think?” “I don’t want to bother anyone.”
Better than hide-and-seek, I like the game called Sardines. In Sardines the person who is It goes and hides, and everybody goes looking for him. When you find him, you get in with him and hide there with him. Pretty soon everybody is hiding together, all stacked in a small space like puppies in a pile. And pretty soon somebody gets giggles and somebody laughs and everybody gets found. Medieval thelogians even described God in hide-and-seek terms, calling him Deus Absconditus. But me, I think old God is a Sardine player. And will be found the same way everybody gets found in Sardines – by the sound of laughter of those heaped together at the end.
“Olly-olly-oxen-free.” The kids out in the street are hollering the cry that says “Come on in, wherever you are. It’s a new game.” And so say I. To all those who have hid too good. Get found, kid! Olly-olly-oxen-free.

An excerpt from “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” by Robert Fulghum