Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter - We Are Resurrection People!

That's a recurring theme in my sermons, that and the al-fedjr, the twilight before dawn. Fitting touch-points on this Easter, wouldn't you say?

Jeremiah 31:1-6
At that time, says the LORD, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people.
Thus says the LORD: The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness;
when Israel sought for rest, the LORD appeared to him from far away.
I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.
Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel!
Again you shall take your tambourines, and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.
Again you shall plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria;
the planters shall plant, and shall enjoy the fruit.
For there shall be a day when sentinels will call in the hill country of Ephraim:
“Come, let us go up to Zion, to the LORD our God.”

Colossians 3:1-4
So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

John 20:1-18
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.‘” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

This is the Word of the Lord.

How easily we say the words, “Christ is risen.” How simple it is to acknowledge that the tomb is empty, that the Lord has conquered death, hell, and the grave, that we serve a risen Lord. Easy, because, all too often, it’s just words, isn’t it? We are Resurrection people, after all. We live in this reality, the reality that says Jesus “is,” not Jesus “was.” We are Resurrection people. We associate springtime with resurrection because it’s an integral part of our vocabulary.

We forget, all too easily, that there was a time when, as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “only place springtime happen[ed]… [was] on the graves, not in them.”

Mary Magdalene wasn’t going to the tomb that morning to check the status of the body. She was going to the tomb because she was grieving. This was the place where she could get closest to the one person who had looked on her as if she were human, as if she were valuable, as if she, a woman, were equal. At least there, in the twilight before dawn, she could be close to him again, just on the other side of a stone, close enough to touch, really. It wasn’t much, but it was something.

Do you see how it was? No one was thinking about Resurrection, not because of a lack of faith or because Jesus hadn’t told them again and again, but because it made no sense, it was dancing to architecture, it was painting with math, completely beyond comprehension.

Jesus was dead. End of story. All those years, all those miles traveled, the stories and parables and healings and dangers and triumphs and evenings in a group around a fire, everything, all of it, gone.

So Mary Magdalene walked toward the tomb in the darkness. But it wouldn’t be dark for long.

Oh, it wasn’t like someone turned on the floodlights and everyone instantly understood it, of course not. No one got it, not completely, for a long time. In Matthew’s Gospel, right before the verses we call the “Great Commission,” the disciples are in Galilee, on a mountain, and Jesus appears to them, right there, as real and present as this pulpit or that pew, and still we read, “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” This is very likely long after all of the events the other Gospels fill in for us between the Resurrection and the Ascension. Well after they’d broken bread with Jesus. Long after Thomas had been invited to touch the wounds in Christ’s hands and side.

Is it any surprise that, when Mary Magdalene topped that hill and saw, as the sky slowly began its metamorphosis from darkness to dawn, that the stone was rolled away, that her first thought was not Resurrection but robbery?

Sure, Peter and John ran to the tomb, but it wasn’t to confirm that Christ had risen, was it? It was to try and figure out who had stolen the body and where they’d taken it. We’re told that John believed, but we don’t know what, exactly, he believed.

How easily we say the words, “Christ is risen.” How simple it is to acknowledge that the tomb is empty, that the Lord has conquered death, hell, and the grave, that we serve a risen Lord.

John and Peter have gone, “returned to their homes,” whatever that means, and Mary Magdalene is left alone, weeping, so brokenhearted at the double loss, not only of her beloved teacher’s life, but even of his body, that the appearance of angels at the tomb doesn’t even faze her! Of course she doesn’t recognize Jesus at first, standing right there in front of her! Jesus is dead, and someone has stolen his body. Someone has taken everything, literally everything, away from her!

What does it really mean to be Resurrection people?

Could it be that one instant – that moment when Jesus says, “Mary,” and she realizes – she knows – she finally understands? That burst of joy, that rush of raw, jaw-dropping excitement that drives her to embrace Jesus, even when such a thing is unheard of, that consummation of a hope she didn’t even realize she harbored?

I think it’s odd that the last time we hear from, or about, Mary Magdalene is when she goes to the disciples and tells them that she has seen Jesus, and relays what He told her to say. The disciples have their own Resurrection experience, of course, and their lives are changed by the inflowing Holy Spirit. The great Good News of God-With-Us, risen and triumphant, bursts upon the scene and never stops sprinting. But it is Peter, James and John, the other Apostles, and later Paul, who spur the horses, not Mary.

I don’t know the answer, but I have suspicions.

We are Resurrection people, but we live in a place that, all too often, feels much more like that dark path through the cemetery than anything else.

How easily we say the words, “Christ is risen.” How simple it is to acknowledge that the tomb is empty, that the Lord has conquered death, hell, and the grave, that we serve a risen Lord. And how hard it is to make those words more than just that – words.

We celebrate the Lord’s Supper this morning, in part because it serves as a point of reference, a reminder of the fact that, and I am quoting Romans 5:8, “…God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Perhaps the purpose of us leaving Mary Magdalene there, bursting with excitement, stumbling over her words with joy as she tells the disciples that Christ really is alive, is that, in a way, she serves as another point of reference: a reminder that we live in what the Arabic-speaking people call “al-fedjr,” the twilight that is just before the dawn.

Mary Magdalene is perhaps a reminder that we really are Resurrection people, and someday the dawn will break. Someday we, too, will turn in awestruck excitement, and see the Risen Lord, and he will call us, too, by name.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Palm Sunday: The Agenda

Thanks to Kathryn Matthews Huey for her guidance and the especially helpful quote from Marcus Borg.

Matthew 21:1-11
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
“Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Isaiah 50:4-9a
The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens — wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward.
I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.
The Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me.
It is the Lord GOD who helps me; who will declare me guilty?

Philippians 2:5-11
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

This is the Word of the Lord.

I don’t think you could have fit another person into Jerusalem with a shoehorn that day. Passover was in full swing, after all, and people had come from all over the known word to bring their sacrifices to the Temple, to eat the Seder meal together, to remember the night, fifteen hundred years ago, when the angel of death passed over the Children of Israel, striking terror into the very souls of the Egyptians, clearing the way for their freedom.

Freedom was very much on everybody’s mind, make no mistake. For seven hundred years, one foreign power or another had controlled Judea. Not since Zedekiah had Israel had its own ruler, and many felt it was high time to overthrow the Romans and take back their country.

So when the rumors started flying around, saying that Jesus of Nazareth was on his way to Jerusalem, you remember, he was that prophet who had opened the tomb of a man dead for four days, and had raised him? Well, naturally they went to get a glimpse of him, to perhaps be witness to the next King of Israel coming in to claim his throne.

Now, they weren’t the only ones craning their necks to watch for Jesus to top the hill from Bethany. Plenty of people had heard about Lazarus, and had heard about how this Jesus fellow had opened the eyes of a man born blind, and had heard about how he fed thousands and thousands of people with just a few barley loaves and fish. Maybe they’d see him do something interesting, maybe he’d say something entertaining.

I guess it all started like these things usually do. Someone in the crowd started waving a palm branch and shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David!” as Jesus and his band of disciples crested the hill.

Now, what they expected to see, I can’t tell you. Perhaps the people looking for entertainment expected him to come prancing over the hill, turning water into wine, and passing out sandwiches. Perhaps the people hoping to overthrow Roman rule once and for all were looking for a rider on an armored steed, bloody sword drawn, leading a mighty army into the city to take his throne by force.

What they saw was a man, on a saddle of cloaks, riding a donkey, its colt not far behind.

Some were let down, no doubt. But many remembered the words of the prophet Zecheriah: “Rejoice, O people of Zion! Shout in triumph, O people of Jerusalem! Look, your king is coming to you. He is righteous and victorious, yet he is humble, riding on a donkey—riding on a donkey’s colt.”

And shout they did! The “Hosannas” grew to a crescendo, and people began cutting palm branches off of trees, throwing them on the road in Jesus’ path. Others even put their cloaks down, so the royal donkey’s feet wouldn’t touch the dirt. It was amazing to see, a joy to be in the midst of!

But how soon the words that crowd shouted would change!

We’ve been talking for a few weeks now about the ways in which different people misunderstood Jesus. Nicodemus misunderstood Jesus when he spoke of being born from above. The woman at the well misunderstood Jesus when he spoke of living water. The people who followed Jesus for the free food and entertainment value, as well as those who expected Jesus to overthrow the Roman government and establish an eternal earthly kingdom misunderstood Jesus as well.

And it’s a misunderstanding which persists to this day.

Today, one week before Easter, we celebrate Palm Sunday in the life of the church. Many churches, including, in the past, ours, combine this day into Palm/Passion Sunday, taking care to balance the celebration of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem with the horror of the Crucifixion. The thought behind this move was that, unless people were careful to attend Holy Week services like Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, they would go from the triumph of Palm Sunday to the triumph of Easter without experiencing the darkness and pain in between.

It’s a valid argument. Especially for Western Christianity, we seem to spend far too much time acting like those people outside of Jerusalem, hoping for free food or entertainment from Jesus. All too often we treat God like a loving but slightly forgetful grandfather, or a heavenly vending machine. We pray most attentively when we need something, and judge our faith and the faith of others by how prosperous we are.

And especially for Western Christianity, we seem to spend far too much time acting like those people outside of Jerusalem, hoping to see Jesus riding on a war horse, hip deep in blood, slaughtering the oppressive Romans and claiming his rightful throne. We think that God agrees with our politics, supports our country over any other, and especially likes the same football team we do.

But Jesus’ triumphal entry wasn’t prancing before the crowds, providing bread and circuses. He was silent as he rode in.

And Jesus didn’t ride a warhorse. He rode a donkey, a symbol of peace.

The thing about Jesus was that he was so in love with the Father, so committed to being completely invested in the will of God and about the work of God, and that made him so radically different from any other person who had ever walked the planet, that, invariably, Jesus did the unexpected.

He didn’t waste his time on an earthly kingdom, because that would have been nothing more than regime change. His agenda, God’s agenda, was justice – both that the poor, the sick, the forgotten and the despised would be recognized, healed, and brought in to community, and that God’s ultimate justice, the reconciliation of humankind to God, would be accomplished through the cross.

Perhaps we do run a risk with going from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday without including a Maundy Thursday or a Good Friday. By the same token, without Maundy Thursday or Good Friday, there would be no Easter in the first place, would there?

You know, with the words Jesus was saying, the miracles he was doing, the attention he was drawing, well, even if his agenda hadn’t included being the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” his execution was inevitable. And make no mistake, Jesus did not merely die for us, he was executed, killed by a ruthless society using the most horrifying of methods. You see, this king who enters Jerusalem riding a donkey represents something more frightening to the Roman authorities than a thousand legions of enemy soldiers: He represents hope. And because the Temple elite served (and prospered) at the whim of the local Roman leadership, Jesus represented to them something more horrifying than a pig on the altar: the dissolution of the status quo.

It’s no secret that Jesus turned the tables on the halls of power and upset the status quo. Marcus Borg says that by laying down his own life, Jesus denied “the temple's claim to have a monopoly on forgiveness and access to God....God in Jesus has already provided the sacrifice and has thus taken care of whatever you think separates you from God.”

Borg concludes that the death of Jesus, then, is “a metaphor of radical grace.”

This radical grace that God gives, this wildly extravagant love that God has, this egregious infatuation with mankind that God shows is sealed and made sure by the Resurrection.

Christ, our Passover, is sacrificed for us. How, then, shall we respond?

The only possible response is to, as the Apostle Paul writes in the Letter to the Philippians, “Let the same mind be in [us] as was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, emptied himself…” – the NIV translates that phrase as, “…he made himself nothing…” Our agendas, our enrollment of God into our own passions and ideals, our co-opting of God into our plans and as a member of our particular political party, all of this must be laid aside in the stark light of God’s abundant, unfathomable love.

Christ, our Passover, is sacrificed for us. Will we respond?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Lazarus, come out!

It's kind of frustrating, being given such a wonderful smorgasbord of readings all on one Sunday. I could feast for weeks on the Gospel reading alone.

Truth be told, my friend the Rev. Daniel Hayward, a minister in the United Church of Canada, let me read his sermon, and gifted me with the lynchpin for the sermon. Like Rev. Gene Anderson says, "Borrowing for a sermon is like playing the blues, it ain't stealing if can play the lick well." It also helps to have permission...

Ezekiel 37:1-14
The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD.”
So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act,” says the LORD.

Romans 8:6-11
To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law — indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

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

This is the Word of the Lord.

Misunderstanding. It was part of the conversation that Jesus had with Nicodemus, who mistook being “born from above” with being “born again” from his mother’s womb. Misunderstanding was part of the conversation with the woman at the well, who mistook “living water” for naturally flowing water. And misunderstanding is a feature of today’s reading as well – not just that the disciples misunderstood Jesus when he spoke of Lazarus being asleep; not just that Martha misunderstood Jesus when he spoke of Lazarus rising again, but our own misunderstanding of what these verses really mean to Christians, and to the world in general, today. Because, make no mistake: what Jesus says here, and what Jesus does here, changes everything.

First, some background: in the verses preceding today’s reading, Jesus has been in Jerusalem during Hanukah, and the Jewish leaders who opposed him demanded that he tell them, once and for all, whether or not he was the Messiah.
When he said to them, “I and the Father are one,” they tried to stone him! Kill him! Right there in the Temple courts!

Jesus had been causing trouble, you see. Causing trouble simply by talking. Simply by healing. Simply by being alive. So he retreated, with his disciples, across the Jordan, out of sight and, hopefully, out of mind of those who would see him dead.

And now, with mortal danger like storm clouds hanging over Jerusalem, he went to Bethany, just two miles away. Why? Couldn’t Jesus have healed Lazarus days ago, from right where he was, with a word? He’d done it before! Why wait until he’s dead, and four days dead at that? Why put himself, and his disciples, in peril now, when Lazarus is in the tomb, when the mourners are gathered, when nothing more can be done?

I don’t presume to know all the answers about this passage. It is even more complex than the passage about the woman at the well, and I’ve already said that I could make a sermon series out of that one.

But I want to suggest that part of the answer, maybe a glimpse at the “why” of Jesus coming to such a dangerous place, at a time when it seemed like all hope was lost, is found in what he says to Martha when she misunderstands him.

The two of them are standing there, outside the village gates. The disciples are standing a respectful distance away, yet watchful - eyes darting nervously around, remembering the terror of the angry mob, stones in hand, struggling to lay their hands on Jesus in the temple.

Jesus says Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha, traditionally the more practical, rational of the two sisters, nods, raising her head, daring to look directly at Jesus through tearstained eyes. “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

While that’s true, there’s something more Jesus wants her to understand. They lock eyes, and for a long moment the only sound is the blowing breeze. Then Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live! And everyone who lives and believes in me will never die!”

Silence, again. The rustling breeze, the nervous shuffle of disciples' feet.

Martha absorbs these words, and Jesus begins to see the glimmer of comprehension in Martha’s eyes, the look of grief giving way to confusion, then wonder, then understanding… Finally, he asks: “Do you believe this?”

Notice how Martha responds. She doesn’t say “Yes, I believe you can raise my brother from the dead.” No, her response is more a statement of faith, an acknowledgement of a truth she can’t even begin to comprehend. “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

Jesus spoke, and Martha heard.

For time's sake this morning we must fast-forward, to that hillside cave, that tomb sealed with a boulder.

Martha had said, " are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world."

It’s not just some itinerant Rabbi who stands there in the graveyard, surrounded by perplexed mourners. It’s not some two-bit magician who calls for the stone to be rolled away. That’s no mere prophet who raises his voice in prayer as the crowd covers their noses and steps back in revulsion as the tomb is laid open.

It is the Christ, the Messiah of God, who calls out to Lazarus. God’s only Son speaks those words! God made flesh, God-With-Us, Jesus cries in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”

Jesus spoke, and Lazarus heard!

From this point forward, there was no denying who Jesus really was. Healing the sick? Impressive, but prophets had done that kind of thing on occasion. Hadn’t Elijah raised a boy from the dead? But Elijah’s guy was pretty recently deceased, and everyone believed in those days that the soul stayed near the body for three days after dying, so maybe it wasn’t resurrection as much as resuscitation.

But this? These mourners had seen the cold, lifeless body of Lazarus, wrapped tightly in burial linens, placed in the tomb. They had seen the door sealed. They had sat with Mary and Martha, mourning in the proper way, and each and every one of them knew that this was no sleight-of-hand, no mistake, no embarrassing miscalculation on the part of some doctor.

Jesus spoke, and Lazarus heard. Lazarus, who was dead, was alive.

Some believed. Others ran the two miles to the Temple and reported what they’d seen, and the push to wipe Jesus off the face of the earth once and for all went in to high gear.

Because as much as Jesus had spoken to the Temple rulers and the Pharisees, as many proofs as he had offered… as many times as he had called them to come out of their tombs of privilege and power and wealth and fame, as often as he had implored them to be loosed from their graveclothes of religious superiority and doctrinal self-righteousness… they had not heard.

When I spoke at the outset about how we tend to misunderstand what Jesus is really saying in this passage, what I mean is that we tend to stop short of the whole message. This is a passage we hear a lot of times at funerals, for good reason. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Christ, though he died, arose triumphant from the grave and lives forevermore, and in the words of the Apostle Paul, “will come down from heaven, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ shall rise…”

This is true, make no mistake. But there’s so much more. You see, when Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life,” he isn’t just talking about the Final Resurrection and eternal life, the glorious dawn that awaits us when this twilight ends, as wonderful as that is.

I submit to you that when Jesus said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life,” he was, in effect, echoing God's words through the prophet Ezekiel: "I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people!"

Jesus meant resurrection and life in the here and now! Not just a glorious, assured resurrection from physical death, but a resurrection from living as if we are dead. Living in sin, lost to all that is worth calling “life.”

When we live selfishly, as if we are dead to the needs of others, Jesus calls to us, “come out.”

Will we hear?

When we live with insensitivity, as if we are dead to the feelings of others, Jesus calls to us, “come out.”

Will we hear?

When we live with hopelessness, spiritually dead, Jesus calls to us, “come out.”

Will we hear?

Jesus calls us to come out and be loosed from our own graveclothes of selfishness and insensitivity and greed and despair, to be set free to live true lives here and now.

Will we hear?

Jesus, who is the resurrection, and who is the life, calls on us today: “come out!”

Will we hear?

Will we live?

Monday, April 4, 2011

Guest Sermon: This is MY Story!

This past Sunday, the congregation at Fairfield Highlands Presbyterian Church was blessed by the ministry and preaching of the Reverend Doctor Margaret Aymer.

Rev. Dr. Aymer is Associate Professor of New Testament at Interdenominational Theological Seminary, and has a special interest in biblical hermeneutics, particularly how African diasporic communities signify the Bible as “scripture.” Some of her most significant publications are “Teaching Christians to ‘Read’: Theological Education and the Church”; “Empire, Alter-empire and the Twenty-first Century”; First Pure, Then Peaceable: Frederick Douglass Reads James; and the 2010 Horizons Magazine Bible study, Confessing the Beatitudes (Presbyterian Women, Inc., 2011)

More than that, Margaret is a dear friend whose life is a witness for Christ. I hope you enjoy the sermon as much as we all did!

Jesus was a sinner. Let’s just start there. Oh, I know you modern people believe he was the Son of God, eternal begotten of the Father and all that. Hey, so do I. But this is my story, and if you want to understand my story, you first have to get this. To an observant, holy, religious, Bible-believing person—and you gotta remember, everyone in this story is supposed to be an observant, holy, religious, Bible-believing person—to a holy roller like that, Jesus was a sinner.

This is my story. I’m the one they used to call “the one who sits and begs.” No one ever knew my name...and I guess that’s all right. It’s not important anyway. Besides, I wasn’t important enough to have a name, not a blind beggar like me. Blindness! What a burden in a society where there was no Braille, no guide-dogs, and very little work that didn’t demand the use of your eyes. My parents took me to doctor after doctor, but who had ever heard of curing a kid that was born blind. Blind, I tell you. So what was I supposed to do? I had no job. I had no rich in-laws. Who’s going to marry off their daughter to a blind man with no prospects? I had no future. None. So I became the one who sits and name, no status, no-body. Okay, okay—I know God never made a “nobody,” but this is my story.

So this guy comes along, and next thing I know he’s smearing something warm and sticky over my eyelids and telling me to go wash myself in Siloam. Hey. What else have I got to do today? I’m a beggar. At least it’ll break the monotony and I’ll have a story to tell Bartimaeus the next time I see him... I mean the next time I BUMP INTO him. Literally. So, I go, I wash, and it’s the strangest thing. It’s like... how do I describe it... it’s like the first time you know, really know, who you are and that God loves you exactly that way; it’s like the first time you hold the hand of the one you love, the first time you kiss; it’s like the first time a baby sees a bubble, or the first cardinal of spring. I COULD SEE. See! And the strangest words kept echoing in my ears: I am, I am, I am...

Anyway, let me go on. As you can imagine, the neighbors were confused. They didn’t recognize me, because I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing—sitting and begging. People don’t like change; it upsets their little universes. Oh, I’m sure you love change, don’t you? I mean it doesn’t upset you at all, and you deal with it gracefully. Well, you are saints, the lot of you. But this is my story. My neighbors? Not so graceful. Poking at me, looking me up and down, and talking about me as if I wasn’t even there. “Nah, that ain’t him.” “Of course it’s him.” “Couldn’t be. He’s been blind since he was born.” “I’m telling you, it’s the same guy.” On and on. And the I am, I am, I am, bubbled up from inside myself until I was saying it out loud. “What was I saying?” I wondered, and forced myself to stop. But the echo persisted inside me like a heartbeat: I am, I am, I am.

Well, I caused an Oprah Winfrey-sized media frenzy in my little town, let me tell you. They took me for a Sabbath-approved short walk to a house where some Pharisees stayed. Pharisees. Got to love ‘em. They really, really, really want to be right. They really, really, really want to be holy. They really, really, really want God to love them best. So they try really, really, really hard to be super holy, religious, Bible-believing, observant people! In fact, they try really, really, really hard to make EVERYBODY super holy, religious, Bible-believing, observant people!

See, you Christians, you’re lucky. Now that you know that you can’t earn grace, or forgiveness or the mercy of God, now that you have stopped sacrificing lambs because you gave only eight percent of your oregano to the priest, instead of a full 10 percent, I’m sure you don’t have any really, really, really super holy, religious Bible-believing, observant Christians, right?

Anyway, they took me to the Pharisees. And the Pharisees were...well...disturbed. I mean, they were happy for me, all right. The healing thing was PHENOMENAL. And they were thrilled that I would now become a sacrificing, tithing full-member of the believing community. But the problem was the timing. I mean, it was Sabbath after all.

Look, I don’t think you get it, so I looked it up in one of your modern English translations. Sex, sexual and intercourse—three words you modern folk use an AWFUL LOT—only occur 30 times in the New Revised Standard Version. Sabbath? Try ONE HUNDRED NINETY TIMES! Sabbath is over six times more important than who lies with whom.

Seriously, if Jesus had broken the “sex” laws, come on. Who cares? Abraham, Job’s daughters, David, Ruth, I hear even world leaders like the sex laws. But Jesus broke Shabbat! Not even a marginally holy, religious, Bible-believing, observant person broke Shabbat in THOSE day. OY! So, can you blame them for being a little upset? I mean, in their world, Jesus was a sinner.

But, you see, this is my story; so when they asked me, I told them. I told them and their friends from Judea. Look, I’m not a theologian. I’m not a biblical scholar. I’ve been blind all of my life, so NO I can’t read the Torah. I’ll take your word for it about this Shabbat thing and all, But I gotta tell you—I think this guy’s a prophet or something. Look, don’t get your knickers in a knot. I’m not challenging your authority and I don’t want your job. I don’t have to go to your synagogue—you never let me in there before. But, you gotta admit: only God could have done what was done to me. So you see, I don’t know if he’s a sinner, and I don’t really care. Because this is my story. This morning, like every morning for the last 25 years, I woke up on the street, reached for my beggars’ bowl, and started to beg for alms just like every other day. Then this guy smeared some stuff on my eyes and told me to wash. And I got to tell you, I was blind, but now I see. I was blind, but now I see. I was blind but NOW...

And they kicked me out. Super holy, religious, Bible-believing, observant folks don’t like it when you tell them your experience is more important than their Bible. Of course you Presbyterians know that, don’t you; that why your leaders take vows to uphold scripture as an authoritative witness—along with revelation, and not as some perfect book without any mistakes at all written by the holy hand of Moses direct from haShem, blessed be.

So, anyway, they kicked me out. And he comes along. And that “I am, I am, I am..” started getting louder and louder. And he looks at me, and I see him—I don’t just see him, I see him—I get it. He’s I am. He’s the way. He’s the truth. He’s the life. He’s the vine. He’s the bread. He’s the one who opens the door to whosoever believes. I get it. So he asks me: do you believe in the son of Man. And I say, yes, I believe. I believe because when I’m with him I see, not only the real, mundane things that I used to bump into before. When I’m with him, I see the God who loves me. When I’m with him I see the Spirit that gives me the power to do love and justice in the world. When I’m with him I see the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.

I bet you know what I mean, don’t you? I bet when you’re with him, you feel a love greater than the love in this room on a Sunday morning. I bet that when you’re ordained by him as elders and deacons and baptized members of the household God, sent to do his ministry in this world, you get, you really, really, really get that God so loves you. I bet, when you worship him you see his face in those who lay down their lives for each other, for this church, for this community every single day. You do, don’t you?

So I bet it wouldn’t matter to you if other people called you sinners, would it? I mean, some people could call you sinners just for having me up in your pulpit, couldn’t they? Some people could call you sinners for mixing the races, or ordaining women. Some people could even call you sinners for using the “wrong” translation of the Bible. Well, it could happen. Like I said, it probably won’t now that most of you are Christians in this country. You see, you Christians have got it made, what with all of that grace, mercy, and forgiveness that you preach about.

But, here’s a tip, from one who knows. In case someone should ever call you a sinner—someone who really, really, really wants God to love them best—you just tell them this. I don’t know if I’m a sinner or if I’m not. But I know this much. They used to call Jesus a sinner, cause he didn’t always do what the Bible said do. And you know what, once I was blind, once I was afraid, once I hated myself, once I was lonely, once I was scared, once I was the one who used to sit and beg, but now, through amazing grace, now I see. This is my story.