Monday: Saying Goodbye to Lazarus

I wonder what Jesus was thinking as he ate dinner at his friends’ house in Bethany tonight.

By candlelight he shares simple food with Mary, Martha and Lazarus, this set of siblings who love him so dearly and so differently from each other.

Mary, with her extravagant gestures and adoring heart.

Martha, whose love is made of duty and service but is fierce and bright nonetheless.

And Lazarus, quiet and steady, a man who does his job and cares for his sisters, but got sick one day when Jesus was out traveling and preaching.

Jesus and Lazarus never got to say goodbye to each other when Lazarus was dying.

They never had a conversation about whether Jesus was the Son of God.

They were just friends.

Lazarus and Jesus loved each other without having to say it, and Lazarus lay on his death bed knowing Jesus would make sure his sisters were taken care of when he died, and feeling sad he wouldn’t get to see his friend one more time.

Lazarus, a regular guy who loved his sisters and his friend, who got sick and died, and then came back from the dead because he believed.

They’re back in the same situation again. Continue reading

Less Than a Week to Live

Note: This sermon was originally published on Sermons That Work.

What does it feel like to have less than a week to live?

That’s the situation in which Jesus finds himself when he makes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

The crowds don’t know what’s coming.

The disciples have been given hints and even outright declarations from Jesus that the Son of Man will be betrayed into the hands of sinners and killed, but like all of us who know our loved ones will die someday, we shy away from actually imagining what it will be like or admitting that it could happen at any moment.

To the disciples and the crowds, this is a moment of incredible potential and excitement. They have seen the miracles Jesus is capable of, who knows what that power might do if they could convince him to turn it against Rome? And his making such a bold entry into the heart of the Romans’ stolen power surely bodes well for that project.

What a lonely moment this must be for Jesus, to be surrounded by screaming fans but burdened by the knowledge of how brief their acclaim will be.

This is the point of no return for Jesus.

By entering Jerusalem on a colt with the crowds laying down their cloaks before him and shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David!” he has triggered one prophetic tripwire too many.

The Roman rulers and the Jewish religious authorities can no longer pretend that he is insignificant, that he is a fad, that he is not dangerous.

Jesus is deliberately provoking the crisis that will end with him nailed to a cross.

And our immersion in these scriptures today in worship, moving from the palm procession to the Passion, deliberately provokes a crisis within ourselves.

The crowd abruptly transitions in less than a week from adulation and joyful allegiance to Jesus to rage-filled demands for him to be crucified.

The disciples move from proudly marching at his side through the streets of Jerusalem to slinking away in stomach-clenching fear, insisting they don’t know who he is.

While taking our place among the crowds on Good Friday shouting for Jesus to be crucified feels awkward and painful, the disciples’ experience of simply not affirming that we know him, of finding that our fear prevents us from being present with another’s pain, feels all too familiar.

Holy Week, which begins today, is our opportunity to immerse ourselves in this move from the false joy of Palm Sunday, a joy that is centered around expectations of power and reward, through the pain of finding that our faith is often so weak when Jesus needs us the most, finally to the deep and profound joy of the day of Resurrection, the day of forgiveness and new life.

We have the opportunity to walk with Jesus in real time as the hourglass runs out, as he struggles with the knowledge that he has less than a week to live.

And it is a struggle. In the gospel for Monday in Holy Week, Jesus has his last meal at the home of his dear friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus.

Jesus and Lazarus never got to say goodbye to each other when Lazarus was dying. Jesus heard that he was sick, but stayed away.

They’re back in the same situation again. One of them is about to die, but this time Jesus doesn’t stay away.

Maybe he wanted to do more than say goodbye. Maybe Jesus needed to see Lazarus alive, talking and eating and laughing. Maybe his human side needed to reaffirm the evidence of his own eyes that someone can die and come back to life.

At their dinner together, Mary anoints his feet with costly ointment, and Judas berates her for not using her money to help the poor. Jesus’ defense of her reveals how heavily his approaching death is on his mind. “Leave her alone. She bought [the ointment] so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

On Tuesday of Holy Week, Jesus’ struggle with his approaching death continues.

John’s gospel tells us that Jesus says, “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say – ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.” We can feel the conflict in Jesus’ soul, his divine conviction of what he has to do, warring with his human fear.

The gospel for Wednesday in Holy Week takes the spiritual crisis to the next level. For the first time, Jesus addresses not just death but betrayal.

The gospel tells us, “At supper with his friends, Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, ‘Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.’”

The reason betrayal hurts so much is because it has to come from someone you know and love. A stranger cannot betray you. Someone who hates you and always has, cannot betray you.

And the only thing worse than being betrayed is being the betrayer ourselves, finding out that we are not the people we thought we were.

By Friday morning we have lost complete control of the situation.

Having slid into the role of betrayer in a haze of confusion and fear, we suddenly find ourselves stumbling along with the crowds toward Golgotha hoping we are not recognized by anyone as one of Jesus’ followers.

There is a numb sense of disbelief as we watch him being nailed to the cross.

As every minute passes, we are certain that this is the moment Jesus will unleash the power within him, the power we have seen again and again heal people from illnesses, allow him to walk on water, feed 5,000 with a few loaves and fish.

Each second we’re sure now, now is when he will stop this cruel drama, come down from the cross and save himself.

But nothing happens.

Jesus simply lets his life bleed away, one agonizing moment at a time, growing weaker and weaker until he seems to prove that he’s given up on himself and on God the Father.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he cries.

This is the moment that we think the other disciples who hid away during the crucifixion absolutely had the right idea.

Staring up at him on the cross, we realize that Jesus is actually going to die right in front of us.

He cries out, takes his last breath, and the unthinkable moment comes to pass.

The gospel says, “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.”

At that moment our souls are torn in two.

At the moment the living love between God the Father and the incarnate Jesus Christ is torn in two.

At that moment the disciples’ hope for the defeat of Rome and the rule of Jesus on earth is torn in two.

This is the terrible risk that we take, by committing to walk with Jesus through Holy Week, that our hearts will be torn in two by this experience.

But Jesus’ life and our emotional equilibrium are not the only things destroyed on Good Friday.

The barrier between God and humanity is torn in two.

The record of our sin is torn in two.

The reign of death is torn in two.

And finally the shroud of our grief and fear is torn in two by the joy of the resurrection.

If we are willing not to skip from Palm Sunday to Easter Day, not to avoid the darkness that stains these upcoming days, but to enter into it with Jesus and stand in solidarity with him, the healing that we experience with his resurrection is twice as deep.

Today we make a choice.

We can choose to be present with Jesus as his disciples throughout this week, confronting the ways in which we betray him, loving him as we see him struggle for the courage to endure his death, or we can hide away, unwilling to let our composure be torn in two with the temple curtain.

The only tools we need are the scriptures and open hearts to make this journey with Jesus.

Like Jesus, our fear, our sin, our grief and our illusions about ourselves have less than a week to live.

Let’s spend that week with Jesus.

 

Nobody Asks Lazarus

No one asks Lazarus if he wants to be resurrected.

That’s the part that fascinates me about our gospel story today.

No one asks if he wants to return to a broken and hurting body, the tangled relationships that all human beings have, the responsibilities of his finances and his job and his family.

He was a good man. No doubt he had gone straight to the bliss of union with God the Father.

What a terrifying and awful feeling, to be yanked back down to Earth with such suddenness.

Many people who have near death experiences return to life with a new sense of purpose, with joy and awe at the knowledge that there truly is something in the beyond and it is so beautiful and loving.

But for everyone who returns with joy and purpose, there is someone else who returns with a profound sense of despair and rejection.

I saw God, they say.

I saw God and felt God’s love and experienced heaven’s peace, and God threw me back.

God didn’t want me.

God saw fit to return me to this petty human life in this small, limited human body.

How could God do that?

I wonder which group Lazarus was in. Continue reading

A Glop of Mud to the Face: Thanks, Jesus

In the story of the man born blind in our gospel today, I have always pondered 1) what was the blind man’s reaction when some random person spouting religious jargon comes up and starts spreading mud all over his face, and 2) how awesome is it that Jesus actually went to look for this man when he heard that he had been cast out?

But first we begin with another question: what are the Pharisees and townspeople really asking with all these angry questions?

What do they really want?

They want the same thing that all of us want: certainty.

If there is one thing the human mind cannot bear, it is having our well-thought out categories challenged.

The only way we are able to walk around every day without flying off the edge of this chaotic world is because we have constructed an elaborate system of How Things Work and How Things Ought To Be Done.

Unfortunately, Jesus does not really care about the categories we have constructed.

He breaks every box we’ve ever built for others and for ourselves to live in, and he’s not very polite about doing it. Continue reading

Bearing Witness: We Have to Let Him See Us First

For Jesus, everyone is chosen.

We are used to “the chosen people” being a finite category, an exclusive category: that’s what the name means.

Israel was the original chosen people.

Perhaps we might also think of those who have fulfilled some religious formula to attain salvation as chosen.

We often act as though our particular corner of our particular denomination is chosen.

There is often a sense of those who achieve worldly success with money or fame as being chosen for greatness.

But Jesus chooses everyone, even and especially the rejects and outcasts.

To be chosen means to be special, to be set apart, and that specialness and singling out for attention remain even though Jesus’ choice is universal.

We read about it throughout scripture. Jeremiah talks about the experience of being chosen even before we can display any merit or even any personality when God says to him, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.” (Jeremiah 1:5).

In Ephesians, Paul tells us that “God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world.” (Ephesians 4:23).

And Jesus tells us himself in the gospel of John, “You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit.” (John 15:16).

The woman in our story from the gospel of John today is considered anything but chosen by her society.

She has been pushed from pillar to post all over town by having a series of husbands, possibly by being widowed, possibly in other circumstances.

The honor/shame culture in which she lives has devalued her with each new partner until her current partner does not even bother to marry her. Continue reading

We Are God’s Art Project

Today we meet Nicodemus, a man searching for answers.

The traditional response of the church to people searching for answers is to provide a ream of doctrine.

The Episcopal Church is actually not a doctrinal church. In order to be Episcopalian, at no point do you have to sign on the dotted line to a list of detailed beliefs.

Our only statement of belief is the Nicene Creed, and it’s okay to be a little hazy on parts of that if you need to.

As long as you are actively seeking out relationship with God in Jesus Christ, you are welcome to call yourself an Episcopalian.

Our unifying document is not a list of doctrines, but the Book of Common Prayer. We are bound together by worship and sacrament; we find our unity in praying together.

But that’s not to say that Episcopalians are floating around out there with no doctrine available. If you want doctrine, there is a lot out there to choose from and ponder.

We’re just saying that the church isn’t going to dictate it to you. It is your privilege and your responsibility to sift through generations of church tradition with scripture in one hand and your own good human reason in the other to find out what rings true to you and what will best help you to better love God and your neighbor.

One of the great things about being an Episcopalian is that active relationship with God takes precedence over doctrine.

But there are actually two bits of doctrine that work for me that I’d like for you to try on for size and see if they work for you. Continue reading

Eden Calls from Forty Days Away

Today we read of how things went profoundly wrong for Adam and Eve.

It’s the first Sunday of Lent, and with our modern discomfort in talking honestly about sin, the language of the Great Litany and Rite I can send us into a rather gloomy mood if we don’t rearrange ourselves theologically.

But the message from today’s scriptures is actually one of profound hope, a signal to us that yes, our journey these forty days does lead directly to the Cross, but the Cross leads directly to the resurrection.

Today we hear Easter Day calling to us from forty days in the future.

We see Easter’s hope like a point of light on the horizon, a beacon that is our direction and our guide through the wilderness.

It all hinges on a concept known as “Christ as the New Adam.” Continue reading

The Transfiguration: Moses’ and Elijah’s Side of the Story

I love it when God laughs at me, not in a mean way, but in a “you are adorable and I must tease you” way.

I think that happened this week when I drew the Transfiguration as my preaching scripture.

I am not a fan of fluffy miracles such as the Transfiguration and the Ascension.

I’m not really into the scenes in the gospel when Jesus flies through the air with lights and fireworks and stuff.

I prefer him to walk either on the ground or on water, and work with concrete things such as bread or fish or mud.

But no such luck, Jesus really went big this Sunday in the Gospel of Matthew, and it appears to be an important part of the story because it’s in the Gospels of Mark and Luke as well.  Thomas Aquinas thought it was the greatest miracle in the Bible, so I guess maybe we should look into it.

If you’re like me, you definitely identify with Peter in this story.

He’s walking along with his friends James, John, and Jesus when this totally crazy thing happens. Continue reading

Mercy Wins: The Hardest Teaching

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

I don’t know about you, but those words strike fear into my heart every time I read them.

Be perfect? And not just perfect, but as perfect as God the Father? Has Jesus met us? How could he ask this of us?

It’s an incredibly high standard, at the end of a long list of standards, one more difficult to achieve than the next.

Do not resist an evildoer. Turn the other cheek. If someone sues you for your coat, give them your cloak as well. Go the extra mile. Give to everyone who begs or borrows. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

And last and seemingly least attainable, be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Jesus always seems so loving and gentle, but here he seems to morph into the strictest taskmaster possible, demanding something of us we can never achieve.

It is very easy to go wrong with this passage and get ourselves tied up in knots. Continue reading

I Am the Disciple Who Runs and Hides

Bishop Cate has asked us to join in with the national Episcopal Church today to observe the International Day of Prayer for South Sudan.

She’s asked us to use the readings from the feast of the Martyrs of the Sudan, which commemorates some Roman Catholic and Episcopal bishops who were martyred in 1983. Since it’s a feast of martyrs, we have our red paraments and vestments, and our hymns and prayers reflect the theme as well.

South Sudan is in political and military crisis right now, a situation more dire and costly to life than any since the days of civil war between north and south that rocked the nation from 1983-2005.

South Sudan as a country is only three years old, just barely getting on its feet as an independent nation.

Internal conflict between the president and vice-president of South Sudan has mushroomed into armed violence that has killed thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands, rendering them refugees within their own country.

Old ethnic rivalries and conflicts have reared their heads. With the northerners no longer serving as a common enemy, the country that looked toward the future with such hope just a short time ago is now splashed across the headlines with words like “human rights violations,” “war crimes,” “rising death tolls,” and “mass atrocities.”

Part of what makes this, and so many other conflicts around the world, hard to deal with is the fact that no one party holds the moral high ground, and no one party is unprovoked.

All are justified in their outrage, and all have responded with violence. This is not a black and white issue, and we prefer issues to be black and white when it comes to moral judgments.

The gray areas are the hardest to navigate when it comes to moral discernment, whether those gray areas are in geopolitics or in our own personal lives. Continue reading

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