The Consequences of Waiting Upon the Lord

The story of Lazarus—it’s one of the most fascinating in the Bible.

I love this story for so many reasons.

I love it for its place in the unfolding of the tender and devoted friendship between Jesus and the siblings of Bethany.

Jesus, Lazarus, Mary and Martha—we might call them the Fantastic Four!

We know there were many more encounters between them that we don’t see recorded in the gospels for the level of friendship they express for each other to be as real and deep as it appears.

After all, the message from the sisters to Jesus about Lazarus’ illness was, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”

That is not a reference to a casual acquaintance.

No doubt there were occasions of Lazarus and Jesus out roaming across the hills, talking of spiritual topics for hours, while Mary and Martha prepared the feast they would enjoy together later at home.

Or perhaps vice versa—maybe Jesus and Lazarus took their turn in the kitchen as well!

Late night dinners, hours of conversation, thinking and praying together about God’s work in the world—they were intimate spiritual companions.

They might even have been friends before Jesus began his ministry, or at the very least, from very early on in it.

Mary, Martha and Lazarus have seen Jesus grow into his ministry.

As he has ranged farther and farther afield to heal and teach, still the little house in Bethany remains a home base, where he returns for his own healing and renewal.

Drained by his work, he can always recharge with his three dear friends.

Because while they are his followers, they are always first and foremost his friends.

In fact, their friendship is so well-known among the disciples and other followers of Jesus that the whole community is aware that Jesus would want to hear of Lazarus being gravely ill.

The message from Martha and Mary reaches him quickly, and here we have the first jarring note in the story. Continue reading

The Aftermath of a Miracle (Is Harder Than You Think)

What do you do in the aftermath of a miracle?

We all think about what kind of miracle we’d like to see happen in our lives—a winning lottery ticket, our team going all the way to the Final Four in March Madness, our political discourse regaining civility and sense. (I’ll give you three guesses as to which one of those is the farthest-fetched).

Many times our longing for a miracle is far more serious—for a loved one’s cancer to go into remission, for a job to come through after months of fruitless interviews, for an estranged child to come home for the holidays.

There are times God does do miracles this big in our lives—most of us can think of an example in our own lives or someone we know.

Sometimes the miracles are as simple as escaping a close call in traffic.

But it’s also really important to think about miracles far more broadly than actual supernatural events.

Sometimes we don’t get the miracle we prayed for, but we get the miracle we need.

Perhaps the miracle we prayed was for the cancer to go into remission, but the miracle we received was entering into an incredible new depth of relationship with our loved one through the process of caregiving as his or her health declined.

Perhaps the miracle we prayed for was for that job interview to pan out, but the miracle we received was a new understanding of our family’s ability to pull together in tough economic times.

Perhaps the miracle we prayed for was a reunion with an estranged child, but the miracle we received was a new ministry of intercessory prayer, as our faithful and sometimes anguished prayers for this lost and wandering loved one expand into a vocation of praying for all those who are lonely and in pain.

The first question to ask is this: where you need a miracle in your life?

And the second question to ask is this: where in your life is God giving you the miracle you need rather than the miracle you want? Take some time to pray about that this week.

But the real question I want to tackle in this sermon is this: what do you do in the aftermath of a miracle?

I think we often picture miracles as creating happily-ever-after scenarios where everyone rides off into the sunset together holding hands and singing Kum-Bah-Yah.

But the reality is quite different, as we see vividly illustrated in our gospel story.

For the man born blind whom Jesus heals in our gospel today, his miracle brings him nothing but trouble. Continue reading

How to Drink of Living Water

I’m just going to cut right to the chase on this text: Jesus is undermining us and our priorities yet again, because he loves us too much to let us continue in our self-protective delusions.

Every time I think I’ve got him figured out, he knocks me over once again with his subversive and all-encompassing love.

The woman at the well is one of John’s most beloved stories.

We have a woman who is trapped in an unenviable social situation, the origins of which we do not clearly understand.

She has to come to well to draw water in the heat of the day rather than the cool of the early morning. This is a clue that she is ostracized from the company of the other women in town, respectable women, who would come as a group to draw water at dawn.

Why is she not respectable? We don’t know, but more than likely it is a result of gender-based shame imputed to her.

She may be penalized for exercising sexual autonomy, i.e. being a “loose woman.”

Or she may have been passed around from husband to husband to finally a man who doesn’t even bother to marry her because she is barren, unable to have children, the other major source of shame for women in her society.

Even without knowing her story and its shades of disgrace in the eyes of her culture, the gospel says the disciples are shocked to find Jesus talking with a woman, any woman.

Regardless of what she has been through, and we understand that it cannot have been pleasant, she has enough pluck in her to enter into conversation with an unaccompanied adult male whom she quickly discovers is a Jew.

This reality alone would have further diminished her already precarious position in society.

But there is a spark of curiosity in her that responds to Jesus and answers the invitation to go deeper with him.

She is thirsty for more than what she can find at the bottom of that well, and so she asks.

In fact, she more than asks, she requests, demands, even: “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

How often do we share our need with Jesus so un-self-consciously?

And here is what fascinates me. The woman asks Jesus for the Living Water, and what does he give her?

One would expect him to give her comfort, understanding, affection, healing, assurance of salvation.

But he gives her none of these.

She asks Jesus for the Living Water, and he gives her truth. Continue reading

What Are You Resisting?

One of the most helpful spiritual questions I was ever asked is this: “What are you resisting?”

I can’t remember where I first read or heard that question, Pema Chodron maybe? Something Buddhist, I’m sure.

But it has remained in my life as one of the most fruitful seeds of prayer in the midst of pain or anxiety I’ve ever found.

What is it that I’m resisting?

The question has the power to stop me in my tracks in real time, in the very moment of my being angry at the world.

And asking the question also asks a second, implicit question: and why are you resisting it?

The subsequent questions ask themselves.

Is it worth resisting?

What would happen if you let this go?

Is what you’re resisting truly a threat to you, or simply an inconvenience, a discomfort, an irritant?

I’m usually awakened at that point to how easily and completely I’ve given myself over to the traditional three corrupting influences of “the world, the flesh, and the devil,” and by that I mean my selfish desires, my loud body and its preferences, and my cranky, needy ego.

I’m usually resentful of a phone call I need to make or a meeting I have to attend, unable to accept that I really will feel better if I eat well and exercise, or mad at my perception that someone is treating me dismissively or condescendingly.

What am I resisting? Trivial, trivial things.

And in the process I am resisting the glimpses of God that God is always ready to reveal to me in the midst of my trivial circumstances, if I would only open to them.

What are you resisting? Continue reading

Springtime in the Desert

Let’s stop for a moment and think about our stereotypes of Lent. What words come to mind for you?

“Dull, dreary, and sad,” some might say.

“Long and boring,” others might say.

“Sin and death and the day of vengeance of our God!” others might crow triumphantly.

I had one parishioner at a former church, a 3-year-old, who told me solemnly on Ash Wednesday, “I don’t like Lent because it makes me sneeze.” As good a characterization as any, I suppose.

Would it surprise you to know that the origin of the word “Lent” is the Old English word for “springtime”?

Yes, we do talk about sin and mortality in Lent, and there is an appropriate solemnity for doing that.

But if you think that’s the whole story of Lent, you’re missing out.

Lent is springtime in the desert.

And we are given an amazing opportunity each year to take part in it.

Let’s think about that strange juxtaposition of terms: springtime in the desert.

Both parts matter. It’s not just springtime—new life and blooming flowers and singing birds.

And it’s not just the desert—emptiness and challenge and wandering in search of sustenance.

It’s springtime in the desert.

What does that mean for us in our spiritual lives? Continue reading

Ash Wednesday: Singing the Song of Our Enemy

The terrible war in Bosnia and Herzegovina ended in December 1995.

The fighting between Serbs and Croats had set itself up along ethnic and religious lines and so deepened the divisions between the warring factions that it seemed impossible to imagine them going forward in any type of peace, much less healing and reconciliation.

A Franciscan priest began a revolutionary project in early 1996.

He recruited singers from across the country, people who were gifted in music, not necessarily professionals, but just people who were known in their towns and communities for their voices.

He brought them all together, Muslims and Christians, Serbs and Croats, some literally fresh off the battlefield, and asked them to begin singing together.

But not just any songs.

He asked them to sing the most traditional and well-known and deeply rooted religious songs of the Bosnian people, both Christian songs and Muslim songs.

He asked them to sing the songs of their enemies. Continue reading

We, The Body of Christ, Hate Our Bodies. Maybe We Could Stop?

Do you hate your body?

I know I hate mine, and my best guess is you hate yours.

And that is a tragedy.

We are members of an incarnational faith.

We celebrate and stake our very souls on God coming to Earth in a human body, and then giving that body to us, in life and in death.

We consume the Body and Blood of Christ every Sunday.

We call our collective self the Body of Christ.

And yet we hate our own bodies.

We hate our very incarnation, call it ugly and feel shame at its appearance and functioning or lack thereof.

What is wrong with this picture? Continue reading

The Tyranny of Niceness

Today we’re going to talk about the difference between being nice and being good.

I’m here to tell you today that God is good, but God does not particularly care about being nice.

Jesus in the gospels is radiant with goodness, but he is not always nice.

And the surprising thing is that while we too are called to be good, we need to get in touch with the reality that this may sometimes call us to sacrifice being nice.

Why does that thought strike fear into our hearts?

And why is the church the place of ultimate niceness?

I’m going to make the case to you that our Christian community suffers from a toxic epidemic of niceness that limits our ability to be in true, deep, committed relationship with one another.

We need to find a way to break through our niceness façade and actually love one another with integrity and depth.

And if we practice this discipline in our Christian community, we are much more likely to be able to fulfill Jesus’ command to love our enemies.

Let’s start from scratch. Why is being nice the strongest moral imperative at church?

Well, niceness is a sort of social lubricant.

Being polite and pleasant with one another is certainly a lovely thing, and I’m not advocating that we go out and be blunt and rude at every opportunity.

At church, we encounter really deep, important things, in scripture and theology and doctrine, and also in our lives.

We talk about ethics and social responsibility and war and poverty.

And we get married and entrust our children to baptism and have our funerals.

What happens in church is quite literally life and death, and we are scrupulously nice in order to ease and smooth over the emotional intensity of that reality.

But the problem with the tyranny of niceness is that it papers over real problems. Continue reading

Jesus Sets Us Up

In our gospel text from Matthew today we have some of what are called the “hard sayings” of Jesus.

These are words and statements that feel uncomfortably harsh to us.

Jesus says things like, “If you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire,” and, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”

That seems pretty extreme. That doesn’t feel much like the loving Savior we have come to know and trust.

And it is critical that we reevaluate these statements and try to understand what Jesus is saying to us, because if we don’t, we are liable to play into the narrative of a dominating, vengeful and hateful God that people have feared for generations.

The knowledge of God’s love is always easy to crush with the false rumor of God’s wrath.

Many people over the centuries have either lived consumed by anxiety when faced with a seemingly furious God incapable of love and generosity, or used the wrathful false God to beat other people into submission.

Here we might actually find Jesus’ words quite helpful, reminding us that negative actions are always driven by negative thoughts.

And attributing our origin and care to a hateful, unfree God thirsty to murder his only Son to satisfy an inflexible “justice” seems rather unlikely to nurture gentleness and compassion in ourselves.

Remember that many of the Bible’s statements about God’s wrath, vengeance and hatred say much more about the human authors than God’s actual character.

The nature of God in the Bible developed as humanity’s level of consciousness developed.

In the early days, surrounded by war and carried off into slavery, the first Biblical writers could not conceive of a non-violent God.

Many people today struggle to accept the abject humility and poverty of the God who gave Godself entirely to be hated and killed by God’s own creatures.

It’s more comfortable to project our own fear and anger onto God, because then we can imagine that God’s fear and anger are taken out on the people we dislike the most.

But Jesus is saying himself in our text today that our outer actions of breaking relationship only reflect a deeper, untended brokenness within, and that is where we need to journey if we seek true spiritual transformation.

There is a case to be made that Jesus is actually doing something quite tricky here. Continue reading

Trump: The American Shadow Concretized

Two weeks into the wild ride of having Donald Trump as our president, and a lot of us are worried.

I have talked with friends, family, fellow clergy—people feel helpless and afraid.

The Muslim ban, “alternative facts,” a litany of cabinet appointments of people who have vowed to destroy the very departments they now head, demonizing and threatening the free press—it seems as though all our fears are being confirmed.

And yet I hear from people who voted for Mr. Trump how glad they are to see him fulfilling his campaign promises. We are divided indeed.

Even with all the positive energy generated by the Women’s March and the upcoming Scientists’ March, there is still a thread of fear running through the optimism—will it make any difference?

President Trump with the heft of a Republican government behind him has a lot of very legal power to do a lot of terrible things.

I would say, “May I be proved wrong!”, but thus far the campaign and the administration are chapter and verse the same poisonous rhetoric of exclusion, division, falsehood and fear.

I think we have a deeper problem. Continue reading