Tagged with Sermon


Lazarus 2014 2  Lazarus 2014 1John 11:1-45

It doesn’t happen just once. It doesn’t happen just once, this miracle we are preparing for at the end of the 40 days of Lent. It doesn’t happen just once, God coming and turning death into life.

The prophet Ezekiel tells us how God’s breath causes life to rise from a valley of dry bones. The prophet Isaiah writes about a new branch rising from the stump of Jesse. And the writer of the Gospel of John teaches us that Jesus raises his friend Lazarus from death after four days in the tomb. It doesn’t happen just once, God coming and Lazarus 2014 3turning death into life.

Now I will admit that this last story, this story of Lazarus, is a hard one. It’s hard, because Jesus does what so many of us have wished we could do. When he is the one grieving, when he weeps at his friend’s graveside, Jesus reverses the irreversible. He cries, “Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus lives; Lazarus rises from the grave. Who among us has not longed to do this, to bring our beloved ones back to life? Who among us does not long for one more conversation, for one more embrace?

But we can’t do what Jesus did. As I mentioned several weeks ago, we almost never play the role of Jesus in these gospel stories. And besides that, it is in the natural way of things that life is limited, that bodies die and return to the earth. It is in the natural way of things that souls return to the heart of God. We cannot prevent it, and God does not prevent it, even when it happens much too soon, or much too sadly. No, it happens, and we weep by the side of the grave, and Jesus weeps with us.

Is it strange to say, then, that I trust that this odd story is somehow true? I trust that it is true, because I believe in the possibility of resurrection, which is not only for Easter Day, but for every day of the year; not only for Jesus, but scattered throughout our scriptures. Have you, too, experienced how God’s breath, God’s voice, God’s touch, can turn dryness and division and despair into strange and beautiful joy? Have you, too, come to trust in the miracle of resurrection, if only for a moment?

But let’s return to this strange story. There is something at the end I want to talk about. Because when Jesus calls out, and Lazarus emerges, Lazarus is not yet fully ready to join the living. His hands and feet are still bound with strips of cloth. And Jesus says to the crowd, “Unbind him, and let him go.” And the crowd comes forward to free Lazarus from these binding cloths that prevent him from fully entering into his new life.

Here is a place in the story where I can find myself, and this community. Because although we have not been in the grave today, we are bound as surely as Lazarus. We are bound by what the scriptures call the way of death. We are bound by fear, and false desire; by anger, and envy; by greed, and pride, and despair. We are bound; and here is the good news. The good news is that healing this kind of problem; liberating us from this kind of restraint; this is what Jesus does every day, for all of us. By his command, and with the help of all who follow him, we are freed from the ways of death, to discover a life of abundance and delight.

When we gathered on Sunday, I invited everyone to hold a strip of cotton cloth, and think of something that binds them. What in our heart, in our spirits, keeps us from the full life that God calls us to? Then as we were willing and comfortable, we bound ourselves with the cloth.  We imagined what it would be like for us if our bonds were broken, or even loosened.  We imaged Jesus helping us to loosen and break every bond within us, as he is.  And then we removed our bindings and connected ourselves to one another, instead.

What is binding you? Can you feel God and your community working to unbind you?

God, loosen and break every bond in us that keeps us from hope, from joy, from life.
Tie us instead to you, and to one another, one magnificent breathing body of love.


At the Well

Ravenna65 samaritan womanJohn 4:5-42

What can we learn from this Samaritan woman?

After Jesus talks with Nicodemus in Jerusalem in the passage we heard last week, Jesus goes to the Judean countryside. Then he decides to return to Galilee, but must pass through Samaria on the way. Jesus and his disciples stop at their ancestor Jacob’s well, and the disciples head into town to buy some food. Jesus, sitting alone, has a fascinating encounter with a stranger.

This meeting between Jesus and a Samaritan woman is different from Jesus’ meeting with Nicodemus in almost every way. Nicodemus is a highly respected, well-known Jewish leader; this woman is an unnamed foreigner of low social status. Nicodemus seeks out Jesus secretly, at night; while Jesus initiates his conversation with this woman in public, in broad daylight. Nicodemus asks a series of questions which Jesus answers, ending with a long speech. Jesus engages the Samaritan woman in a busier, more down-to earth conversation which ends with Jesus proclaiming that he is the one she has been waiting for, that he is the embodiment of the great “I Am.”

But the story is plenty interesting just on its own, without contrasting it with the one we’ve just heard. Why is Jesus so interested in talking with this woman of another culture, engaged in menial labor? Why does he want to offer her the gift of his presence, his teaching, his faith? Why is he so accepting of the differences between them? And how does she become such a powerful witness for him, after such a brief encounter?

From Nicodemus, we learn the importance of putting aside our assumptions, our power, our control, to make way for Jesus in our lives. But what can we learn from this Samaritan woman? The answer depends, I think, on where we put ourselves in this story.

This past week I read a story about a church, a predominantly white, suburban church, not so different from ours. This church longed to expand its ministry and to share the good news of Jesus. And they knew that Jesus often did what we see him doing in this story: he sought out those who were disrespected, those who were poor, and brought his message, his presence, to them. And so this church decided that it should act like Jesus, and plant a new congregation in a city. They decided to plant a new congregation in what is sometimes known as the “inner city” – by which they meant a place in the city that was full of people who didn’t seem much like them: people with darker skin and less money.

Now, these church folks had good intentions. They wanted to follow Jesus by connecting with people who weren’t very much like them. And they wanted to share what they had, both good news and money. But with all these good intentions, these folks made some tragic mistakes.

As it turns out, this particular area of this particular city already knew about the good news of Jesus. (Go figure!) There were leaders and communities already there, gathering in the name of Christ and working together in wise and wonderful ways. It’s not to say the folks there couldn’t use some help; some partners to bolster their fundraising and broadcast their message; some allies to amplify their efforts. But they didn’t need a new church, with white leaders, with their own agenda, arriving to introduce the neighborhood to Jesus.

At the heart of the tragic mistake that this majority white, suburban church made was misinterpreting who they were in the story. When they tried to reenact this biblical story, they imagined themselves into the place of Jesus. And here’s a helpful hint: when we’re exploring biblical stories and trying to find our place, it’s almost always safe to say: we’re not Jesus.

So if we want to learn from the mistakes of these folks, this suburban, majority white congregation, this congregation that shares so much in common with us, where should we look in the story? What is our part in this story of the Samaritan woman, if we’re there at all?

Some days, we may be the disciples: rushing back from our errands, and astonished to find out who Jesus is talking to. We may find ourselves just trying to keep up with God and all the crazy ideas God has about who Her good news is for and who might constitute the people of God. We may be surprised to find out what kinds of conversations Jesus is in with folks we didn’t expect to be teaching us: some of the new members here among us; or with some of the Christians we don’t always get along so well with; or folks from so-called “inner city” neighborhoods. We may be the disciples, just trying to keep our mouths shut so we don’t say something like, “Why are you speaking with her?”

Some days we may be the disciples. And some days we may be blessed to be the woman herself. Maybe we’ll discover that, oddly, Jesus wants to talk with us. We’ll discover that Jesus knows all about us and our sordid pasts. We’ll discover out that Jesus wants to offer us living water. We’ll hear him declare to us: I am the I am. And all that glory will send us off and running to tell whoever we can find, “Come and see! This Jesus knows all about me and loves me anyway! Can this be real?” We may be the Samaritan woman, suddenly brave enough to open our mouths and say, “Come, and see!”

Some days, we may be the disciples. Some days, we may be the Samaritan woman herself. And some days, we may be the people of Samaria. Maybe we’ll be so inspired by another person’s encounter, another person’s testimony, that we become willing to invite Jesus to stay with us for a while, to teach us, until we learn to believe.

Where are you in this story today? Are you confused and dismayed by the strange choices of Jesus? Are you full of joy and questions after a deep drink of living water? Are you curious to learn more about the one who’s caused such a fuss? What can we learn from this Samaritan Woman, from this fascinating story?

I hope, at least, we can learn this: we are not Jesus, and yet Jesus is always for us. Jesus is for us, whether we are privileged and powerful, or the object of gossip and ridicule. Jesus is for us, whether we are long-time followers or recent converts or renegades. Jesus is for us, whether we meet him face to face and hear him proclaim, “I am the I am;” or whether we always see his glory through the power of another person’s testimony. We are not Jesus, and yet Jesus is always for us: surprising us, inspiring us, and leading us deeper in to the mystery of faith. Thanks be to God.


Piece by Piece

Isaiah 58:1-9a    Matthew 5:13-20114588_02Jul12_puzzle

Sometimes I think that the gospel is one giant jigsaw puzzle and it’s up to us to fit all then pieces together.

My father had jigsaw puzzles made of wood which  he ordered  from a company called PAR. Each puzzle came in a plain, dark green box; but there was no picture on the cover, only a name,  “Haying Time” or “Country Fair” which gave some idea of the subject but really no clue what it would look like when finished. The pieces were all hand cut, the shapes intriguing to a small child, because some of the pieces were cut to look like hats or mermaids or shovels. Later, when I had my own puzzles, Dad wouldn’t let me look at the picture on the box. “Too easy” he said. So, over time, I would have to wait for the picture to emerge as I got closer to finishing it; and as I saw what it was going to be, it was easier to fit in the pieces.

Often there were surprises: what I had imagined was a part of a flower turned out to be an ear, or a strawberry became a clown nose. Then there was always the piece that I was just sure had migrated from other puzzle by mistake; it just didn’t fit anywhere; or, the opposite, that famous “missing” piece. Look and look until you’re cross-eyed, it’s just not there, until, of course, it suddenly shows up towards the end, looking not at all as you had expected.

Each week, here, we spend time with one piece of the gospel, taking time to hear the words and gain some insight into the meaning. Each week we look at one part of this amazing picture. And, over time, as is true when solving a puzzle, we begin to see how the pieces fit into the larger picture. It may, seem, at first that a particular verse or event doesn’t seem to fit, until we read on or study more and it becomes a part of the whole. Or what we thought meant one thing, when joined with another section, becomes something quite different. But since this happens week after week, year after year, we have become quite familiar with the finished product. Thus, unlike my father’s puzzles, without the picture on the box, we know what it’s going to look like before we start.

But what about those people gathered on the mountainside? They had no idea how things were going to turn out. Some of them may have seen Jesus before that day, perhaps they had been there on the banks of the Jordan at his baptism, and were curious to know more about this mysterious stranger. For them, a piece or two of this puzzling character had begun to fall in place. Others, perhaps, had come late and had to sit far back in the crowd. It was hard to hear him, easy to misunderstand, wonder what the excitement was all about.

Or suppose you were one of those who knew Jesus fairly well. You had been with him as he taught in the synagogues, walked with him through the villages, seen him heal people of various illnesses. You were Andrew, Mary, James, and you believed in his power, you believed God was in him and now you wait, with the crowd, to hear what he will say to them. At first, the words coming out of his mouth sound like the man you know;  promises of blessing for all those who suffer now, a place of honor at God’s side, assurance that the hungry will be fed, the most lowly will reap the greatest reward; Jesus on the side of the forgotten, the oppressed, the poor. Yes, it’s all fitting together.

But then … something you didn’t expect, doesn’t quite seem to fit. To date, the Jesus that you have known has been all about healing, blessing; hope for those who have waited a long time for someone like him. You have bathed in the light of his presence, found solace in his words of comfort. Yet he says, “You are the light of the world”. Wait, what’s this? We thought he was the light! “You are the salt of the earth.” What in the world does that mean? And then, then, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees”…the Pharisees?  

We’re going to need to look more closely at this piece, see how it fits into the big picture.  “Righteousness” is the key word, but what exactly does it mean. It’s one of those words sprinkled throughout the Bible, most often attributed to God. In fact, the word righteousness, or righteous, appears more often in the Bible than “power” and even “love.”  Which means it’s pretty important.

God’s announcements to Israel in the words of Isaiah seem almost mocking: “Day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness.” As if. As if the ritual shows of fasting, putting on sackcloth and ashes is practicing righteousness. But, says Isaiah, that is not what God desires, requires. That is not righteousness. Rather; to loose the bonds of injustice, break every bond that binds the oppressed, give food to the hungry, house the homeless, shelter and clothe those who are forgotten; that is righteousness.

Jesus exhorts his listeners to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees. The Pharisees are faithful Jews known for study of Torah, day after day, as they seek to understand its words and follow to the very letter of the law. “And so do not think,” Jesus tells us,” that I have come to abolish the law, no, I have come to fulfill it, not one letter not one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” There is no condemnation of the Pharisees in those words; Jesus as a faithful Jew, has great respect for the law. But he is saying, they don’t go far enough. They may talk the talk better than anyone, but, you; we; are called not only to talk the talk but to walk the walk … share our bread, embrace the lost and forgotten, provide shelter and hospitality, free those imprisoned by hatred, or abuse, addiction, discrimination.

Indeed, the beatitudes, the blessings?…they are not ends in themselves. They are the means, the equipment in order for us to be instruments of healing; to shine the light of God’s love in the world and to salt the earth with goodness. This and even more…  This, and even more, Jesus tells us, will be needed to fulfill God’s vision. This, and even more, is needed to follow me.  This, and even more, is needed to complete the picture.

And what will that picture look like when all is said and done, when the time comes that all the hungry are fed, and the yoke lifted from the necks of the oppressed, when the guns and the swords and the words of hate are silenced forever? Who really knows? It’s a very big picture, with lots of pieces; and we’re still putting it together. But I do know one thing.  Somewhere in there, will be the face of Jesus.