Tag Archives: Death leads to Life

“Do You Believe This?”

A Sermon for 2 April 2017 – Fifth Sunday during Lent

A reading from the gospel of John 11:1-45 (NRSV).  Listen for God’s word to us.

“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.  10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.”  11 After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.”  12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.”  13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep.  14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead.  15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.  But let us go to him.”  16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”  17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.  18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother.  20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home.  21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”  23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”  24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”  25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.  Do you believe this?”  27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”  28 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.”  29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him.  30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him.  31 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.  32 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.”  33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.  34 He said, “Where have you laid him?”  They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”  35 Jesus began to weep.  36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”  37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”  38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb.  It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.  39 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.”  40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”  41 So they took away the stone.  And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me.  42 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.”  43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”  44 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.”  45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.”

This is the word of God for the people of God.

Thanks be to God!

 

Blogger and highly-sought-after speaker Rachel Held Evans quickly is becoming the Millennial voice to the church.  She freely admits she’s a bit older than those born between 1982 and 2000 – the definition of a true Millennial.  But as she personally identifies with many Millennial characteristics, she’s looked to by the church to speak for this missing generation.  To tell us why they do not feel they belong.  In a Work of the People clip called “Creating Something New,” she passionately discusses the death of the church.  She says:  “A lot of people are talking about the death of the church like it’s this big horrible thing.  That we’re on the precipice of doom.  . . .”  She goes on to say:  “We see the numbers changing, at least in North America, and the demographics shifting; and we all freak out.  And say well the church is dying and unless we do all this change then it’s going to die.  And,” and these are Rachel’s words, not mine.  She says:  “And I can’t help but think to myself:  maybe a little death and resurrection is exactly what the church needs right now.”  She says:  “Maybe this means that for Christians in North America we’re learning that Christianity isn’t about empire.  Maybe our empire-building days are over.  And maybe that’s a good thing.  Maybe the church isn’t about power and money and numbers,” Rachel says.  “Maybe being the church is about something else.  And maybe dying to those old ways of doing things is exactly what needs to happen.”  Rachel explains:  “Death is something that empires worry about.  It’s not something gardeners worry about.”  Hear that again:  “Death is something that empires worry about.  It’s not something gardeners worry about.  Death is not something resurrection people worry about.”  Rachel declares:  “If the church in North America needs to die to some of its old ways, then let it die.”  With a wisdom that far exceeds her years, she goes on to remind us.  “Maybe this is just God creating something new.”  As the clip comes to an end, the message flashes across the screen:  “Do not be afraid to die.  Life comes from death!”  (www.theworkofthepeople.com/creating-something-new).

These are the words of an astute disciple of Christ.  A voice that echoes the wisdom declared to the prophet Ezekiel by God about the dry bones that live again.  This is the sentiment of a faithful follower who obviously trusts the One we encounter in the gospel of John.  The One who probes proclaiming:  “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?” (John 11:25b-26)  . . .  We’re nearing the culmination of the season of Lent.  Inching closer to the deepest mystery of Christian faith that shows us most clearly what our God is all about.  Life, death, life-again.  It’s a spiral that defies human logic.  A paradox we cannot intellectually figure out.  All we can do is anticipate it.  Pay attention to witness it.  Trust it is true – even when waves of grief over any loss wash over us.  Life.  Death.  Life again – not just someday at what’s perceived to be our end.  But every day all along the path of life.  . . .

This week, the gospel of John takes us to the raising of Lazarus.  Now, I know it’s another extra-long gospel of John reading.  It can be hard to follow it all.  The bottom line is:  Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha – which is the family in whose home Jesus likely stayed on each of his visits to Jerusalem.  After all, Bethany was just outside the city and the gospel never records him actually staying overnight in Jerusalem – except his last night when he was being held as a prisoner.  Well, Lazarus was very, very ill.  So much so that Mary and Martha call for Jesus.  It wasn’t just one of those you best come see your loved one before they are no more calls.  Rather, it was a call for Jesus to come help.  Heal Lazarus from his disease.  Make him well again.  Isn’t that what we all want for our loved ones?  For ourselves?  . . .  We may find it odd that Jesus intentionally stays away once he gets the call.  He had just narrowly escaped the stones of an enraged crowd in Jerusalem.  We can understand a desire to avoid any further conflict.  What we may find difficult to grasp is a plan to stay away – to let his dear friend die.  To know his sisters are filled with distress.  To let the ache of mourning sink all the way into their hearts, before Jesus turns to make the trek back to Bethany.  The writer records the story a bit crassly, as if a high and mighty Jesus had loftier things on his mind than the anchor of sadness that descends when a loved one dies.  He just keeps on telling all with ears to hear that they are about to see the glory of God.  Something better than fixing blind eyes is about to take place.  According to the gospel of John, which is the only gospel that records this miraculous story; the great I AM is in their presence.  The Eternal Word is living in and through Jesus.  One utterance from him – one command like:  let there be – and it is as if the Creator of all speaks again – breathing once more into Lazarus’ lungs.  And out he steps.  Living again – still bound hand and foot in his burial cloth, so that Jesus’ next command is to “unbind him and let him go” (John 11:44).  The Eternal Word brings life out of this death.  He frees Lazarus and all whose hearts had turned heavy at his loss.  He rouses a new beginning in them all.  As if he is a master gardener who trusts that winter must follow the harvest in order for a spring of new life to be.  Jesus might be moved to tears at the tomb of his friend; but he does not fear.  Not even death itself.  He knows that when we go down to the grave, the force of Life, which is God, finds a new way – a new way to push through to create something new.

Here, just a few weeks before all the pageantry of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter morning; the Scriptures bring us to the story of One about to die who is intent on new life.  . . .  Right after he commands Lazarus to be unbound, the gospel records:  “Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.  But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done.  So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, ‘What are we to do?  This man is performing many signs.  If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.’” (John 11:45-48).  . . .  What a shame to let fear creep in like that.  To deny the cycle that life comes from death so that they would do such a thing as to connive for the One of Life to die.  . . .  It’s a mystery before which we stand.  The great mystery of Christian faith that has the audacity, with sister Martha, to stare I Am right back in the eyes to declare:  “Yes, Lord, we believe!”  We trust the Way:  life, death, life-again.  And while we may not always like it.  While we may ache deeply within at our loss.  While we take great comfort that at Golgotha he experienced in full our despair; we vow to live as those who do not fear.  We keep alert to see the ways in which life comes from death.  After all, maybe it’s just God creating something new.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)

Life from Death

It was so uplifting Saturday to be at a regional meeting of church folk (a.k.a. a Presbytery meeting).  I know!  If you’ve ever been to one, then it may not seem a credible statement.  But it was for me.

I’ve been doing a lot of research and reflection lately on the church, contemporary culture, and change.  In many ways, it’s been my passion for the past decade.  Inevitably, it leaves me wondering often about what of the church needs to die.  I dream too about what might be able to grow if in fact those within the church (like me) let go of what we’ve always known.  It’s scary.  It calls me to dig deeper into that vow to serve with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.

I used to care about needed changes in the church for reasons like job security, and to ease my frustration over things that drive me bonkers about the church, and to create ways that might be easier on all.  The deeper I go in it, the more I see that I care because my own life is full of all sorts of people who I love immensely and who want nothing to do with communities of faith in which I have lived my whole life.  Many of the folks in my life used to want to be a part; but for whatever reason, they no longer can be.  Some have been burned badly, or been raised with terrible theology that still haunts them, or find themselves totally bored in worship by things that seem absolutely irrelevant to daily life.  I even find active church folks who desperately want something different, something more; but don’t have the foggiest idea what that looks like or how to get there.  Of course, I know there always will be people who aren’t at all interested.  They never have been and they likely never will be.

My heart breaks for us all.

Just to be clear:  I think it’s wise to turn away from a people who label themselves with Jesus’ name but act like the antithesis.  I think it’s tragic to feel isolated or lonely or unloved or unlovable and have no community to turn t0 — especially because some expressions of church today are at their best and do offer the needed healing balm.  I think it’s deplorable to be seeking — or worse yet:  to already have connected deeply to the Life Force — only to be told that such things are NOT of God (which, in fact, they are!  The Divine is about the journey of awe and wonder; not certainty and fact).   I think it’s sense-less that the hearts of a people who claim the name Jesus aren’t breaking for the eclectic array of people Jesus went out of his way to welcome home.  It’s not ok to me for people to be unaware that they are beautiful, cherished treasures.  And it’s even worse to me for any to be deemed unacceptable by others who believe they know.

Recently I saw an amazing clip on The Work of the People in which Rachel Held Evans made a matter of fact statement that rocked me to the core:  “Empires worry about death.  Gardeners do not worry about death”  (To watch the clip go to http://www.theworkofthepeople.com/creating-something-new).  A few day later I watched a clip by John Philip Newell on “Dreaming Forward” (http://www.theworkofthepeople.com/dream-forward).  Newell quoted the Dalai Lama regarding hope for the future.  He said:  “‘Of course I believe there is hope for the future.  The future hasn’t happened yet.'”  My mind once again blown, I went off to the Presbytery meeting Saturday where we heard from three different young adult women (interestingly all were women) who spoke passionately about the meaning they have been finding for life through their involvement in Presbyterian Campus Ministries.  They have connected with others and that which is beyond, they have built relationships and learned from those much different from themselves, they have helped the hurting and shown love to those battered by life.  I left that meeting so excited that these young women are the church today:  the future hope in our midst.  The people who passionately and honestly seek to follow the Way of Love.  Ones who want to make a difference in others lives, not just seek to have their own needs met.

Maybe it’s just a handful and maybe as they get older the flame will fade.

Or maybe . . . just maybe, their lives (and the fruit of who they are) are the new growth.  And maybe, just maybe, all can learn a thing or two from them as we seek to breakdown in ourselves the walls of cynicism, self-focus, and indifference.

Then . . . maybe, just maybe, our own fresh growth will unfurl under the blazing sunshine in the grand garden of this world.

Here’s hoping . . . here’s to hoping!

 

Peace & Love prevail,

RevJule

 

Life AND Death

A Sermon for 1 November 2015 – All Saints’ Day

A reading from the gospel of John. You might find this portion of Scripture familiar if you know the story of Jesus and his good friends Lazarus, Martha, and Mary who resided near Jerusalem in the village of Bethany. Our reading today is only the final portion of this story in which Jesus intentionally delays his journey back into Judean territory after receiving word from the sisters that their brother Lazarus is very ill. When at last Jesus goes, he finds deeply grieving sisters surrounded by crowds of mourners; for Lazarus already has been dead four days. Listen for God’s word to us in this reading from the gospel of John 11:32-44.

“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.””

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

 

Did you see the moon the other night? Just shy of full, it finally hung in radiant view Wednesday night. I first saw it on our way out of the parking lot after Wednesday evening activities here. It was glorious! I’m not sure if it was waxing or waning gibbous – whatever that means – but it sure was beautiful. After all those overcast nights of rain it was as if that nearly full moon rose up to say: “Hello! I’m sorry the rain blocked your view last night of my full splendor. But here I am – still doing my thing, whether you can see it or not, in beautiful the night sky.” . . . It happened some twelve hours after a morning walk when I passed a nearly bare tree. My dog stopped amid its fallen leaves to do his thing when I noticed that the leaves from that tree were bright green. They never turned to their glorious hues – just kept summer’s color as they fell to the ground to remind us that the weather’s been doing a number on us this year. The combination of the two events on Wednesday left me wondering about the moon and the trees. You know, they put up no protest. Moon doesn’t rail against the night sky saying: “I won’t, I won’t, I won’t wax and wane! I wanna stay full and bright every night of the month!” Leaves don’t argue: “Wait a minute! The conditions weren’t right! I refuse to fall to the ground!” And when conditions are right for those leaves to turn to the most beautiful reds and oranges and golden yellows, nothing in them shakes their fists to protest: “No way! I’m too beautiful now to continue through the cycle! I’m not letting go – I’m going to stay super-glued right here to this tree and never end up decaying brown on the ground!” You ever hear such chatter from the moon? Have you ever heard a leaf come up with intricate excuses why it shouldn’t have to fall?

Something about Mary’s words stand in direct contrast. And the thing is, when you read this story of Jesus, Lazarus, Martha, and Mary from the start of chapter 11, you hear that Mary mimicked the exact same words of Martha upon the first sight of their Lord. Martha protests first: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21). A few minutes later Mary is recorded as greeting Jesus the same: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:32). No: “Jesus! Thank you so much finally for coming!” No: “It’s so good to see you, Lord. You know he loved you so much!” No. Instead Martha and Mary are recorded as speaking the exact same words, which leaves us wondering if the gospel writer seeks to indicate something other than exact dialogue from that very day, and something more of what often first arises in us humans in the face of death. God: Why?! Why did you let this happen when certainly you have the ability to make it not so! LORD, if you’d have been here – if you were here, the one we love dearly certainly would not be in the casket right now.

Sometimes we’re relieved – the pain of dying has passed for the one we love. . . . Today we honor two women beloved by this congregation who wasted away before us. Each of these faithful witnesses was taken away by diseases that left their bodies among us longer than the fullness of their shining personalities. The length of their battles differed, but those who loved them watched each of these women slip further and further from this life before finally being consumed by death. I’m not sure if either one of them ever turned a demanding fist to ask why. I wouldn’t doubt it if a few others had in their favor because both were wonderful women whose lives shined as bright examples to others and with folks like that, we just don’t want to let them go. . .

For years I’ve read this story of Lazarus’ death – I’ve read tons of commentaries that zero-in on Jesus’s tears at this event. His great disturbance and deeply moved spirit at the sight of all those weeping over the loss of Lazarus. Maybe you’ve heard it too: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). The shortest verse in the bible, as it’s recorded in the King James Version. And perhaps you know all the arguments as to why: why he was grieved too at the loss. Was he mad at the Jews who came out from Jerusalem in their traditional parades of mourning? Why exactly does God-in-flesh in Jesus, the Christ weep at the tomb of his friend Lazarus? Why is his spirit so deeply moved – enough so to turn to heaven in a prayer of thanksgiving before commanding the dead man to come out? . . . Did you notice that each time it’s recorded that Jesus is greatly disturbed, both in verse 33 and again in very 38, it’s immediately after someone has verbalized their desire for death to have been side-stepped? Martha says it first, then Mary. And Jesus is greatly disturbed – the Greek word used here connotes a swirl of various emotions – including anger. The Jews of the crowd wonder aloud if this weeping one who loved Lazarus so couldn’t have kept him from dying. And again, it is reported that Jesus is greatly disturbed – that swirl of emotions, including a little anger. Is it possible that Jesus is at his wit’s end? Moved deeply in spirit because he’s getting close to his end in Jerusalem just two miles from this little village of Bethany. So close to being about his final letting go and for all his efforts, all his words, every deed he has done to show any who would listen that we must die before we die – no matter how many times he’s tried to explain through word and deed that death is a daily part of life, no one seems to be getting it. How many times does he have to tell us that the path to Life is one paved with death? “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies” he says, it produces no fruit (John 12:24). “Those who want to save their life will lose it,” he pleads. “And those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). And again according to the gospel of Luke, Jesus teaches us that denying ourselves daily is the way of following him – it’s the way of the cross. The self-emptying of our will each day and all throughout it in order to join our spirits with his as he finally comes to say in the garden: “Not my will, O God, but yours be done!” (Luke 22:42). Just like the words of his mother Mary who once faithfully said: “Let it be with me, O God, according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Dying is a part of life – not just the dying that our physical bodies will do one day. Dying daily to our wills in order for God’s to prevail is The Path. It is the Way. The Truth that leads to Life itself. It is the walk of Christ.

It doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. Deeply. It doesn’t mean God is flippant at our death or at our grief. The gospel records Jesus is greatly disturbed AND he weeps – both. A spirit that wants us to understand his path of Life, yet mourns the sight of our tears. Laments with us in compassion over the pain we feel from death. Even we who know the end of the story – that resurrection happens on the third day – even we who trust in ever-lasting Life, we still ache when one we love dies. We just do it as those whose tears mingle with joy, don’t we? As those who have hope. . . . And if in the face of such death, then why not each day? Why not grieve the little deaths we must go through as we let go of our own desires, but do so mingled with joy; for we know the God whose final word always is Life? A whole new world awaits. In our letting it be, in our dying to self, in our daily death; God makes something new. . . . Whatever it is – whatever letting go, whatever letting it be, whatever dying to self in order to live that you must go through each day, trust. For it too leads to Life. Life. God’s abundant gift of Life.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2015  (All rights reserved.)