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Friday, March 27, 2020

Our Story - Sermon for March 29, 2020

John 11:1-45 – The Death of Lazarus
            Our story is one of ongoing resurrection. Not just this story, the biblical telling of the raising of Lazarus, but our story.
We are reminded every day that the grave is real, it is oh so real, but at the same time, God shines light into all the dark places we inhabit and declares that death will have no power over us. With confidence we can declare, using the words of Job, “I know my redeemer lives.” And in Jesus, we see that life bearing fruit in our lives and leading us to ongoing resurrection.
 Yes, the grave is real, but we know that our redeemer lives! And because of Jesus, and because he lives, death will never have the last word in any of our stories. Because of Jesus, we are wrapped in resurrection reality.
            The story of the raising of Lazarus brings this message home to us in a new way at a crucial time in our lives. Today we worship, not gathered in person sharing the same space, breathing the same air, hand to hand and shoulder to shoulder as we prefer to do and need to do, because death is real. And the threat of coronavirus is real.
Instead, churches around the world are closed today, and people like us are worshiping virtually, worshiping at home, worshiping in private.
            Today we are faced with a crisis like none we’ve ever faced before, and like none that we ever wish to face again.
Around the world and in our own community there is fear and anxiety. With many people “sheltering in place” and many others putting their own lives at risk caring for those who are ill, our lives have been turned upside down. Some of us have been laid off from work; others have had to close businesses; some have lost jobs; children are home from school and educational institutions, business corporations, stores, restaurants and of course, even churches, have had to figure out new ways of doing what they can, and determining what work goes undone. Even parks and playgrounds have gone silent.
            Our senior citizens are doing their best to stay sheltered and many of them wonder how safe they really are from this coronavirus. Those living in retirement centers, Assisted Living or nursing homes are separated from their families or any other visitors. In most places, even pastors are not allowed to visit their members, visit the sick, or in many cases, even accompany the dying.  The headline, “Die From Coronavirus, You Die Alone” breaks our hearts and instills deep fear within us.
            Many around the world mourn their dead in isolation, without the ritual we expect and need at the time of loss. Without the warm embrace and shared tears of our friends and neighbors, we are left to bury our dead without the mutual comfort of community surrounding us and holding us up. My own aunt passed away a couple of weeks ago and my sister and I could not participate in her funeral due to the restrictions in place. It brought home to me just how necessary are such gatherings, and how much this virus is changing our most important life passages, from birth to death, from graduations to weddings.
            In times like these so many people rise to the occasion. We’ve seen many examples of people responding with grace and generosity. Last week a skeleton crew from our church served about 80 dinners in a drive-thru take-out assembly line community meal and we were not alone as feeding programs creatively and safely served the hungry poor. Meals on Wheels and food banks have made adjustments and found ways to serve people in need. School districts around the country are providing food for their at-risk children and families. Teachers are forming caravans to drive thru neighborhoods bringing a little cheer through loving waves at the children from their now empty classrooms, whom they love and miss. Individuals are volunteering to make grocery store and pharmacy runs for seniors who are sheltering in place.
            At the same time, we’ve seen the senseless hoarding of supplies creating shortages and denying those same supplies to those who truly need them. We’ve seen the birth of new predatory scams and the blatant disregard of safety measures and resistance to safety precautions spreading the virus and risking our vulnerable neighbors and ourselves.
            Indeed, the grave is real, yet still, I know that my redeemer lives!
            Indeed, our story is one of ongoing resurrection.
            Mary and Martha each greet the Lord with the words – the accusation – we can even imagine these words coming in angry, staccato bursts as he approaches them, after delaying his arrival until well after their brother, Lazarus has died. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” There is heartbreak in those words, and Jesus feels it.
            Despite her grief, Martha goes on, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Did Martha have in her mind the possibility that her brother could be raised from the dead? It would seem not, for when Jesus responds, “your brother will rise again,” Martha, in her Jewishness, refers to the expected resurrection of the dead on the last day.
But Jesus has something else in mind, and as he reassures her that he is the resurrection and the life, he asks her for her faith in this, and she illustrates her complete trust in him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
After Mary delivers those same words in truth and agony, and after Jesus witnesses the grieving of the community, and as he contemplated the place where Lazarus was laid – in the tomb, Jesus wept. There is something comforting about knowing that Jesus, too, wept at loss, and grief, fear, and sorrow. This Jesus is so human – so relatable. This Jesus feels and bears our pain and sorrow in love.
Jesus’ tears legitimize our own. Lament is a powerful human experience and it connects us with God. Rather than being a sign of faith that is too weak, our lament expresses our deepest need, and our helplessness over loss and death of all kinds. The work of grief is natural, and it is necessary – even Jesus, in his humanity experienced it. Shedding his own tears, Jesus takes our grief and anger, frustration and longing onto himself. By so doing, he blesses it.
At the same time, Jesus gives us hope, in fact is our hope. And to illustrate the hope that he bestows on us all, Jesus does the impossible. He raises Lazarus from the dead.
Unlike other instances of Jesus raising the dead, Lazarus is well and truly dead. There can be no question for a man who died, whose body has been ritually cleaned and prepared for burial, and then had spent four days in the sealed up tomb, that he is really dead – that already, the stench of dead clings to him.
Yet with the power of his command and in great love and mercy, Jesus commands him to sit up and step from the tomb, and the miracle happens. Lazarus, still bound with the strips of cloth that wrap the dead still binding him, steps from the darkness of the tomb to the bright light of resurrection.
Raising Lazarus doesn’t change the past, doesn’t deny that death comes to all of us, but it creates a new future. While it doesn’t erase the pain of grief and the loss, it changes the finality with which we once viewed it and the power we once gave it. As death once came for Lazarus, it will come again. But because of the life to which Jesus restored Lazarus for all our sakes, we can truly say, “I know the grave is real, but death will give way to life – because Jesus makes it so.”
Through the cross and his own resurrection, Jesus assures us of life now. We can live in hope and assurance of God’s love because we know that our redeemer lives
Our story is one of ongoing resurrection. Each day we are faced with death. The reality of death from old age or disease. The death of dreams when things beyond our control close doors in our lives, steal away our security for the future, change our plans and cancel our rights of passage. Yet we know that none of these losses are ultimate. None will have the last word. Because Jesus lives, and because his Spirit works in and around and among us, we will see new opportunities and we receive the assurance that God is with us still and will see us through this crisis and all the sorrow, worry and fear it brings.
Jesus restores life. That’s what he does. Faith in him allows Martha to trust that whatever the future holds, there would be resurrection. Little could she know exactly what that looks like.
Regardless of what losses you suffer now, what worries you have for the future, what struggle you are experiencing, the truth is that God’s love and mercy are steadfast and true. They never end. With Martha, we can declare our faith in this truth.
When we walk through the darkest valley, we fear no evil, for God is with us. His light shines on us. The cross casts it’s shadow over us, but it is the resurrection that beckons to us, because, while the grave is real, it has no power to hold us. It will not overcome us. It is not forever.
Resurrection is our story, it is our song, it is our everlasting hope, because we know that our redeemer lives – and in him we live – today, tomorrow, and forever.


Friday, March 20, 2020

The True Gift of Sight - Sermon for March 22, 2020

John 9:1-41      
            Part of the preparation for Confirmation classes includes instruction on the sacraments, so part of my conversation and teaching with our young people has to do with the how and the why of the sacramental life. In the Lutheran Church, we celebrate two sacraments, Baptism and Holy Communion. Why two, and why these? Because they follow two of Jesus’ commands, and they are each associated with a promise from him.
          Jesus told the disciples that they should go and baptize, and that whoever believes and is baptized will receive eternal life. So, that is the rationale for our inclusion of Baptism in the short list of sacraments (other denominations might include as many as seven). What a glorious command and promise enfolded in this one act by which God claims us and cleanses us of the weight of our sin.
          On the night in which he was handed over to death, Jesus instituted the second of our two sacraments, what we now call “The Lord’s Supper,” or “Holy Communion” or “The Eucharist”. As he gave God thanks, broke the bread and gave the bread and wine to his disciples to consume, Jesus commanded his disciples “do this in remembrance of me,” and he promised with this meal would come the forgiveness of sins.
          There are two things that make a sacrament what it is: an element and God’s word. The element is a visible sign that reminds us of the reality of the material world, created by God, in which we live and which, along with our bodies and our being, belong to God. Elements are things we can touch and feel and observe; things like water, and bread, and wine. By God’s grace and only God’s grace and blessing do they become anything more.
          Our sacramental life flourishes as the Word of God transforms the element and makes of it a sacrament, which believers receive in faith and obedience, (“go and baptize,” “do this in remembrance”). In and through them, by God’s grace, we are changed. Sin is forgiven, and faith is given, restored and nurtured.
          The healing of the man who is blind from birth is really a story of sacramental healing.
          Jesus uses water from his own body – spit – and dirt from the ground and forms a paste to use on the man’s eyes.  He then gives his Word, that what he is doing is the will of God who desires that God’s works might be revealed in him.
          The healing of course is miraculous – and transforms the man’s life. He cannot remember a time when he could see – anything. But after washing the paste from his eyes he has perfect eyesight!
          The healing, of course, is not without its challenges. The Pharisees object to how and when this healing work was done (it is the Sabbath). They accuse Jesus’ of failing to observe the Sabbath in accordance with the Law.
          They question whether the man had truly been born blind at all. When assured he had been blind all his life, they then lead the way down that rabbit hole of a question, “why?” Why had he been born blind? What did his parents do that caused this child to be born blind? Blindness and illness and misfortune are commonly perceived to be the punishment of God for sin, and that is why this question is placed before the man’s now fearful parents.
          “None’s so blind as them who cannot see,” is a proverb dating back to 1546 by English writer and poet John Heywood. It resembles Jeremiah’s admonition, “Now hear this, O foolish people, and without understanding; which have eyes, and see not; which have ears, and hear not”. Jesus delivers a challenging teaching on exactly what constitutes “being blind”.
          Recently, our renewal team was at a training event where a video of a famous experiment was shown. A group of people appear on screen, bouncing and passing balls back and forth like a basketball team might do as they warm up for practice.
          Into this group appears a moon-walking gorilla. He nonchalantly weaves and passes through the crowd, moving right across the screen. At least half of the observers of this video, and I think it was more like three quarters of our group that day, say they totally missed the gorilla – they didn’t notice him at all until he was pointed out to the crowd and the video was shown again.
          God often works in the most unexpected of ways and most unusual of circumstances. The fact that we see what we expect (and sometimes what we want to see) and can be blind to what we do not accept, believe, or want to see, extends to our experience of God. Convinced of our own “perfect sight” we can miss what God places right before us to teach us and bless us.
          Jesus notices hurting people, and he often acts before they even know their need or who he is and how he can heal them. The man had been blind from birth and didn’t even know to ask of healing from Jesus, for who, born from birth, could expect to receive that remarkable gift of healing, wholeness and restoration?
          By grace, this man receives a gift for which he is not even seeking, a gift neither he nor his community really understands, a gift that comes in the most obscure way. At first neither he nor his community knows how to respond, so they turn to our default response as they question, doubt and judge what has happened and how it has happened. They point fingers. They make accusations.
          They probably wonder, “if Jesus is really a prophet and man sent by God, why not a more common-sense miracle”? A miracle more in keeping with what we expect a miracle to look like? When we think of miracles we think of them entering the scene in a flash and a bang, with wildly unexpected, fantastic special effects.
          But that is rarely God’s way.
          Instead, God meets us where we are, and amidst the turmoil and uncertainty of life, God enters our lives in everyday moments of grace, fueling the restoration and healing God has already begun in the world.
          Through the sacraments, God uses ordinary elements like water and bread and wine and God saves, renews and refreshes us, and prepares us for eternal life. In making a blind man see, God uses spit and dirt. What is God using in our lives today, offering us grace and light and life? What are we not seeing of God’s presence and power?
          We are living through some scary, uncertain times. We are uncertain about the future, so afraid of an invisible menace, wondering about our safety and security. Our lives and our world are thoroughly disrupted.
          We might as well be blind ourselves. We cannot see a clear path, we don’t know where this pandemic is taking us. We don’t know what path it will lead us down. But into the midst of that reality comes another.
          We have a relentless God who loves us and desires the best for us. We have a saving Lord who uses ordinary elements to utterly transform us. We have a God who creates magnificent creatures from the dust of the earth and who, with that same dust and a bit of spittle restores sight to the blind.
          The blind man didn’t know what Jesus was up to, could not have anticipated that Jesus would bring him healing, but miraculously, he trusted him and obeyed him. And he was given sight.
          Today, we are changed. We aren’t even able to stand together in worship and the presence of God in church. We can’t go to the places of work, school, routine activity or even go out to eat.
          We don’t know where this pandemic will lead us, but I believe it will change us. I believe that through it, God will transform us. I believe that the same God who restored sight of this blind man, who saw the hurt and need in the heart of a Samaritan woman, who spoke of being born anew and knowing the Word of God in flesh, can and will work in our hearts too. We need to trust him.
          Viruses, tests and trials like this do not come from God but grace and mercy and light and love come from God in the midst of such events.
          Despite the fear and uncertainty inspired by COVID19 God is working in and through individuals who are looking out for the most vulnerable among us, caring for one another, feeding the hungry, providing for the homeless, and accompanying the unemployed and unpaid workers. Caring for children of those lucky enough to work but who now have no childcare for their babies and small children.
          Generosity flourishes at times like these, and God’s mandate remains: that we love justice, pursue kindness, and walk humbly with our God.
          While we may not always see the gift of grace for what it is, let us trust that, blessed and equipped by God through the sacraments we will all not only get through this crises, but thrive, as we continually pray and seek God’s mercy throughout our days. May it be so.