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Lent 5A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Jesus said, Take ye away the stone. Martha, the sister of him that was dead, saith unto him, Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days.” (John 11:39, KJV) The King James translation may not be as reliable as other versions, but it is often unmatched for turn of phrase.

Lord, it stinketh. Staying at home and sheltering in place makes me a little depressed and disoriented. I miss you all. I miss gathering. I miss the life and vitality of the city. So far, no one we know is infected with the virus among friends and family of Immanuel. But still, helping to flatten the curve makes me angry. Why isn’t our government better prepared?

The financial impact is already being felt. This week, we provided assistance to four families for groceries and other necessities. People are laid off, incomes are diminished, as we near the end of the month some families must choose between paying the rent and buying food. Local businesses are threatened. Those working retail or in medical settings are scared. Some were forced this week to mourn loved ones with no way to schedule a funeral.

Yet we have reason to hope. Scholar and preacher, Walter Wink, has said the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel, whom we read today, may be the first in all of scripture to proclaim the promise and power of the resurrected life God offers through the always present power of grace. It was a joyful discovery born of long suffering. The desolation of war and forced exile into slavery in foreign lands lead the prophet Ezekiel to envision the nation of Israel as a wasteland of bones scattered across a desert valley (Ezekiel 37). Lifeless, windswept, and eerie, the “great many bones that were very dry” stood for all that remained of Israel after the bloody and tragic war with Babylon.

Those bones evoke an image of loss that exceeds our own today. Bones that spoke of what once was but is no more. No more flesh, no more blood, no more heart and soul. No more Promised Land. No more Chosen People. Captivity sapped their hope. “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost.” (37:11). God’s chosen people felt hopeless.

Helpless and hopeless is exactly how Mary and her sister Martha felt upon the death of their brother Lazarus (John 11). They are bewildered at Jesus’ absence. They are gripped by feelings of abandonment. Martha rushed to meet Jesus on the road. Her first words upon seeing him, four full days after Lazarus’ death, is part question and part accusation: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (v. 20). It’s the same sort of question an ancient Hebrew in Babylon might have asked Ezekiel –“Can these bones live again?” Couldn’t God have saved Israel? Couldn’t he have healed Lazarus? Why does God seem so absent from us? Lord, this stinketh. We raise this lament today.

We join people of faith who raise their voices to God as the psalmist sings, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!” (Psalm 130: 1-2) Here we are church. Now into our own pandemic-centered lives enters the Word of God in this wonderful and strange gospel.

Jesus met Mary on the road while she is still lost in grief and told her, “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” (John 11:25, 26). Our bible does not offer an antidote to the very real and painful realities of life. But it gives us something worth fighting for, something we can believe in born of grace. We have been joined to the undying life of the living God forever. We do not always understand. Yet we know that we are loved. When he saw Mary weeping, the King James says simply, “Jesus wept” (v.35).

With his tears, he assures Mary and Martha, not only that their beloved brother is worth crying for, but also that they are worth crying with. He acknowledges the grief that must inevitably accompany love. He acknowledges his own mortality. By raising Lazarus he will seal his fate in Jerusalem. With his tears Jesus kindles the fire of hope in believing this old world that so grieved Israel, that provoked the psalmist, that still vexes us, can yet be changed for the better.
Here in the eleventh chapter of John we are so near to Jerusalem and to Calvary. The place of death and mourning at Lazarus graveside is just “two miles away” from the cross. Today we are just two weeks away from the Empty Tomb. I fear our Easter will resemble that first Easter a little too much. We will all be separated and hiding in our homes. There were no flowers, no eggs, no chocolate bunnies that first Easter morning either but rest assured God was with them. The glory of that morning still resounds to this day.

When Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb, he stumbled out into a faith community that cared for him and loved him. They unwrapped his funeral clothes and welcomed him home with their tears. It is the same spirit that binds us together in spirit. God’s family is big. We are joined together with people in our hometowns, greater Chicago, around the world, and throughout time. One tangible sign of God’s gift of grace is wherever we go we are sure to find family. There will always be siblings in faith to share our lives with and to walk with us through all our losses and our grief.

I leave you with a prayer written last Sunday by Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber. Perhaps you have seen it? Let us pray.

“God who made us all,
Our healers are exhausted, God. Give rest to those who care for the sick.
Our children are bored, God. Grant extra creativity to their caregivers.
Our friends are lonely, God. Help us to reach out.
Our pastors are doing the best they can, God. Help them to know it is enough.
Our workers are jobless, God. Grant us the collective will to take care of them.
Our fellow parents are losing their minds, God. Bring unexpected play and joy and dance parties to all in need.
Our grocery workers are absorbing everyone’s anxiety, God. Protect them from us.
Our elderly are even more isolated God. Comfort them.
We haven’t done this before and we are scared, God.
I don’t even know what else to pray for.”

To which all God’s people, from ancient times up to today may say, Amen.

Easter Darkness

Advent 3A-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

December 15, 2019

John the Baptist paces back and forth in his narrow cell.  Imprisoned by King Herod, he questions how he lived his life.  Last Sunday John stood beside the Jordan preaching in the wilderness. He seemed so sure of himself. But now that he faces a stupid death, he’s not so sure.  He has doubts.

Jesus did great deeds of power in cities throughout Galilee, but John still wonders if and when God’s kingdom will come.  Meanwhile Jesus’ list of enemies continued to grow. “Look, [they said, this Jesus is] a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:19).  Now John the Baptist whose very conception occasioned an angelic visit, who leapt in his mother’s womb at the first glimpse of a pregnant Mary sent word to ask Jesus, “are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11:3)   I’ve staked my entire life on you.  Has it all been for nothing?”

This is not the sort of faith story we like to tell—but I many of us, including me, has lived some version of it at one time or another. We like conversion stories that go straight “from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge, from despair to joy.”  Yet, John’s story doesn’t follow this happy trajectory. It’s an anti-conversion story. “John’s journey is a backwards one. From certitude to doubt.  From boldness to hesitation.  From knowing to unknowing.  From heavenly light to jail cell darkness.” (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, “Has It All Been For Nothing?”, 12-8-19)

We might call it spiritual failure, or maybe faithlessness?  Backsliding?  We might get mad. Jesus doesn’t.  Jesus responds to his cousin’s pained question with composure, gentleness, and understanding. Life can be unfair. What was happening to John wasn’t fair.

The season of Advent teaches us it’s okay to doubt, question, even shake your fist at God –just as many of the psalms do. “On the evidence of our senses, despair is perfectly rational.  Entropy is built into nature.  Decay is knit into our flesh. By all appearances, the universe is cold, empty and indifferent…This leaves every human being with a choice between despair and longing.  Both are reasonable responses to a great mystery.” (Michael Gerson, Washington Post) Jesus has compassion for John. Despair is an understandable response to life’s worst cruelties.

Christians worship the Crucified One, so why do we have a hard time hanging in there with extreme doubt, despair, and suffering?  Somehow, we feel a need to blunt the edges.  To soften the blows.  To make God okay.  But this story is not “okay,” and many of our own stories aren’t okay either.  The prison bars that hold us don’t always give way.  Our doubts don’t always resolve themselves.  Justice doesn’t always arrive in time.  Questions don’t always receive the answers we hunger for. (Thomas)

To add icing on the cake, soon, Jesus’ mother and brothers will show up too, presumably wanting to question their problematic child and brother. Perhaps, they want to take him home and hide him away. How does Jesus answer? What did he say?

Jesus took John back to the bible.  He invited him to consider a different vision from within its pages about who the Messiah is.  In Christ, we see that God is a friend of the lost.  In Christ, we hear that God stands in the midst of our suffering.  God opposes injustice and evil.  God befriends us in the midst of whatever lostness we find ourselves. We are not alone with our pain. In Christ, God entered our world of darkness and death, and decisively filled it with light and life.

We heard in Mary’s song (the Magnificat), God has lifted up the lowly and brings low the mighty.  According to Matthew, the world turned with John the Baptist.  A new age of Christ had dawned.  Jesus is Emmanuel –God’s Wisdom come in the flesh.  There will be new duties and new commandments. The period of the Law and the Prophets was over.  The time of fulfillment is at hand.

Yet, for John, the dawning of this new age in Christ does not mean that he will be freed from prison.  Although John was there to herald Jesus’ beginning, he will not live to see Jesus’ end.  The victory won in Christ may be decisive, but often our deliverance is limited. How did John respond to Jesus’s answer?  Did it satisfy him?  Did it quell his doubts?  Did it renew his joy? We don’t know.

The pious stories of our youth feel more reliable, filled with ready-made answers. Yet these are not jagged enough for the world we actually live in.  “They’re too lukewarm, too clean, too polite.  They move to closure and triumph so quickly that they turn pain into an abstraction. They dull my capacity to practice genuine compassion, empathy, and longsuffering.  Where is the Christian story that can handle horror?  Where is the Christian story that will equip us to sit gently and patiently in the darkness with those who mourn, fear, rage, or doubt?” (Thomas) Well, they’re right here in our bible, in these readings of Advent.

St. Paul contrasts our present sufferings with future glory. In the epistle for this week James urges patience in suffering at least five times. The book of Hebrews honors all the saints who died “without having received what was promised.” The baby born in the barn will die a criminal death.  John’s death will be both tragic and capricious—a travesty of injustice.

Our readings this week all point to something John missed that is essential to the character of God.  “All five passages emphasize the people toward whom God is biased. These Scriptures describe at least eighteen — eighteen! — sorts of people in pain who might be forgotten by the world but who are nevertheless remembered by God: the blind, the lame, the diseased, the deaf, the dead, the poor, the dumb, the oppressed, the hungry, the prisoners, the bowed down, foreigners, orphans, widows, the humble, and then, my three favorites, those with feeble hands, weak knees, and fearful hearts.” (Daniel Clendenin)

The message of both John and Jesus is a call to live according to the way of God and not the way of the world.  The way of God, it turns out, is to enter into, draw close, and patiently endure all the suffering and violence this world can dish out in order to show God’s peace, love and mercy. That’s how God is turning this old world inside out and upside down.

“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom,” promises Isaiah.  “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” sings Mary, the expectant mother of Jesus.  This holy season of Advent invites us to honor doubt, despair, and silence as reasonable reactions to a broken world.  To create sacred space for grief, mourn freely, and rage against injustice.  To let joy be joy, sorrow be sorrow, horror be horror.  To feel deeply, because that’s exactly what God does.   (Thomas)