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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.

Reformation Sunday, 2019

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

When I was five, I fell asleep on the back of my grandpa’s tractor while he was cutting hay. I got a big ball of dirt and grass in my lungs. “Pneumonia,” they said. I would need regular injections of penicillin. In those days there were no pills to take.  So, that’s how I missed the first two weeks of kindergarten laying in a hospital bed.

I remember the big yellow school bus that came to pick me up my on first day of school-mostly because my mom took a picture of me and our dog, Rusty, standing beside the road.

That same day, for the ride home, my teacher attached a big manila tag to a button on my shirt. It had the bus number written in big black letters. “You still need that tag?” One of the kids asked disbelievingly. After two weeks, the other kids already knew their bus by heart. “You still need that tag?” That question is probably the only other thing I still remember about my first day. How’s it possible you still don’t know? I’m thankful my teacher kept track of my story and took care to provide me with it, because yeah, I did need it. I needed that tag to find my way home again.

Well, the people of Israel should have known. After Exodus, Mt. Sinai, and entry in the Promised Land, they had no excuse.  One could have asked the Israelites, ‘You still need reminding about this whole God thing?”  Well, yes. Yes, they did still need reminding.  So, God wrote a big note for them. It was already written in the book of the Law and the Prophets.  But now, God wrote in big letters on sticky note placed directly on their hearts.  “I will be your God, and you shall be my people… I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:33 & 34.)  God is still doing that. In fact, God is that kind of parent who is always leaving us notes.

Jesus commanded that we be baptized and that we meet him at his Table. These are not prerequisites of grace. They’re not how we merit status as God’s children. They’re sticky notes of grace. Remember, you are marked with the cross of Christ.  You are my child. Partake of living bread and drink of my lifeblood. You are one body, one blood, one people, and that’s the truth.

In the Roman Praetorium, standing before Jesus on the night of his crucifixion, Pilate famously asked, “What is truth?” In a time when we can’t even agree about facts, could there be a more modern question? Jesus showed us what to do in chaotic and confusing times.  Look within yourself. See what’s written there. Remember your baptism. Don’t forget what I taught you seated around my Table. Jesus said, if are my disciples you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32)

They said to Jesus, “What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free?’” (John 8:33b) We have never been slaves to anyone. They had forgotten their ancestors in Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. They overlooked their own obvious everyday reality of Roman occupation.  It’s easy to get lost when you can’t remember where you come from.  It’s hard to know which choice is right when you don’t know where you’re going.

We know its flu season now, but each day of the year is sin season. Blindness to the truth, and forgetting our core values rooted in our God-infused identity, are symptoms of sin.  The antidote is written on your heart, marked on your forehead, and in the food we share today. Remember who you are.  This truth, as Martin Luther said, is what cures the fever dream we all have when our mind, energy, and desire become curved in on ourselves and begin to blot out any thought for God and neighbor. This truth restores us from the many ways we put our self in the place of God.

Lutheran pastor and author, Nadia Bolz-Weber writes, “It can be alcoholism or passive aggression. It can be the hateful things we think but never say or it can be adultery, or it can be that feeling of superiority when we are helping others. Sin is the fact that my ideals and values are never enough to make me always do what I should, feel what I should, think what I should. And anything that reveals those “shoulds” to me is what we call The Law, the Law being the very thing Paul in his letter to the Romans said reveals sin. The “shoulds” in our lives are the things that make us see how far off the mark we are.” Sin is so devious and cunning we can get lost even in our attempt to do what’s right.

This truth sparked the Protestant Reformation. Luther knew what is was like for the Law to convict and accuse him. Feeling this way, Luther read that passage we just heard from Romans, “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift.” (Romans 3:23 & 24). Luther realized the church was pawning off Law as Gospel, and he dared to know the difference, and he became a preacher of Grace, and that changed everything.

To quote a single sentence from Pastor Bolz-Weber: “Because God is our creator and because we rebel against the idea of being created beings and insist on trying to be God for ourselves and because God will not play by our rules and because in the fullness of time when God had had quite enough of all of that God became human in Jesus Christ to show us who God really is and because when God came to God’s own and we received him not, and because God would not be deterred God went so far as to hang from the cross we built and did not even lift a finger to condemn but said forgive them they know not what they are doing and because Jesus Christ defeated even death and the grave and rose on the 3rd day and because we all sin and fall short and are forever turned in on ourselves and forget that we belong to God and that none of our success guarantee this and none of our failures exclude this and because God loves God’s creation God refuses for our sin and brokenness and inability to always do the right things to be the last word because God came to save and not to judge and therefore…therefore you are saved by grace as a gift and not by the works of the law and this truth will set you free like no self-help plan or healthy living or social justice work “shoulds” can ever do.” (Nadia Bolz Weber, “Why the Gospel is More Wizard of Oz-y than the Law,” 10/29/12)

Whether or not you are wearing your bus tag, whether you have been baptized or not, whether or not you come to the Table –the truth is you were created in the image of God. You carry a spark of the infinite within your narrow, mortal frame. All things come from God and return to God. That is how we know where we come from and to where we’re going. That is how we know what will matter most when we get there. They were thirsty. Did you give them something to drink? They were hungry and you gave them something to eat. They were cold or naked and we comforted them. And that’s the truth. Truth to live and to die by.  It is written on our hearts, marked on our foreheads, and in the sack lunch we eat each week –so we don’t forget.  We can’t forget –never forget—we belong to Christ. One body, one blood, one living sanctuary of hope and grace.