Counting the Cost of the Cross

The gospel reading for this week records Jesus saying,
“I assure you that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their lives will lose them, and those who hate their lives in this world will keep them forever.” (John 12:24-25)

The text reminds me of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic “A Wrinkle in Time” – the young adult fiction recently made into a major motion picture.

Meg, the young protagonist in the novel, has answered the call to rescue her father and also little brother, Charles Wallace, from the grip of Evil itself. It finally comes to her that the only weapon she has which the evil IT does not have, is love.

Love.
That was what she had that IT did not have.
She had Mrs. Whatsit’s love, and her father’s, and her mother’s, and the real Charles Wallace’s love, and the twins’, and Aunt Beast’s.
And she had her love for them.
But how could she use it? What was she meant to do?
If she could give love to IT perhaps it would shrivel up and die, for she was sure that IT could not withstand love. But she, in all her weakness and foolishness and baseness and nothingness, was incapable of loving IT. Perhaps it was not too much to ask of her, but she could not do it.
But she could love Charles Wallace.
She could stand there and love Charles Wallace. (P. 228-229)
Even if that meant that she died herself…

Meg knew her limits and her weaknesses. She had the capacity to love, but not enough to love away all that was evil in the universe. In our faith tradition, we know that only Jesus was able to do that fully as he points the way to that in our text.

Even so, Meg was called to risk her life for the sake of the life of another.

Today’s gospel reading is more easily illustrated in books and movies than in our real lives, though we surely see how Jesus’ own life is a perfect example of seed dying, being buried in the ground, and bearing much fruit. It’s a beautiful image, yes?

But here’s the thing. Jesus is not simply speaking of his own death. He is instructing his followers. “Those who love their lives will lose them, and those who hate their lives in this world will keep them forever.” We are also called to die. To despise and let go of these lives that we love.

For us – Christians who live in freedom and relative comfort – this is a difficult concept. Because our own lives are rarely at risk for true religious persecution or extreme physical danger, we often try to make sense of it in one of two ways – spiritual or theoretical. When we spiritualize these instructions, we reduce the mandate to die to self-improvement strategies. We think we’ve done the dying when we’ve become a little more loving or kind or patient or self-controlled. We’ve also understood this concept to be theoretical — why, we don’t really have to die… we just need to be willing to do so on the off chance that a situation might present itself.

I don’t think Jesus is speaking in oversimplified spiritual or theoretical terms here. The text is located near the end of Jesus’ life, and we read it today near the end of an entire holy season – Lent – devoted to dying. My impression is that Jesus took this dying stuff pretty seriously.

Throughout this season we have used some thematic emphases that have been moving us through the dying process.

In week #1 we were called to Environmental Justice… to put to death all the ways in which we abuse and harm the earth and her creatures.

In week #2 we were called to Racial Justice… to put to death all our faulty and sinful attitudes, assumptions, and actions toward persons of color.

In week #3 we were called to heal exploitation and exclusion based on Gender & Sexuality… to put to death the ways in which we hurt people by labeling them or limiting them based gender & sexuality.

Last week #4 we were called to overcome a Culture of Violence… to put to death the ways in which we hurt others verbally and physically instead of loving them as God loves them.

This week we are called to overcome a Culture of Greed… to put to death our own personal tendencies to be tight-fisted, to put to death our assumptions about wealth and poverty, to put to death the ways in which we participate and perpetuate systems that allow a few to accumulate gross riches and keep others poor.

All this dying that Jesus calls us to is real dying. And it’s not the pretty, peaceful, die-in-your-sleep-and-wake-up-in-glory kind. It is the painful, hanging-on-a-cross-suffocating kind. It is agony to put to death the attitudes and assumptions on which we’ve built our entire lives. It is ugly to look at the ways in which we’ve hurt others and deceived ourselves. It is emotional to let go of everything we’ve been taught and believed to be true. But, the only way to resurrection is through crucifixion.

This is the cost of the cross.

On this day when we consider the cost of the cross, we are called to overcome a culture of greed.

We have the gospel text which speaks of seeds dying, falling to the ground, and bearing much fruit, as well as losing our lives in this world in order to find them for eternity.

I have to admit… I was struggling to connect the scripture with the theme until late in the week. While waiting in airports and flying, I picked up a book that I started to read but didn’t finish several months ago, and I’ve been plowing through it since Thursday.

“A World of Three Zeros: The New Economics of Zero Poverty, Zero Unemployment, and Zero Net Carbon Emissions,” by the Nobel Peace Prize winning economist, Muhammad Yunus, is fascinating.

In this book Yunus asserts that a World of Three Zeros is actually possible… that poverty, unemployment, and carbon emissions are human problems with human solutions. He is not a proponent of socialism or communism, and he is not a wealth redistributionist or progressive taxationist.

He begins by naming the inherent flaws and problems with our present economic system. At the core we find personal profit or gain — indifference towards others that breeds greed, exploitation, and selfishness. And he asks readers to consider whether they really want to live in a world where selfishness is the highest virtue. (p. 11)

That is a question worth pondering, yes?

According to him, “a fundamental change in the way we think about economics is necessary.”(p. 8) In other words, something has to die. He calls for us to put to death our assumptions about personal profit and unbridled selfishness so that a new economic engine might be born — one that embraces social businesses based on selflessness, that replaces the assumption that people are simply job seekers with the notion that all people are entrepreneurs, and that redesigns the financial system to make it work efficiently for the people at the bottom.

He doesn’t say it exactly this way, but his theories prioritize human dignity and the inherent worth of every individual. This economic vision of his sounds very much like the way of Jesus. He speaks of “a new economic system designed to truly serve the needs of real human beings, creating a world in which everyone has the opportunity to fulfill his or her creative potential.” (p. 16) Not only does he cast a vision for a more just economy and thus, a more just world, he outlines attainable ways of getting there — harnessing both the entrepreneurial spirit, energy, and creativity of young people and the extensive wisdom, skills, and resources of post-workforce people (he hates the term ‘retired’).

I should also note that attainable does not necessarily equate with easy or comfortable. When old systems die to make way for new, it’s painful.

I’m nearly finished with the book now – one more section to go. And I’m considering ways in which I contribute to and perpetuate an economic system that benefits me and people like me but excludes and even harms others. These things are hard to think about, and changing my assumptions and habits are even harder. Parts of me will have to die.

But, I’m hopeful that if the seeds of my self-interest and greed die and fall to the ground, one day there will be a harvest of fruit — maybe even a World of Three Zeros. Perhaps you share this hope, too.

Jesus calls us to new life. And it will cost us our lives — the comfortable ones we’ve come to love. Jesus beckons us to lose them now so that we might keep them for eternity.

THE TIME HAS COME
by Andrew King

The time is here: be lifted, Human One,
to glorify the God whose rule is love;
the hour of sacrifice is why you’ve come.
Now may we hear the voice that speaks above!

The time is ripe: be planted, Faithful Seed,
to be the grain that life abundant gives.
Teach us the death-to-self that is our need —
that willingness to serve is how to live.

The time is now: shine out, O Lord of Light
into our hearts, into the shadowed earth;
show us the way to love; give us the sight
that sees in every soul eternal worth.

The time has come: be lifted, Holy One,
to draw all people to your saving grace;
as children of your light may we become
the ones who share your love through time and space.

Amen.

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What are you laughing at?

As Abraham welcomed the strangers so God welcomes us.
God greets us with joy and says, “rest here for awhile.”
God brings out water to wash our dusty feet.
God prepares a meal to nourish our weary spirits.
So let us receive the gracious hospitality of our God.
Let us rest in this holy place where there is shade and water, food and laughter. 1

Laughter is a physical response to external or internal stimuli. Laughter can arise from being tickled, or from humorous stories or thoughts. Most commonly, it is considered an expression of positive emotional states, such as joy, mirth, happiness. On some occasions, however, it may be caused by contrary emotional states such as embarrassment, apology, or confusion such as nervous laughter or courtesy laughter.

The study of humor and laughter, and its psychological and physiological effects on the human body, is called gelotology.

Laughter researcher Robert Provine said: “Laughter is a mechanism everyone has; laughter is part of universal human vocabulary. There are thousands of languages, hundreds of thousands of dialects, but everyone speaks laughter.”

Did you know that laughter can be classified according to 5 of its characteristics?
1 intensity: the chuckle, giggle, chortle, cackle, or belly laugh
2 the overtness: snicker or guffaw
3 the respiratory pattern: snort
4 the emotion it expresses
5 the sequence of notes or pitches it produces

Common causes for laughter are sensations of joy and humor. Laughter can also be a coping mechanism when one is upset, angry or sad.

It’s been said that “laughter is the best medicine” and Norman Cousins proved it. After being diagnosed with a painful disease, he developed a recovery program that incorporated laughter induced by Marx Brothers films. He writes, “I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep. When the pain-killing effect of the laughter wore off, we would switch on the motion picture projector again and not infrequently, it would lead to another pain-free interval.” 2

Not only does laughter have healing benefits, but scientists also believe that laughter releases tension and stress. Dr. Madan Kataria has taken these benefits of laughter to new heights. He has launched Laughter Yoga Clubs all around the world; people gather for the express purpose of laughing together. I’ve participated in one of his classes. Trust me… it’s a stitch!

Our scripture lesson for today invites us to consider one of the Bible’s most well-known incidents of laughter.

Genesis 18:1-15 (CEB)
The Lord appeared to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre while he sat at the entrance of his tent in the day’s heat. 2 He looked up and suddenly saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from his tent entrance to greet them and bowed deeply. 3 He said, “Sirs, if you would be so kind, don’t just pass by your servant. 4 Let a little water be brought so you may wash your feet and refresh yourselves under the tree. 5 Let me offer you a little bread so you will feel stronger, and after that you may leave your servant and go on your way—since you have visited your servant.”
They responded, “Fine. Do just as you have said.”
6 So Abraham hurried to Sarah at his tent and said, “Hurry! Knead three seahs of the finest flour and make some baked goods!” 7 Abraham ran to the cattle, took a healthy young calf, and gave it to a young servant, who prepared it quickly. 8 Then Abraham took butter, milk, and the calf that had been prepared, put the food in front of them, and stood under the tree near them as they ate.
9 They said to him, “Where’s your wife Sarah?”
And he said, “Right here in the tent.”
10 Then one of the men said, “I will definitely return to you about this time next year. Then your wife Sarah will have a son!”
Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him. 11 Now Abraham and Sarah were both very old. Sarah was no longer menstruating. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself, thinking, I’m no longer able to have children and my husband’s old.
13 The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Me give birth? At my age?’ 14 Is anything too difficult for the Lord? When I return to you about this time next year, Sarah will have a son.”
15 Sarah lied and said, “I didn’t laugh,” because she was frightened.
But he said, “No, you laughed.”

Sarah laughed. Now, I’m willing to bet that she did not chuckle out of some sense of joy or mirth. She was not tickled nor was she reacting to the visitor’s wit. Sarah’s laugh could probably be classified under nervous laughter: not knowing how else to respond, she snickered to herself… or paradoxical laughter: out of sheer disbelief at the impossible promise, she snorted in derision. A baby, yeah right… or a coping mechanism: having hoped for a child so long to no avail, she cynically chuckled to cover her deep grief and profound sadness.

Sarah laughed. And we know there wasn’t anything funny about her situation. Instead, the man’s promise echoed in her ears like a bad joke.

In all the scientific theories about laughter & humor, two elements seem always to be present: incongruity and surprise.

Incongruity means contradictory or unrelated ideas. Surprise is something totally unexpected and unanticipated. Incongruity and surprise are closely related and are sometimes indistinguishable from one another. Both capitalize on the twist, the unforeseeable. Both jolt us out of one mental attitude into another, which may be completely opposed to the first. It’s incongruity and surprise that lie behind the humor of one-liners like Henny Youngman’s: “Take my wife. . .please.” Or Woody Allen’s: “I don’t believe in an afterlife, but I’m taking along an extra pair of underwear just in case.”

Incongruity and surprise go together in humor. But—and this is the crucial point for us in understanding Sarah’s laugh—it is possible to have humor that deals only in the incongruous and is completely without surprise. That is Sarah’s humor. She can laugh at the preposterousness, the incongruity of an old lady having a baby, of having one foot in the grave and the other in a maternity ward. But that is all she can laugh at: its incongruity. She expects no surprises from God, no novelty, no violations of the world she has grown accustomed to living in and, as a result, her laugh can be only bitter and cynical.

She can hear the Lord say, “your wife will have a son;” and she can crack up in her bitterness. She cannot hear God say, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” If she could, incongruity and surprise would come together, and she would really throw her head back and laugh as she has never laughed before. 3

I want to put two questions before us today, and we will consider them as a community. Remember that even though God made these incredible promises to Abraham and Sarah, God’s promises were never simply to fulfill their individual desires, hopes, and dreams. From the very beginning God’s promises are for a people… God used Abraham and Sarah to bless the whole world. You might consider individual applications of these questions, but don’t forget that God is always looking at the larger picture of redeeming and blessing the whole world. If we are willing, God will use us to bless this faith community and in turn use this faith community to bless the world.

The first, what are we laughing at?

This is a probing question for the congregation. It requires us to be honest with ourselves. Think about the things that don’t make any sense at all – the things that are completely illogical and incongruous. Consider the seemingly impossible things – the things that would require a miracle to pass. Like for instance, $20,000 on a single day in a single offering… or 2 twenty-somethings returning to a childhood church to serve in leadership even though they are the only young couple in sight… or a few people donating 500 hundred of pounds in 5 months… or a group of people with right-wing republicans, left-wing democrats, and progressive independents choosing to worship together and love each other in spite of their differences… or a group of people who voice concern and pray for others whom they love, sure, but also for those they don’t even know.

These things are unlikely and laughable even.

What if God even wants a congregation of retirees to grow as disciples of Jesus, to embrace change and renewal, to engage vibrant, relevant ministry serving a world that needs to hear and experience the gospel?

Perhaps you think that is laughable, but it leads us to the second question.

The second, is anything too hard for the Lord?

That is an overwhelming and shattering question. It demands an answer. If we answer yes, the world is shut down, the universe is closed, and God is no longer God: benevolent, maybe; kindly and concerned, perhaps; but as powerless as we are in the face of our senseless world. If we answer “No, there is nothing that is too hard for God,” then we are in God’s hands, and the possibilities are endless. And God is radically free to keep promises, despite the odds against them.

But beware. When God’s surprise completes our incongruity, we had better be ready to be shaken out of our customary, stable, reliable but hopeless existence. Sarah will go through a pregnancy in her nineties, and worse, her son’s adolescence when she is over one hundred!

The ultimate question becomes, “do we really want to believe that with God there is nothing that is impossible?” For if we believe that, then we can no longer be content to keep on living our lives and coming to church on Sunday mornings as though business were normal. Wild and crazy things can happen and usually do. 4

Money (lots of it) is given cheerfully. Young people show up to participate and lead. Food is shared. Different kinds of people choose to be part of the same faith family. Prayers are lifted to God on behalf of total strangers.

If it weren’t true, it would be laughable. But, we believe it because we’ve seen it with our own eyes. The Lord enables selfish people to be generous. The Lord draws young people to an older congregation. The Lord beckons people to share their food. The Lord empowers diverse people to set aside their differences to be beloved community. The Lord puts prayers in the hearts of the caring. Nothing is too hard for the Lord.

Perhaps we laugh because we hope… deep down we secretly believe that miracles happen.

Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once said that laughter was a prelude to faith. It is critical in this life of ups & downs where often situations & circumstances don’t make sense that we keep our sense of humor, our ability to laugh. If laughter goes, so does hope.

Faith and laughter go together. Only the laughers can believe. Only the believers can laugh. The only thing worse than waiting for God to act in a particular situation or waiting for a time of trial to pass is waiting without laughing.

When God reaffirms his promise to Abraham and Sarah, he restores not only their faith, but their ability to laugh for real… for sheer joy. 5

Sarah did indeed laugh again. Months later when that baby boy was born and it was time for a name, what better choice than Isaac, which means “he laughs”? Genesis 21:6 reports that at Isaac’s birth Sarah said, “God has given me laughter. Everyone who hears about it will laugh with me.”

A few months ago, you may have laughed at the prospect of the surprising things that have happened around here. But, truly, nothing is too hard for the Lord. Aren’t you just a bit curious to know how God might surprise us in the coming months and year?

While we wait and believe and hope for the next surprise, let us throw back our heads and laugh from of the sheer joy and delight of it all. Amen.

  1. https://spaciousfaith.com/2011/10/19/wednesday-worship-piece-calls-to-worship/, Accessed June 12, 2017.
  2. Laughter, Wikipedia, Accessed June 12, 2017.
  3. Excerpted from http://www.directionjournal.org/issues/gen/art_639_.html, Accessed June 12, 2017.
  4. Excerpted from http://www.directionjournal.org/issues/gen/art_639_.html, Accessed June 12, 2017.
  5. Excerpted from http://www.directionjournal.org/issues/gen/art_639_.html, Accessed June 12, 2017.

When life is more like Friday than Sunday…

Some of you can’t summon a joyful “Hallelujah” this Easter weekend. You don’t feel like donning that new dress or tie. You are not interested in putting on a forced smile and sitting in a church filled with people who appear to have it all together.

I imagine that many of us (if we’re being honest) actually prefer the darkness of Friday and Saturday. These days feel much more like our reality. God seems distant. Hope is missing in action. We despair because someone or something out of our control has wreaked havoc on our lives and rendered it hellish. Maybe it’s disease, or violence, or abuse, or loss. Just as likely, we’ve created our own sort of hell through foolish decisions or sinful choices. Perhaps we’ve chosen bitterness and anger. We’ve ruined a relationship. We’ve perpetrated an offense.

I understand the preference for the darkness. Certain seasons of my own life were hellish. I know what it’s like to live in a mess of my own making and to cry out to a seemingly distant and silent God. Those days were dark and incredibly lonely, albeit temporary. Thankfully, darkness always gives way to light.

If you are stuck in the darkness, trust me when I say that you are not alone. No matter what is going on around you or within you, God has not forgotten you or turned a deaf ear to your cries. Quite the opposite, in fact, God knows the depths of your despair because God experienced it on that first Good Friday. Here’s the thing about Friday – it will inevitably turn into Saturday, and Saturday will give way to Sunday on this weekend and in your life.

A friend shared this hauntingly beautiful song with me this week, and I’ve been thinking about it for a few days. Take a listen. If you’ve ever felt forsaken by God for any reason, take heart. Even hell is not a God-forsaken place…

 

Of Travel and Transformation

Just two weeks ago today I returned stateside from a 16-day journey to SE Asia, more specifically, Myanmar and Singapore. Evidence of this adventure remains strewn about my house. Empty (well, almost) suitcases sit in the corner of the living room where they were dropped after a late-night arrival from the airport. Gifts for friends and family members cover the dining room hutch and table. Clothes suitable for summer hang in the laundry room waiting for the torrential spring rain to subside and for the warmth and light of sunshine to arrive for good.

While these inanimate, material things bear witness to an incredible experience, the truest testimony of my visit to the other side of the world lies within my heart and mind. I am different, if only a little. I’ve found this true over and over as a variety of opportunities to travel have come in recent years. Every time that I go and return, I am transformed by all I see, hear, and experience.

The colors and varieties of flowers, plants, and trees are indescribable. The photos don’t do them justice. I wish I had recorded the birdsong and lizard calls outside the window each morning. The birds sang beautifully, and yet it was unfamiliar. As for the geckos, I was more than happy for them to keep their distance, small or not. Nature’s greatest gift, though, was the sunset over the Irrawaddy River. Sitting under an acacia tree I watched the sun become a fiery orange ball before it disappeared into the mountains on the other side of the river. Surely, “the heavens declare the glory of God…”

IMG_1328

And if nature is breathtaking, humanity is even more so. Myanmar is a place of unmatched diversity. How I long for friends and family to experience this richness! I listened in wonder to the myriad languages spoken around me and marveled at the many skin tones (so many beautiful shades of brown!) and various eye shapes (no makeup needed!). The ethnic groups wear the most colorful clothing, and they recognize one another by the fabric patterns and colors. After I was gifted a lovely Kachin scarf, I spent the rest of the week identifying Kachin skirts and blouses by the pattern.

While the natural world and human family spark ongoing awe, wonder, and appreciation for God’s beauty, creativity, and care on a gloriously grand scale that changes the way I look at the world and her people, my traveling companions impacted me even more. Someone once said (maybe?), “If you really want to know people, travel with them.” It’s a fact, proven or not. And the reverse is true as well.

Our authentic selves show up when travel is interrupted or delayed. The truth of who we are most certainly comes through when we are hot, tired, and hungry. Our real feelings are impossible to hide when bad news arrives from the far away land called “home.” The personality traits we despise rise to the surface in moments of frustration. These are realities when traveling with others.

But these are insignificant when compared to the most real and long-lasting memories made with our fellow travelers. Remember all the uproarious moments of deep belly laughter. (Who knew that a “heavy” suitcase and packing “faux pas” could provide days of giggles?) Remember the tender silences and the shared tears… the prayers for family back home. Remember the beautiful meals and animated conversation… the early morning coffee while watching the boats on the river. Remember the smells and sounds of the city… the sunset and the horse cart ride. Remember the giant prawns (if a prawn fork isn’t already a thing, it should be!). Remember the spectacular view from the 57th floor, the storm and the rainbow. Memories are absolute treasures to be sure. But, traveling companions are truly gifts of God.

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Life, like travel, is largesse not to be taken for granted. Opportunities come, and if we embrace them, the most amazing experiences result. When we’re open and willing, those adventures transform us little by little. Perhaps we become more appreciative of beauty and more tolerant of differences. Maybe we develop increasing patience and compassion for both others and ourselves. But the greatest transformation might be to understand what fortune it is to live and journey in relationship with other frail humans. Yes, we see each other for who we really are. But, oh, what a joy to share the experience!

 

 

 

 

This Is Us

Perhaps you have gotten caught up in the phenomenon of NBC’s new family drama, “This Is Us.” Roger and I are hooked, along with mthis_is_us_textuch of America if the internet can be believed.

The show features the Pearson family: a set of triplets, now three adult siblings, who have an interesting birth story (one of the three is not like the others!) plus parents Jack and Rebecca. Each week, we are transported back and forth through the years as the family history is revealed and the layers of time and relationship are peeled back. The story as a whole remains shrouded in mystery; we catch glimpses here and there. By paying attention to the clues, we begin to understand bit by bit.

The show is masterful. “This Is Us” draws us ever deeper into the beautiful story of one family with every episode. It is an equal opportunity heart-tugger. Not a week goes by that we don’t both laugh and cry.
Even the name of the show is brilliant. As the closing credits roll, we realize that in various ways “This Is Us.”
We are the Pearsons.
THIS. IS. US.
Not only are we the Pearsons in the sense that every family is messy and beautiful, but…
We are Mom Rebecca who seeks to do the right thing and still screws up.
We are Dad Jack who doesn’t always know how to express his emotions.
We are son Randall who struggles with perfectionism and sometimes debilitating anxiety.
We are daughter Kate who eats all her feelings and carries guilt for the family’s pain and loss.
We are son Kevin who desperately wants people to see past his appearance to his heart and ability.
We are these parents who love each other fiercely but still periodically fall apart.
We are dying birth father William on a journey to make amends.
We are people who long for reconciliation with ourselves and others but just don’t know how to make it happen.
THIS. IS. US.

Today’s gospel lesson is perhaps so familiar that it no longer moves us, or maybe it never made sense. Our story is about another family: another family with three adult siblings. And it has everything: drama, conflict, suspense, sorrow, and ultimately joy. As I read and reflected this week, I couldn’t help but realize that “This Is Us.” Before the end of our time together, I believe you’ll see it too.
THIS. IS. US.

The Word of the Lord from John 11:3-7, 17, 20-27, 33-45 (CEB)-

3 So the sisters sent word to Jesus, saying, “Lord, the one whom you love is ill.”
4 When he heard this, Jesus said, “This illness isn’t fatal. It’s for the glory of God so that God’s Son can be glorified through it.” 5 Jesus loved Martha, her sister, and Lazarus. 6 When he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed where he was. After two days, 7 he said to his disciples, “Let’s return to Judea again.”
17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him, while Mary remained in the house. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. 22 Even now I know that whatever you ask God, God will give you.”
23 Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again.”
24 Martha replied, “I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die. 26 Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
27 She replied, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, God’s Son, the one who is coming into the world.”
33 When Jesus saw her crying and the Jews who had come with her crying also, he was deeply disturbed and troubled. 34 He asked, “Where have you laid him?”
They replied, “Lord, come and see.”
35 Jesus began to cry. 36 The Jews said, “See how much he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “He healed the eyes of the man born blind. Couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying?”
38 Jesus was deeply disturbed again when he came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone covered the entrance. 39 Jesus said, “Remove the stone.”
Martha, the sister of the dead man, said, “Lord, the smell will be awful! He’s been dead four days.”
40 Jesus replied, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory?” 41 So they removed the stone. Jesus looked up and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me. 42 I know you always hear me. I say this for the benefit of the crowd standing here so that they will believe that you sent me.” 43 Having said this, Jesus shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied, and his face covered with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.”
45 Therefore, many of the Jews who came with Mary and saw what Jesus did believed in him.

Not unlike the writers of “This Is Us,” John is a masterful storyteller. From the beginning of his gospel he told us “What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people.” Last week we read and heard about the man born blind; Jesus – the Light for all people – gave light to the man’s eyes. Today we read about Lazarus who died and was buried; Jesus – the Word that was Life – returned life to his body. John intends for us to see ourselves. We are blind. We are dead. THIS. IS. US.

But there is more here than can be captured by a statement as simple as that. If we are truly meant to see ourselves, there are layers to peel back, mystery to consider, emotions to experience, deep truths to understand, and eternal hope to find.

We are these siblings, thus deeply and profoundly loved by Jesus. The messenger comes to Jesus: the one you love is sick. Plus, our author states emphatically two verses later that Martha, Mary, & Lazarus are loved by the Lord. Jesus’ outpouring of emotions – his tears – at the tomb again affirm his great love for his friends.
THIS. IS. US.

We are these sisters and disciples, thus incapable of fully understanding the mysteries of God’s work in the world and in our lives. Notice that Jesus “tarried;” he did not immediately respond to the need and call of those that he loved. The disciples with him failed to understand, and both sisters expressed dismay and confusion at his late arrival.
THIS. IS. US.

We are these witnesses and followers, thus slow to believe until we see obvious signs. The crowd finally believed in Jesus but not until after Lazarus walked out of the tomb. No doubt many among them had seen Jesus on numerous previous occasions, but they were reluctant to fully trust and wholeheartedly believe.
THIS. IS. US.

Perhaps our greatest point of connection, though, rests with the dead man.
We are truly Lazarus.

Because we’ve always read this story while knowing the outcome, we’ve probably missed the significance of the tale altogether. We’ve heard it from the time we were little children.

Lazarus was ill. Jesus waited to go to him. Lazarus died. Jesus arrived 4 days after he was buried. Martha and Mary were indignant in their grief. Jesus wept. Jesus prayed. Jesus called Lazarus to life. The end. Move onto the next story.

But we mustn’t. The raising of Lazarus is no commonplace occurrence. He died a real human death. The community buried him in a real tomb. He lay there for 4 days.

To the people of Jesus’ day, this is a miracle of miracles. The ancient Jews believed that one’s soul lingered over the body for 3 days after death, and during those days there was hope for resuscitation. But on the 4th day, all hope was abandoned. The 4th day signaled utter hopelessness. Death trampled hope on the 4th day.

But on this 4th day when Lazarus was beyond hope and when he was gone for good, Jesus showed up.

And in one command Jesus brought life out of death – hope out of hopelessness – light out of darkness – freedom out of bondage.

THIS. IS. US.

We are all Lazarus in one way or another. We have been dead and lifeless in our sin and selfishness. We have been bound and wrapped by the grave clothes of a fallen world’s expectations. We have laid in the darkness of despair and begun to smell like our bad choices. We have come to the 4th day, looked at our lives, and wondered if there was anything that could stave off the decay of our bodies and breathe hope into our souls.

THIS. IS. US.

Because we are Lazarus, we can be assured that Jesus loves us deeply.
Because we are Lazarus, we can have hope for all our 4th days.
Because we are Lazarus, we can be certain that Jesus is who he claimed to be – the Resurrection and the Life.
Because we are Lazarus, we can see others from his perspective.

Every single human being is deeply, profoundly loved by Jesus, and no one, no one, is ever beyond hope.

The good news for today and every day is that Jesus Christ is still calling forth life and hope in dead hopeless people. We know this is true because…

THIS. IS. US.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Learning Another Language

What a joy to worship with my congregation yesterday morning! After having spent more than two weeks in Myanmar and having worshipped in unfamiliar tongues, I relished the opportunity to sing, pray, and read in my own heart language. Though I must admit, I missed the rich, deep tones of the ministers in my class as they sang in Burmese. (Check out the short video below!)

IMG_0967https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fangie.jackson.524%2Fvideos%2F10210889428884864%2F&show_text=0&width=560“>Burmese Singing & Prayer

Since journeying to Myanmar again (my 2nd visit), I’ve been thinking a lot about “heart” language. For the multi-lingual among us, one’s heart language is the tongue learned first, the language spoken at home, or the language in which a person dreams. My own heart language is English because I never truly applied myself to high school language studies. My doctoral classmates from the Myanmar Institute of Theology, however, spoke many languages. Burmese is the national language that binds together a diverse population, but it is not the native tongue of the ethnic minorities. The language of the heart among Chin, Kachin, and Karen ministers might be their ethnic group’s mother tongue or even a tribal sub-dialect. One minister in my class spoke two or three sub-dialects, his ethnic language, Burmese, Chinese, and English. Wow.

While my coursework was conducted in English, there were times I did not understand when other languages were spoken. Often my classmates reverted to their heart languages when English words just wouldn’t come. Sunday worship was conducted in two languages, except during my preaching! Then, it started in English and proceeded through two translations. Whew! After church I got a chuckle out of learning that one speaker had read a list of all the donors and donations to the church building fund. ALOUD. DURING WORSHIP. (I’m considering that at my church after the next offering! Can you imagine?)

Sometimes without shared language, we resorted to symbols and gestures. A smile. Food. A bow. Laughter. A handshake. Tears. A wave. The heart speaks, and no words are necessary.

Reflecting on those days, I appreciate what a gift it is to relate to other human beings, to know and be known, to communicate and understand. Relationship is God’s gift, as evidenced in the life of Jesus and made possible in our lives through the Spirit’s work.

Words are helpful, but I wonder if the heart language of the Spirit is spoken in the quiet gestures of love. Welcome. Friendship. Hospitality. Joy. Mercy. Compassion.

With what little is left of this Lenten season, I think I’ll lay aside my pre-occupation with words so that I might grow ever more proficient in the heart language of the Spirit. May I become increasingly fluent in quiet gestures of goodness and love.

Worry & Other Luxuries

 

I depart for Myanmar (Burma) in two weeks and five days. This journey has been almost two years in the making. While there, I will participate in doctoral seminars on Incarnational Theology and Nonviolent Peacemaking. Not only will I take these classes, but I will also witness a theological school graduation, see sacred Buddhist sites, attend church services, visit a busy health clinic, shop the bustling Scott Market, as well as travel to the ancient region of Bagan. The itinerary is extensive!

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To prepare for the journey, there is much to do. Class assignments, work deadlines, and family obligations all compete for limited time and attention. I should be furiously working on the many things that must be completed before I travel, but I have a confession to make. While all those things linger at the back of my mind, none of them are causing me any anxiety. Perhaps if I sensed the urgency, I would be drafting a sermon, reading for class, or writing my annual report. Alas, I am not.

Instead, I am scurrying and worrying about really important matters. Seriously, what am I going to wear in that 100* heat and humidity? How can I cover up this weight that I’ve gained and not be sweaty all the darn time? And not to mention, what am I going to eat for 16 days? Should I pack some familiar snacks in my suitcase? Is it my imagination, or are clothing and food inextricably connected in this scenario? These are the big questions that preoccupy my overactive mind.

Reading the Sermon on the Mount this morning, I came across this gem from Jesus.

“Therefore, I say to you, don’t worry about your life, what you’ll eat or what you’ll drink, or about your body, what you’ll wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothes?” Matthew 6:25

Shallow worries from my broken, vulnerable self – that’s what they are.

While I sit here in a comfy office space with the luxury of worrying about stupid stuff, others have heavy burdens, palpable fears, and justifiable anxiety. I’ve been messaging today with a teenage immigrant from Mexico who is afraid that her family who works hard here and contributes to the community will be deported. Her worry is justified and her fears genuine. For her, the present and future are uncertain. Worrying is not a luxury.

Yes, Lord. Life is indeed more than food and the body more than clothes. Take my selfish worry and transform it into selfless prayer. Use my life to nourish others and my body as your hands and feet. Grant me opportunities to ease the worries of others. May it be so.