Sunday, November 11, 2018

Life over Death

Sermon for St. Thomas/Holy Spirit Lutheran Church, Year B, All Saints’ Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018
John 11:32-44
                32When 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.” 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
38Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus 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.” 40Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I 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.” 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The 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.”

          So there are a few things we tend to take for granted as Lutheran Christians.  We are “confessional,” which means we follow a Confession—in this case the Augsburg Confession, which I’m sure you talked about last week.  Not that we are wicked and need to confess a lot.
          We are creedal.  We say the creed and we believe what it says.
          At least we assume we all believe what it says.  But I want to check that today, because you know, I’m new here and before we talk about this lesson—this iconic story of the Raising of Lazarus—I want to ask you:
          Do you believe it?
          Do you believe that Jesus raised Lazarus?
          It’s a thing we need to believe.  There are some things in scripture that leave a little room for interpretation.  It helps to understand that our lesson from Revelation comes from a long allegory about the abusive Roman empire.  It’s not “fake news.”  It’s just symbolic, rather than factual.  And it’s okay that it’s symbolic.  Symbolism is important.
          This story before us this morning…this story of how Jesus called Lazarus forth from death…this story is true.  Jesus did it.  The things Jesus did are true.
          As Lutheran Christians, we confess that it is true.  We declare that it is true when we recite the creeds.
          God.  Has power.  Over death.  That power existed in the body of Jesus Christ, who is “God from God.  Light from Light.  True God from true God.”
          Jesus has power over death.  We believe that…right?
          We need to believe that, today of all days, when we gather to remember those who have gone before us, those who have made the journey into God’s loving arms. 
          We gather this day in the certain hope of reunion with them.  In the absolute certitude that God’s triumph over death means that we will meet our beloved ones again.
          How many are lighting a candle this morning?  How many have lost someone and can’t wait to see their beautiful face again?  Maybe you will be looking for a lot of faces on your personal All Saints Day. 
          The Saint I most want to see is this guy [show picture].  Sorry the picture is kind of grainy and that Hi Fi gives you an idea of just how old I am.  (If you are under forty, ask someone at Coffee Hour what a Hi Fi is.)
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          So that’s me and my Daddy.  We apparently had a rollicking time carving that pumpkin.  Not sure why we did it on the living room floor, but I was probably too short for the chairs in the kitchen. 
This is my favorite picture of me and my Dad.  I cleave to every year at this time, since it is for me an image of both Halloween and All Saint’s.
          My Daddy loved me like no one else could.  For two and a half more years after this picture was taken.  Then he was felled by a brain tumor, and our lives were shattered for a long time.
          I can’t wait to see my Dad again.  I hope they have pumpkins in heaven.
And I believe with every fiber in my body that I will see my  Dad again.  Because I believe that Jesus raised Lazarus.  That Elijah raised a widow’s son in Zarephath, that Paul raised Eutychus after he fell out of a window (Acts, Chapter Twenty—look it up if you don’t know the story—it’s a good one.)
          I believe all those stories.  Don’t you?  Don’t we believe that our God has power over death?  That one day we will indeed be united with the ones we love?
          And that God has given us some of that power?  We believe that, too.  Right? We know that God has delivered into the hands of prophets and apostles the power of life.  Moses had it—or at least his snake-on-a-stick had it. Elijah had it.  Paul had it.  Jesus was born with it.  There are apocryphal gospels that tell stories of him using that power as a little kid.  But our gospels tell us that he began using the power at about age thirty, when he began his public ministry.
          That power is the main character in the story before us.  No disrespect to Lazarus, but he doesn’t even get a speaking part.
          If you know the whole story—how many do?—you know that Jesus got word that Lazarus was sick, and then he waited two days.  He told the disciples that it was time to go to Judea to see Lazarus, because Lazarus had fallen asleep, to which they answered “Lord if he’s just asleep, he’ll be okay.”  They just don’t understand metaphor.  It’s not their fault.  So Jesus said, “no, he is dead.”  To which Thomas, St. Thomas, the patron of this very congregation, replied, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
          So they go, though I am pleased to report that they do not, indeed, die with Lazarus.  They do, however, encounter one person after another who believes that death will have the final word in this story.  First Martha, then Mary, then the crowd, and then Martha again.
          Jesus demands that they roll away the stone and Martha objects.  “He’s been dead in there for three days.  Even his spirit has left his body by now.  And Jesus, the smell!”
          Leave the stone alone, she cries.  They all believe Lazarus is gone.  And there is nothing that Jesus can do about it.  Which is why he is there.  Why he prays this prayer before the tomb:
“Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I 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.” 
          Then he calls Lazarus back into life.  Jesus can do that.  Restore life.
          Anybody here need a little restoration?  Anybody got something in your life that has been given up for dead—a relationship…a dream.  And you’ve stuck it in a cave and rolled a stone in front of it?
          We do that.  Sometimes we even do it to ourselves.
          For a while when I first came out, I hung out in that cave.  I was so afraid that the people I had known before—as Fake Straight Me—would hate me, or disown me.  I lost some relationships forever, not because I was gay, but because I was afraid to trust the other person.  It took me a couple of years to realize that the people who loved me loved me.  I was still the same person, after all.
          I’m guessing others of us have done the same thing, for lots of different reasons.  Given up on relationships.  Given up hopes and dreams.  Just put ‘em in a tomb and rolled a big heavy stone in front and all that’s left is the pain you feel when you think about them. 
          The pain never wants to stay in the tomb, though.  And Jesus doesn’t want us to be in tombs.  All of us, or part of us.  He wants us to have life, and have it abundantly.
          People of God, the power of life is in our hands.  The power to roll away those stones is in us.  Jesus has made us his disciples and reminded us that no death is final.  If you have lost a relationship, or given up on a dream, there is still hope.  The heaviest of stones will give way to the Power of Christ flowing through us.
          If you come today with a heart heavy with grief over loved ones who have died, hear this promise today:  you will be united.  There will be restoration.
          We are confessional, Lutherans.  So I confess this on our behalf this morning:      
          Our God is a God of life.

          Our God is a God of hope.
          And life and hope are in our hands, and in our hearts, by the power of Jesus Christ.  Power which is stronger than death, stronger than stones, stronger than doubt.

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