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.)
Image may contain: one or more people, child and indoor
          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.

Can You Drink the Cup?

Mark 10:35-45
               35James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus and said, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36And Jesus said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37And they said, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
               41When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be servant of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

          Anybody have a file of all of the really stupid things you’ve said or done over the course of your lifetime?  Probably not a physical file—wouldn’t want anybody reading that!  But a file you keep in your brain.  And take out every so often to review, to remind yourself that “yeah, I really did say that.”  Kind of like you worry a sore tooth with your tongue.
          I find 3 am to be prime time for reviewing my Stupid Stuff File.  The dead of night always brings our misdeeds into sharp relief. 
          Now, the impulse to review these things isn’t necessarily a bad one.  We want to learn from the things we have done, in order to maybe do better the next time.  That’s a primary task of adulting—learning from mistakes and trying to be, you know, decent.
          Don’t you wonder if James and John, the Sons of Zebedee, and [play thunder noise] had a Stupid Stuff File?  If they did, I’m not sure there was a lot of reviewing and learning going on in the time that they were with Jesus.  They seem to move pretty seamlessly from being the ones who want to “call down fire” on inhospitable Samaritans to asking for the seats of honor next to Jesus in his glory, without much time for self-reflection.
          The Sons of Thunder.
          There’s no explanation for why Jesus named them Boanerges—the Sons of Thunder.
          And we don’t need one, do we?
          As you have probably figured out by now, I love the Sons of Thunder.  I love their thunder-y-ness.  I love their boldness.
          I love what they teach us, through what Jesus taught them.
          The lesson before us this morning is one of the best examples in the gospels of Jesus the Pedagogue.  Jesus at his professorial best.  Good teachers don’t just make good lesson plans—they are ready to turn any moment into a teachable moment.
          And luckily for Jesus, the disciples are pretty good at presenting opportunities for daily lessons on ethics and agriculture, fishing and forgiveness.
          James and John are among the best.  And this is their crowning achievement as unsuspecting object lessons.
          “Jesus,” they thunder, “We want you to do for us whatever we ask.”
          Oh, really?!  I’ve had a lot of teachers in my thirty years of schooling—I added it up—exactly thirty—I can tell you how 99% of them would respond to that opening salvo.
          But Jesus simply asks, “What is it you want?”
          “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
          An impertinent request, yes?
          More than that, in fact.  They want the seats of glory, of honor.  They want the seat that belongs to God, in fact.  What is it we say about Jesus in the creed? 
On the third day he rose again,
ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father.

          Jesus sits at the right hand of God, tradition holds, because the earliest scriptural record—from the Psalms on—teaches that the place of greatest honor is at God’s right hand. 
          So when they ask to sit at the right and left hand, they are asking to take a seat of honor, and a seat reserved for God (if Jesus is on the right—God is on the left).
          The one who sits at the right hand of God shares honor, and power, and authority, with God.
          This is not a small request.
          And the other disciples are not amused.
          “How dare they presume to have the seats of honor!  What jerks!”

          The other disciples are human. 
Jesus is human…and also God.  God’s incarnate one, come to be our object lesson in power, authority, and humility.
          Rather than joining the disciples in their anger and frustration, Jesus realizes that this is the moment to try once again to explain what this discipleship thing is all about.  How is God calling us to live together?
          So Jesus calmly turns to the Sons of Zebedee and says, “you think this is about power, right?”
          “Yeah, yeah yeah, Jesus!” they reply.  We wanna do the deeds of power like you do! 
          “Can you drink the cup I drink?  Can you be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”
          “Yeah yeah yeah, Jesus!  Cup.  Baptism.  Check!”
          This has to be entry one in their Shared Stupid Stuff File.  Has to be.  Because, of course, they have no idea what they are saying.  It’s pretty clear to  us, looking back on it with our great 20/20 History Vision, that no one in this story understands what it means to drink the cup that Jesus will drink and to be baptized with the baptism with which he is baptized.
          No one truly understands it, and no one ever has.
          That’s why there was an Incarnation.  God became human because despite all the burning bushes and parted seas and prophetic words and deeds, people have persisted in struggling to understand how God has called us to live together.  We have been mired in the foggy vision of James and John forever.  Believing that what God wants is for us to be all-powerful, to have authority over others, so that we can bend them to our will.
          And we’ve used everything at our disposal, including the Christian faith, to try to get there.
          So God decided to just come down here.  To stand before us in the flesh, to look through our bluster and our naivete and our lust for power…and love us anyway.  Just as Jesus looked at James and John that day, when he said, “Yes, you can drink the cup.” And then turned calmly to the other disciples and explained about The Power.
          “The Power isn’t in lording it over each other.  It isn’t in having the seats of honor. 
          “The Power is Love, children.  Loving and serving each other.  Giving your life as a ransom for others.  The cup that I drink is a cup of suffering alongside those who suffer.
It is a cup of forgiveness.  A cup of joy born of true humility.
          It’s hard to imagine it from what we know, but history records that James and John did in fact drink that cup.  They became the bookends of the martyred apostles—witnesses to Jesus Christ from both sides of his passion.
          According to the Book of Acts, Chapter 12, James was so zealous in teaching the Way of Jesus that he was the first of the Apostles martyred by the Empire.
          John, his younger brother, was the only one of the disciples who did not die a martyr’s death.  History holds that he died of natural causes as late as 98 CE, after a long career of preaching Jesus Christ to thousands of new Christians.
          They could drink the cup.  They did drink the cup.  Jesus reminds us this morning that we are all able to drink the cup.
          James and John remind us that no matter who we are…no matter where we’ve been and what we’ve done…we can be witnesses to the Way of Jesus Christ.  No matter what’s in our Stupid Stuff File, we can be the ones who share a servant love with the world.  No matter what’s going on in the world—how coarse and unforgiving the rhetoric, how cruel and greedy the leadership—we can love and serve each other.  We can love and serve the world.
          Because we are loved.
          And we are forgiven.
          And Loved and Forgiven people have a power beyond any gold or silver or conquest.  We have the power of the cup, the power that lies within us at all times and can never be taken away.
          My prayer for you, people of God, is that you feel that power today.  You feel how much you are loved and how fully you’ve been forgiven by our God, and by our great teacher Jesus Christ.  I pray that being loved and forgiven helps you to unleash the power of love and forgiveness on a world that seems tilted another way. 
          We can tilt it back.  We can drink the cup.