Politics, Sincerity, and Men of God

Obama, Graham, and the “Birthers”

Graham jr.

The reason I often grow weary of politics in general is that it is so often filled with insincerity.  People say things they know are not true because they have an agenda.  They cite numbers they know come from dubious sources when proposing budgets.  They proclaim certain consequences (“this will create/kill jobs”) that are utterly speculative.  They rarely answer the questions they are asked.  Both parties do this; no one can claim clean hands.  It’s politics.

One of the reasons many people have grown weary of the church these days, is that they believe it has become too political.  It is almost as if some denominations have become the religious branch of a particular party, blessing its platform, uncritically endorsing its candidates.  When the church becomes enmeshed in a system that we all know is regularly insincere in its presentation of “truth” then people are right to stop listening.

But it is, for me, especially disappointing when religious leaders who have large public followings and long-standing reputations as “men of God” fall prey to the lowest level of insincere political rhetoric.

Today, finally, even though no reason has ever been produced to need it, the White House released the “long form” of the president’s birth certificate.  No one ever produced any alternative birth certificate.  No one in a position of responsibility in any hospital or government office ever disputed the president’s birth in America.  It was only and exclusively that people with a political agenda kept asking the question, even after sufficient evidence was produced long ago, that the question existed.  This is the height (or rather, depth) of insincerity.

I can understand Lou Dobbs asking the question as if it were unanswered – he had a political axe to grind and grind it into the dust, he did.  I can understand Trump asking the question again – as if he did not know the answer; he has a political axe to grind with  a lot of self-interest at stake.

But as recently as the Easter Sunday broadcast of Christiane Amanpour’s “This Week” program on ABC, none other than Rev. Franklin Graham spoke of the president’s birth certificate as one of the issues he had to yet resolve.

Now either Graham did his homework about this issue or he spoke off the cuff.   But if he did his homework (as he should have done before speaking) he would have known that this was a farce concocted by political enemies.

If he did not do his homework (and I am hoping he did not – to give him the benefit of the doubt) then he spoke of something he has no solid information about.

Either way, here is a “man of God” being interviewed on national television (and the internet) making an allegation that has no basis in fact; whether he knew it (the depth of insincerity) or not (pontificating out of ignorance) either way, “the church” takes another one on the chin.  Franklin has clearly identified with one political agenda – and has done so in an embarrassing manner.  Yes, of course this scandalizes people and gives them another reason to reject the church, when “men of God” speak the insincere rhetoric of politics.

Easter Sermon, April 24, 2011, John 20:1-18 “See?”

John 20:1-18

See?

The Best Story We Tell

Of all the stories we tell – like the story of our country, or the story of our family’s history, or our own personal life story, this one is by far the best.   This is the story we tell that  puts all the others in context.  This is the Easter Story.

When we tell our stories, we tell them from our own unique perspective; our own individual way of seeing.   Today we are are looking at the

Family Story

story from John’s gospel; we get to hear John’s way of seeing the story.  John embeds details in this story that scream out, with significance that goes way beneath the surface, so we need to pay close attention.  When we do, we will see ourselves in this story.  Let us begin.

The Dark Beginning

At the beginning, we see Mary coming to the tomb in which they laid the body Jesus.  It’s the first day of the week, and it’s dark.  Mary’s story begins in darkness.

So many stories do: the story of the world began in darkness and chaos. Our own stories begin in the darkness of a womb.  Episodes of our life’s stories begin darkly.  Perhaps this is a dark moment in your story.   Hope seems to require light – at least some – like a glimmer that shows the end of the tunnel.  This story begins without a glimmer.

What do you see in the dark?  Not much.  Shapes.  Mary can see the shape of the stone that guarded the opening of the tomb, but she can also see the black shape of the opening itself; the stone had been removed.

So now all she can see is her fears, her worst nightmare.  She runs away from the sight of what certainly must have been a crime – what other explanation could there be?  People swallowed in darkness are prone to a certainty of despair that may go beyond the evidence.  But if you have ever been there, you know how certain the despair can feel.

“Doting on a Crime” – Shins

Mary meets Peter and the other disciple and announces:

“They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

Who is the “they” whom, she is certain, removed the body.  And more curiously, who is the “we”  who do not know where they have laid him (she has been alone, after all).

We are the “we”

This is where we see that John is telling us this story in a way that invites us to enter and be a part of the story.  We are there – we are in the hopeless darkness; we do not know where Jesus is.

alternative explanations possible

So we run on that sudden foot-race back to the tomb with Peter and the other disciple.  Now their paths diverge as they each start seeing things (is the dawn breaking?) but not the same things.  Now we will be given options about whom to identify with.

Looking in from the outside

First the other disciple, the race winner.  He got there first.  He has the highest need to get things settled.  He had a lot riding on Jesus, a lot at risk.  In John’s telling, he is always  called, “the one whom Jesus loved.”  Love is at stake here.  Of course he ran faster.

5 “He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in.”

Of course he did not go in.  Tombs are impure spaces.  You become impure if you enter a tomb. What could make you bold enough to cross that sacred barrier?   And yet, from where he was, outside, he could see the grave clothes inside.  He could see that what he thought he would see was mistaken.  He could see enough to know that the not-normal had happened.  But what?  Multiple explanations could be given.

Some of us are in that state right now.  Something has tugged at us enough to get us here to church on Easter Sunday, but we don’t consider ourselves “all in.”  We don’t see enough yet to dispel doubts.  Nevertheless: there is something rather than a corpse.

Going “all in”

Peter arrives.  Protecting his well-earned reputation for being impetuous, he breaks the purity code and charges into the open tomb.  Having committed himself to being all-in, in spite of his doubt and fear, he is in a position to see even more.

“He saw the linen wrappings lying there,  7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.”

Grave-robbing in the first century was a capital crime.  If you were going to do it, you’d best be quick about it.  Grave robbers were undoubtedly

all in?

un-tidy people.  Rolling up the long narrow head wrapping would be like re-winding a soiled gauze bandage that you had just removed from the head of a brutal murder victim.  That’s not going to happen.  Some other explanation had to be available.

Peter saw more, but yet – what?  He leaves.  Maybe you are in Peter’s shoes.  Maybe you have lots of evidence all around you that leads you up to the door of faith – you feel the tug the wonder of beauty, the call of justice, a sense that we are not alone in a meaningless universe – but is that enough?  Apparently not for either of these:

10 “Then the disciples returned to their homes.” 

On not seeing the Unexpected

So now Mary is alone back at the tomb.  Weeping with grief, she too looks in.

12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.

I’m not sure I would “see” and angel, even if I saw an angel.  I’m just not prepared to see angels.  John tells us she saw two angels, but, did she actually realize what they were?  We always assume so – but perhaps not.  She engages their question to her with a matter-of-factness that I would not be capable of in the presence of angelic beings.

13 “They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

The same blindness-based nonchalance happens again.  She is not prepared to see a resurrected Jesus, so when she “sees” him, she doesn’t see that it is him.

14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.  

All of us have been Mary.  We have all been face to face with Jesus and didn’t know it at the time.   God has been there, working in our lives, but not present in our consciousness.   It’s the old “footprints in the sand” syndrome.  We have felt so alone, so isolated, so without-hope.  He was there, all the time.  But expecting not to see him, we did not see him.

Name Calling and Seeing

Sunrise, Israel, 2009

Then, the most gracious, merciful, wonderful thing happens.  He calls our name:

16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!”

She heard Jesus call her name, then she saw him; then she knew!

The Easter Question

Here is the question: have you heard him call your name?  This is the greatness of the Easter story: not just that resurrection happened, not just that sins are forgiven in some theoretical theological sense.  Much more!  The Easter story we are invited to enter is one in which we are there, at the open, empty tomb, seeing Jesus, alive, looking into our eyes, and calling us by name!

Can you go that far this morning?  You are here on Easter Sunday – so something has brought you this far.  Perhaps it is simply tradition or family obligation, but nevertheless, here you are.   Perhaps you have been on the outside looking in.  You have reasons for wanting to believe and yet reasons to hesitate.  He knows.  It’s OK.  But there is more.

This morning, picture it.  You look into his eyes and he into yours, and calls out your name to you, like someone who has been standing at the door waiting for a long lost friend.  Are you willing to be named by the risen Christ?

Be Named

Be named this morning!  Hear him calling you.  Go “all in”!

But be prepared; to be named personally by the risen Christ is to be changed!  To have your eyes opened is to start seeing the whole world differently.  Now the sun has come up and it is no longer dark.

The final step in this best-of-all stories happens next.  It is a command from the risen Christ who assumes the authority to be Lord.

go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’

Seeing, “Go!”

“Go” Go and change the way everything is seen.  Go and announce that the risen Christ is no longer limited to one place in one garden, but is now the ascended Christ.  Go, now knowing that wherever you go, the risen Christ is present there.

This will change the way you see everything.  You will see the world now as you realize he was seeing it.

You will see hungry people, and suddenly see a mission field awaiting your compassionate response.   You will see suffering people and instead of seeing objects of pity or reasons to look away, you will see opportunities for the glory of God to be revealed in and through your loving involvement.  You will see lepers, and now, with your newly opened resurrection eyes, you will not have the impulse to shun them or shame them, but you will embrace them because you will see the risen Christ embracing them.

And you will see yourself, not as you used to; not alone, hopeless, and in darkness, but rather in the presence of the one who loves you, who died for you, and who rose alive from the dead, and now calls you by name.  Hear him calling!  Listen!  Look!  Respond!

Circle of Hope: Ecumenical Community Prayer Service on the 1st Anniversary of the BP Oil Disaster

10 Churches from Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and Foley came together to participate in a common prayer service on April 20, 2011, the first anniversary of the BP oil disaster.  During the service, 11 balloons were released, one for each of the people killed on the failed BP oil rig.

Is the Resurrection for Real? – my take on it

“Is the Resurrection for Real?” is the question that Patheos is asking its mainline Protestant bloggers to respond to.  Here is my take on it.

Why would we ask the question?  At Patheos, the secondary title after asking the question is,

The anniversary of the Gulf oil "spill" April 20, 2010

“In our modern scientific world, does belief in a Resurrection make sense?”

The bloggers are overwhelmingly positive in their answers, and I agree; yes, the resurrection is real and physical (though, admittedly weirdly so, if Jesus’ resurrection body goes through walls and has breakfast on the beach).

But my question is about the question itself.  Why ask it?  Does the question reveal some discomfort with the issue?  Is it really our knowledge of science and our self-perception of being all modern that makes us wonder about Jesus’ resurrection?  After all, C.S. Lewis (and probably others before him) pointed out that the concept that dead bodies stay dead was pretty well established in the ancient world; it doesn’t take the Enlightenment to come to that conviction.

But could it also be that something other than scientific reasoning is behind resurrection qualms?  Could it be our uneasiness with physicality itself?  Perhaps we are perpetually as ashamed by our nakedness as Adam and Eve were, upon discovery.

But God is not embarrassed by the physical world.  The God we Christians know (via Judaism, of course) is the one who made a physical world and repeatedly pronounced it “good.”   We could never be gnostics who think that there is something inherently degrading about being physical.  We could never be Platonists and undervalue the physical world by comparison to the world of the forms.

And all this physicality is why what we do with our physical world, the one that Jesus was resurrected into, matters so much.  This is why poverty and hunger for literal bread is such a scandal.  This is why killing is so bad.  This why the see-saw between “development” and recovery-from-development is so agonizing.

Today, April 20, 2011 is the one-year anniversary of the BP oil disaster (not just a “spill”) in which 11 lives were lost and for 87 days following, raw oil and gas gushed into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  The church I serve is in Gulf Shores, Alabama.  I can bear witness to the fact that though the beaches are sugar-white again, the damage is still on-going for people who lost their businesses, their security, and for some, their marriages as they struggle to cope with the disaster.

We have held a 24 hour prayer vigil on the beach, each local church taking turns.  This evening at 6:00 we will all gather for a community prayer service.  We will pray to the resurrected Lord for our physical planet, and the people created to live on it, certain because of resurrection that he is there to hear, and that he cares.

Palm Sunday Sermon on Matthew 21:1-11 “From What?”

Zechariah 9:9-10 

Matthew 21:1-11

Everyone who has ever been to a football game or a political rally or a rock concert knows that there is a peculiar feeling you get from being in a large group of

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excited people.  It’s intense.  Crowds take on characteristics of unity almost as if every person is just part of one big organism.  They can do the wave or clap in unison (as they do at concerts in Eastern Europe).

Big crowds make police nervous.  Things can happen; they can get out of control.  Peaceful demonstrations can quickly become violent if the right spark occurs.  Look at how nervously and tragically desperate the governments have been when huge crowds take to the streets in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain.  Yesterday in Zagreb, Croatia too.

Passover Memories & Hopes

So it was at Passover time in Jerusalem.  Lots of people; multitudes.  They are excited to be there.  They have come from all over the country to this important religious event.  They are full of Passover meals, passover stories, passover hopes.

When they gather to share the Passover meal, they re-tell the story.  They remember together how it all started.  “There we were, long ago, filthy, exhausted, aching, hungry slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but one night, God came, and delivered us!  Next thing you know we were crossing the Red Sea into freedom!  God saved us from Pharaoh!”

They could not tell that story often enough.  “Memory is hope,” so they say.  It gets you worked-up just thinking about it.

It had happened once; in fact it had happened twice!  They had been conquered and captured by the Babylonians too.  For seventy years they were away from their land while their temple lay in ruins.  But God saved them from the Babylonians!  They returned, they rebuilt.

In fact, God had saved them a third time when they threw off the yoke of the Greeks in the great Maccabean War.  What a day that was when Simon the Maccabee came riding into Jerusalem triumphantly on a war horse as people waved palm branches in celebration.

So now, here they all are, crowding each other to get to that re-built temple for another Passover celebration.  Tensions are high on the streets.  Everybody is thinking the same thing: “God could do it again.  If he wanted to, God could do to the Romans what he did to the Egyptians, the Babylonians,  and the Greeks.  God could save us from the Romans!”

What the Romans Know

The Romans are no fools.  They know what Passover celebrates.  They know what Liberation memories do inside the heads of conquered people.  They know

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crowds, and they know about crowd-control.

So each year at Passover, Pilate leaves his sea-side palace and comes to Jerusalem for Passover.  He does not travel alone, nor lightly.  He comes with horses, with chariots, with armored soldiers.  They march down the road; the earth trembles.  The sun reflects off of their helmets and shields, their armor clanks in rhythmic time with their marching.

You can feel their collective power.  You know that they know how to use those swords and spears.  You know they feel no qualms of conscience about using them.  It’s a show of force with a specific intention: prevention by intimidation.  Works every time.   Or nearly every time.

Mirror Parades

Pilate and all of that power with him march into Jerusalem from the West.  The East side of Jerusalem faces the hill famously called the Mount of Olives, known for its groves of olive orchards.  It’s an old name, as old as the nation of Israel.  Even the old prophets called it the Mount of Olives.   Zechariah had prophesied boldly:

 3Then the LORD will go forth and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle.  4 On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives, which lies before Jerusalem on the east”    Zech. 14:3-4

So Pilate and all his power is coming down the hill from the West towards Jerusalem, while at the same time, a mirror parade is coming down from the East.  From the Mount of Olives comes Jesus and company.  The scene is almost comic.  There he is, riding a donkey colt, not a big war horse like Pilate’s.  His colt does not pick up his hooves in stately parade manner.  In fact this young donkey has never been ridden; it’s not happy to have its first rider.  It doesn’t cooperate easily.

People notice this awkward scene, but they start getting ideas.  They start shouting.  The crowd forms.  They get branches and start waving them.  They start lining the lane with their coats like you would for a king’s entrance.  Could this be the king that Zechariah spoke of?

“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”  –  Matt 21:5 (Zechariah 9:9)

They start shouting in unison, “Hosanna” or, in English, “Lord, Save us! Lord, Save us!

“Save us” from what? 

It is crucial to notice that there was a huge disconnect between what the people on that parade route were wishing for and what Jesus had in mind.  He was not on a war horse like Pilate, he was on a donkey – a colt!  He was not coming with heavy weapons, in fact he was completely unarmed.  It’s as if everything about Jesus’ parade was a mockery of Pilate’s power-politics parade.  Was that all he was mocking?

Clearly the people shouting “Hosanna” that day wanted to be saved from the Romans.  Just as clearly Jesus knew they needed to be saved from themselves.  Jesus had told them numerous times in a number of different ways that the path of armed revolution was the path of disaster.  Yes, he was mocking that plan as much as he was mocking Pilate as he rode that ornery little beast.

There is more to it, of course, but let us stop right here and notice this: Jesus heard their cries  of “Lord, save us” and knew that first they needed to be saved from themselves.  That the path they were on was going to end in ruin (which of course, it did, just a bit later).

All the gospels show us this strange contradiction between what the people meant and what Jesus meant by “Lord, save us.”  Maybe we need to look at that and put ourselves in this story.

How many times have we heard ourselves say “Lord save us” with a very specific plan in mind for how he needs to do it?   But could it be that God wants first to save us from ourselves?

“Lord, Save us!” (from ourselves!)

I wish God would save us from our short-sightedness.

As a culture, we are like people putting off the visit to the dentist.  We seem to wait to the very last minute to act, when it’s probably too late, and end up with tragic results.

For example, we all know that the path out of poverty is hopelessly road-blocked without high quality education, but look at how we choose to run our schools

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in poor parts of our nation.  And we expect them to turn out people equipped to escape poverty?  Lord, save us from short-sightedness.

We all know that people with no legitimate means of escaping poverty will turn to illegitimate means, drugs, crime, violence.  But we prefer to wait and then spend our money on police, courts and prisons, rather than on effective prevention.  Lord, save us from short-sightedness.

We all know that poor sick people end up in our emergency rooms, where the care they receive is the most expensive in the world.  But we would rather wait and spend the money on emergency room care than on effective health care that would prevent the need for much of it.  Lord, save us from short-sightedness.

We all know that a welfare system that penalizes marriage creates an incentive for single parent families – and we all know that statistically they produce children that do less well in school, have more sick days, have lower graduation rates, and are more likely to be poor and need assistance.  Lord, save us from short-sightedness.

We all know that outrageous medical malpractice settlements produce out of control price increases in medical care for all of us, but we won’t cap them. Lord, save us from short-sightedness.

We all know that conducting off-budget wars makes a mockery of financial responsibility as if nobody will have to pay the bill if it’s not written in the budget.  Lord, save us from short-sightedness.

Adolescent Freedom Obsession

There are all kinds of ways in which we need to be saved from ourselves.

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I wish God would save us from our adolescent-like obsession with freedom, as if being told “no” was a fate worse than death.

We all know that there will always be people who will be as bad as they are allowed to be – lots if them.  And yet in the name of freedom we pretend that regulations are not needed.  As if people who are in a position to ruin everything would never be bad.

As if, for the sake of short term financial gain, they would never risk our jobs, our pensions, our health, our whole economy, or our planet.  As if banks, oil companies, mining companies, investment companies, gun sellers and all the rest were all self-disciplined saints immune from temptation.  Lord, save us from ourselves.

& Etc.

There are so many ways in which we need to be saved from ourselves.  From our cultural obsessions with sex, and with violence.  From our blindness to our own greed and selfishness.  From our judgmentalism and presumptuous unwillingness to forgive others.  From our double standards that hold people guilty for the very things we excuse in ourselves.  From our hostility to people who look differently, speak differently, or don’t fit the standard mold.  Lord, save us from ourselves.

Let this be our Palm Sunday prayer, “Come to us, Lord, on Palm Sunday, mocking our self-destructive plans with your little donkey.  Hear our cries of “save us” and take them seriously; save us from ourselves, O Lord.  Hosanna!”

Prayers for Lent 5A

 

Prayer of Adoration

Heavenly Father,

Source of life of every living thing;

from the smallest flower,

to the largest mammal,

everything that lives gives you praise.

The grasses and tree tops

wave offerings to your glory,

sea turtles and pelicans

glide with effortless joy,

dogs and cats nap and play,

men and women

burst into song at the wonder of life

and the mystery of living.

O God, giver of life,

we love you,

and we know that you love us;

in the name of the Father

and of the Son,

and of the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and forever. Amen.

 

 

Prayer for Illumination

Send now, O Lord,

your Spirit, your Breath, your Wind

into every corner of our beings,

into dark, closed off rooms,

into places that smell of death,

send us your Word, O Lord,

that we might come to life

and breath new air;

suspend our disbelief,

that we may receive your word

and live,

through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

 

“Dry Bones and Dead Zones Live” Lectionary Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent April 10, 2011

Ezekiel 37:1-14

John 11:1-45

Names: what we do and don’t know

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This story, as John tells it, starts out about Lazarus:

1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.

What do we know about Lazarus?  Precious little!  At the outset, we learn that he lives with his sisters, Mary and Martha in Bethany and that he is ill. Readers of John’s gospel don’t know any of these characters yet (that story of Mary and Martha is in Luke, not John).  Later we learn that Jesus loved Lazarus, and he died.  That’s it.

We never hear Lazarus speak.  We do not get to see any scenes in which Lazarus is with Jesus, with one exception; in the next chapter we see him, but all he does is sit a the table, in his own house, with Jesus, at supper (12:1-2).  Who is this mystery man?

Lazarus’ name is a shortened form of Eleazar, which means “God helps.”  He is from a town whose name, Bethany, which means “House of Affliction or Depression.”  This story is about how “God helps” a person in “the house of affliction.”  The only other way Lazarus is described is found in the  note that his sisters send to Jesus, announcing his illness.  It says,

3 “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”

Lazarus is called, “he whom you (Jesus) love(s).” Is there anyone here who does not feel named by that description?  Maybe none of this is coincidental.  Let’s keep looking at this story.

Love, expectation, and delay: clues

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Jesus and the disciples are not in Bethany with the family when Lazarus gets sick.  So they send him that note.  It’s short; almost cryptic.  It’s as if every word cost them a fortune.

3 “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”

No request is made; just the strongest implication that they and Jesus know what love would do.   But the story is not that predictable:

5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

Every time we pray we do this too, consciously or not. We come to God because we are in some kind of “house of affliction” or someone we love is there, and we believe that we know what a loving God would do; we presume that we know the kind of help God will give.  Silent Lazarus probably had some expectations too.

Jesus loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, but did not come when called.  Why not?  There is something going on that is more important than illness.

Jesus responds to the note about Lazarus’ illness out loud, among his disciples.  He is, admittedly, arcane.  Nevertheless, they seem thick-headed at best.  Jesus tells them that Lazarus is “asleep,” and they don’t seem to get it that he is dead, though sleep has been a metaphor for death for a long time.

11 he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead.

But I don’t believe the disciples were stupid.   Rather, this is a way the writer, John, alerts the reader, me and you, that there is something meant here beneath the surface.  It’s like winking.  Yes, John, we get it, you mean Lazarus is dead, not just asleep.

But maybe you mean even more than that.  Maybe we are to see in the death of “the one Jesus loved” who lived in “the house of affliction” something about ourselves.  After all, don’t we believe we are loved by Jesus?  Don’t we, at times, reside in the “house of affliction?”  Are we to see ourselves in Lazarus?  If so, in what sense are we dead?  Are we able to be raised to life?

Can these bones breathe?

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There have been times when the whole nation, God’s chosen people, were dead.  Ezekiel’s prophetic imagination gave him a vision of the nation as if they were all a bunch of dried bones spread out on a dusty valley floor.  “Can they breath?” God asks the prophet?  Ezekiel gives a cagey answer,

“O Lord GOD, you know.”

God does know that dead bones of that nation can come back to life – on one condition:

4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.

If the bones “hear the word of the Lord” when he calls, then they will live.  God is able to send his Spirit into dead bones who “hear the word of the Lord” and that spirit, that breath of God will come into those dead bones, and they will live.

Hearing the voice

It turns out that hearing “the word of the Lord” is crucial in John’s telling of this story of the mystery-man, now dead-man, Lazarus.  John turns our attention to Jesus’ voice repeatedly.  Jesus finally reaches Bethany, and finds death, mourning, maybe some resentment about his timing, and faith that has some serious gaps.  Lazarus is dead, people are crying, and both sisters identically express that combination of faith plus criticism:

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. (vv. 21 & 32)

The sisters both have a kind of faith: they believe in the resurrection at the end of time – all well and good.  But do they believe that God can bring life where there is death now, right here, today?  To help them fill in this faith-gap, Jesus lets them hear his voice as he prays:

41“And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I 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.”

The solution to death, according to Ezekiel, is to “hear the word of the Lord.”  This is the solution for Mary and Martha as well, and, it turns out, for Lazarus, who is about to find out what “God helps” is all about.  He is going to hear himself called by name:

43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The 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.”

Now we see what God’s help is all about: it is about bringing life where there was death; faith, trust, belief where there was disappointed skepticism, God’s voice into a space that had been formerly filled with the tear-soaked sound of mourning.

Us in this story

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I believe we are to see ourselves in this story.  We are here in all of the characters Jesus touches.  We are like the thick-headed disciples who do not understand the greater plan of God at work behind the scenes.  We are like Mary and Martha who have gaps in our faith about what God can do, now, today.  But most of all, we are the mystery-man Lazarus, who lives Bethany, the house of affliction, and who needs to experience “Eleazar” God’s help.

What specific help do we need?  Just like the Gulf of Mexico, after the oil spill, which has places deep under water where there is no vegetation, no fish, no life, in other words, dead zones, so we all have personal dead zones.

Dead Zones

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Dead zones are gaps in our faith.  Places where the Spirit of God is not breathing new life because we are just not sure we can trust him.  Sometimes we have been sitting there in the house of our affliction and he has not come when we thought he would if he loved us.   So when push comes to shove, and when trusting him involves risk, we hold back.

Some of us have dead-zones in our lifestyles.  We have patterns of behavior that are destructive to us or to those around us, but we don’t believe we can change – or maybe we don’t even want to change yet.  But it’s a dead zone; and if we opened the door and looked at it, it would stink like an open tomb.

Some of us have dead zones in our compassion.  We were raised to look out for ourselves, we have worked hard to get where we are, and we cannot imagine why everybody else cannot do the same.  We look at suffering and find reasons to blame the victims.  We look at need and have the impulse to turn away.  We find excuses for willful blindness, as we spoke of last week.  And meanwhile, a dead zone grows in our hearts, as suffering around us increases.

“Come out!”

But there is a solution to our dead zones.  Dead zones, like dry bones, can live.  The word of the Lord is calling.

The challenge to all of us today is to look at ourselves with life-and-death seriousness.  Where are my dead zones?  Where am I not responding to the voice of the Lord?  Where, in my life, do I find it hard to trust him?  With my money?  With my tongue?  With my pride?  With my politics?

We are Lazarus, and yes, God helps by calling us to come out of our tombs.  Listen to his voice; he is calling!  Come out, into the light.  Trust him to be able to be the resurrection and the life for you now, today.

 

 

Many thanks to Alyce M. McKenzie,  Professor of Homiletics, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, for her helpful insights on this passage at Patheos.