All Saints, Year B, 2015

“Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” That’s what the Gospel of John tells us right after Jesus hears the news of Lazarus’ death. This family is special to Jesus. So special that Jesus stays with them in Bethany when he travels to Jerusalem to face his death. If you map out that final week or so of his life, you see him walking back and forth from Bethany to Jerusalem, over and over. They gave Jesus the comfort he needed to face the most difficult time in his life. So, Lazarus, Mary and Martha are not anonymous people that are part of a crowd who follow Jesus. They aren’t even the disciples. Martha, Mary and Lazarus are Jesus’ friends, his tribe. Mary anoints Jesus. She is the only person in his life who seems to truly understand that death is in his future. In the Gospel of Luke we experience Mary and Martha as bickering sisters, but in the Gospel of John we see them both as women of faith, beloved of Jesus.

So, when their brother Lazarus dies, and Jesus does not come right away to heal him, both the sisters are understandably devastated. They have sent word to Jesus, Jesus could have come, but he doesn’t. Jesus has healed hundreds of other people’s brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers, but he won’t come to Bethany to heal one of his closest friends?

One of the most painful experiences after the death of a loved one can be this sense that God has abandoned you and your loved one. That, if God really saw your pain, heard your prayers, loved you, then God would heal the people you love. This pain and sense of loss can even mutate into a belief that God chose death for your loved one, chose suffering for you. We can come to believe that God is capricious and malevolent, or that you are somehow not holy enough to be worth his attention.

One of the great gifts of this story is that Mary and Martha ask our question to Jesus. Because they are two different people, in two different emotional spaces, Jesus answers them individually. When Jesus first arrives on the scene Martha runs up to him and tells him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Martha goes on to say, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus then goes on to have a theological conversation with her. He explains to her that he is the resurrection and life, that he is the Messiah that has power even over death. When she and Jesus get to the house, he encounters Mary, who is still weeping. She also says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But Jesus doesn’t give her a theological lecture. For a moment, he stops being the teacher, and simply weeps alongside of her.

This is our Jesus. He is both the power over death and the one who weeps alongside us.

There was a time when theologians understood God as impassable, so this moment when Jesus weeps alongside Mary was a real puzzler for them. Jesus must have been weeping as some kind of a show, to make a point, because if Jesus was God than Jesus could not be affected by deeper human emotions. But for all those of you who have been following along with us in the Old Testament, you’ll have noticed that God, as expressed by the Hebrew Scriptures, is the opposite of impassable. He is deeply connected to human beings. He loves them and is frustrated by them. And throughout the Gospels we have experienced Jesus as deeply moved by the humans around him and their suffering. He moves toward people, does not keep distance from them. So, Jesus’ tears seem completely in line with the God we are getting to know. A God who made us, but also identifies with us. A God who weeps with us when we face the limitations of our bodies, and makes a way for us beyond our bodies’ finitude.

Our bodies are part of Creation. And creation is by definition finite and imperfect. Only the Creator is eternal and perfect. Every human being dies. Ideally, we would all die peacefully in our sleep when we felt like we have wrung every drop out of the life we have been given. But because our bodies are created and imperfect, we can die young from any number of diseases, accidents, or acts of violence. These deaths are not God’s judgment on us as individuals; they are just what it means to be part of a broken Creation.

God does not always intervene in our illnesses and accidents, but that does not mean God has abandoned us. God has already proclaimed his love for us and our liberation from death through Jesus’s death and resurrection. Jesus is our ally not only in mourning the death of his friend, but in actually experiencing death. He engages with us on the deepest possible level, facing our fears head on and experiencing the very worst our lives can offer.

But his Father, our Creator, does not leave Jesus to face the consequences of death. Instead he pulls Jesus from the depths of death into the fullness of life again. And in that moment he offers all of us the same eternal life. You do not need to wonder if God has abandoned you, because God has already done everything he needs to do to ensure you and God and all the Saints that have come before us and will come after us will have eternal life together.

When Jesus chooses to resurrect Lazarus he is demonstrating the radical power of God over death. He is giving his close friends a front row seat to God’s new plan for humanity. No longer will we be limited by the imperfections of creation. No longer will we be banished for our sin. Jesus is making a way for Mary, Martha and Lazarus to be his friends eternally. Jesus is making a way for all of us to be united with God forever.

Wherever you are in relationship to your own mortality or the death of someone you have loved, know this: Jesus is with you, not against you. Jesus is alongside you as you grieve and Jesus is at work preparing a place for you and the ones you love in his heavenly kingdom.

Jesus loved ordinary saints like Mary, Martha and Lazarus and Jesus loves ordinary saints like us.

On All Saints day we celebrate this reality as we give thanks for all the Saints that have gone before us. We lift up their names in gratitude and in the deep joy that they are now living their resurrected lives alongside Lazarus.

Thanks Be to God.



Lent 5, Year C, 2013

Mary wasn’t always so happy with Jesus, you know.

Just a few weeks before, Jesus allowed her brother Lazarus to die.  Mary knew Jesus could cure him, she absolutely believed in Jesus.  Mary, Martha and Lazarus are described as Jesus’ friends in scripture.  They aren’t just his disciples, they are his people. They have a deep connection with one another.  So letting Lazarus die was inexcusable.

When Jesus showed up at Mary’s door four days after Lazarus had died, she was so upset she did not even notice he had arrived.  Martha had to come in and gently tell her he was there.  Mary wept at Jesus’ feet and told him that if he had been there, Lazarus would have lived.

Jesus is so distraught he weeps.  The text leads us to believe he tarried on purpose, but even if letting Lazarus die was intentional, Jesus feels the pain of his friend’s death like a lead weight.

We know what happens next.  Jesus shows Martha, Mary and all their friends how powerful he is.  He calls Lazarus forth from the grave and against all odds Lazarus comes back to life.

And how better to celebrate resurrection than with a party?

This house which had so recently been a house of mourning was now a house of celebration!  How thrilling to get a chance to honor Jesus, who brought Lazarus back to Mary and Martha’s life.

Of course, the party wasn’t all happiness.

Jesus has been telling his disciples for some time that he is going to die.  And the authorities were upset enough by Jesus that they were actively looking for him, to put him to death.

So, this party is a celebration of life, and friendship, but the looming threats to Jesus’ life means this also might be the last dinner Jesus will have with his friends from Bethany.

How do you adequately thank the man who has brought your brother back to life?  How do you express your grief that this amazing God-bearer might soon be killed?

The only way Mary can express the fullness of how she feels about Jesus is to break all the rules.  She scrapes together an incredible amount of money, and buys a pound of perfume.  She lets down her long hair in an incredibly provocative act. And then, in a society where women did not touch men to whom they were not related, she pours the perfume over his feet and begins to caress his feet with her hair.

She anoints Jesus for his death, but she also anoints Jesus as her King.  She is his only friend to acknowledge the reality of his situation.  The disciples never want to believe that Jesus is going to die.  But Mary, Mary is willing to face reality.  And Mary is willing to take big risks to show her love for Jesus.  Mary pours herself out for her friend.

How do we show our love for Jesus?   How do we offer thanks to a man whose feet we can no longer anoint?  How do we pour our selves out for Jesus?

We gather , we worship, we sing hymns of praise, but we can do more.

Glennon Melton is a woman who, in 2002, found herself alone, drunk and pregnant.  After 20 years of abusing alcohol she made the decision to quit drinking, keep the baby and began her recovery process through the help of AA.  She ended up getting married quickly and having two other children.  Through her recovery she began a blog called Momastery in which she has explored her faith, motherhood, addiction and living an authentic life without the armor alcohol gave her. Her blog has become incredibly popular with women responding to her unusual transparency.  A community of women has developed in the comments section of the blog who encourage and support one another.

This past year, Glennon has gone through unspecified troubles in her marriage, which have sent her through a tail spin and have led to a separation.  Out of that pain, though, has come something remarkable.  Because of her experiences she has been able to write a book.  Because of the book, she has been able to go on a book tour, and because of that book tour, she had met incredible people all across the country.  One of those women, Sarah, runs a home for homeless pregnant and new mother teens in Indianapolis.  She wrote to Glennon, in a long shot, hoping Glennon would come speak as a fundraiser for this home.  Glennon agreed immediately and the two women began corresponding.

Sarah wrote to Glennon explaining that there was a young woman with an infant who was homeless but very much wanted to join the program, but the program did not have the $83,000 needed for the young woman to join them.

After pondering this, Glennon announced to her followers that she was starting a flash Love mob.  For 24 hours she would be accepting donations on behalf of this girl.  The rules were no one person could donate more than $25.  Thousands of women responded and more than $100,000 was raised.

Women, and presumably at least a few men, around the world did something stupid.  They gave money to a stranger.  To someone they had never met.  I’m sure there were people in their lives who rolled their eyes and muttered something about a scam under their breath.  After all $83,000 is an extraordinary sum to spend on one girl and her baby for one year’s care.

But overwhelmingly, in the comment section of the blog, women who donated just wanted this teenager to know that she mattered.  They wanted her to know that God loves her and there is community of faith throughout the world that will support and uphold her.  A common refrain in the comments was a simple exclamation of “Love Wins!”

Since Christ’s ascension, we have become the Body of Christ.  To love Christ, is to love our neighbor.  To love Christ is to love a lost young woman and her baby.  To love Christ means being willing to look at the world honestly and see it in all its brokenness and all its love.  To love Christ means to reach out beyond ourselves and take a risk to love another.

There will always be Judases around to rain on the parade of people who do extravagant acts of love.  There will always be people who think going through life with their armor up, unmoved by the needs of others, is better than going through life feeling all the pain and need of the world.  And we should have compassion for these people—who knows what pain they have experienced in their own lives to make them create such a impenetrable exterior.

But we also know that the kind of barriers that Judas put up, how he hid behind righteousness and responsibility, ultimately prevented him from really having a relationship with Jesus.  His own anxiety would not allow him to accept the reality of Jesus’ divinity, death, or love.  Mary, on the other hand, whose behavior was so shocking and inappropriate, loves Jesus and Jesus knows it.  Mary hides behind no barriers, she puts herself forward completely honestly and authentically. Mary pours herself out for Jesus, as Jesus will soon pour himself out for Mary.

Will we have the courage?  Will we be brave enough to let down our hair and do something shocking for Jesus?  Will we put down our armor and let Jesus in?  Will we pour ourselves out for others as Jesus has poured himself out for us?

May it be so.


Lent 5, Year A, 2008

The time is getting close.

The clock is ticking.

Our gospel story today has all the passion and intensity of the cliffhanger season finale of some character drama.

Immediately following the raising of Lazarus, some of the witnesses get freaked out and run to tell the Pharisees what happened.  This act, of course, leads to Jesus’ arrest and execution.  But, we’ll get to that next week.

For now, Jesus is still safe and sound.

We meet up with Jesus as he is traveling with his disciples.  Jesus gets the news that his friend Lazarus is ill in Judea.  We don’t know how Jesus knew Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha, but they are the only people described as Jesus’ personal friends in the Bible.  Janice, our parish administrator, and I spent some time speculating about this.  We’ve decided, that we would like them to be childhood friends.  Maybe they went to grade school together.  Maybe they have known Jesus since before he was this big shot miracle worker.  Maybe they knew him when he was just Jesus, that carpenter’s kid.  Maybe they tossed a ball around or caught lizards in jugs and surprised their mothers with them.  Maybe with Lazarus, Mary and Martha, Jesus does not feel any pressure to be “the Holy Son of God”.  They quietly accept him for who he is, they do not fawn over him or demand to be healed.

However they know each other, it is well enough that Mary pours expensive oil all over Jesus’ feet to anoint him.  They also know each other well enough that Martha and Jesus snap at each other when Mary is too lazy to help with the dishes at a dinner party.  Their intimacy with each other has a domestic, everyday feel to it.

We should feel no surprise then, at how intense Jesus’ emotions are around the event of Lazarus’s death.  Jesus seems to experience incredible internal conflict around Lazarus’s illness and death.  At first, he seems almost indifferent, delaying the trip to Judea and casually mentioning that the illness will lead to God’s glory.  Even after he hears of Lazarus’s death, Jesus seems very nonchalant as he tells his disciples he is going to Judea to “wake Lazarus up”.

Jesus does not fall apart until he sees his friends.  You know the feeling. You’re holding everything together, just barely, and then you see a person you trust and love and all your defenses crumble around you.  Jesus manages to hold it together through his conversation with Martha, where she makes great proclamations of faith in him, but when he sees Mary weeping, he falls apart. His dear friend Mary, who is so open and free with her feelings.  Mary, who sat at Jesus’ feet and then anointed those same feet with expensive oil.  Mary, who had such faith in Jesus and now seems so disappointed.

When Jesus does weep, he does not weep in the same  way that Mary does.  The Greek word used to describe Mary’s weeping is klaio.  The word for Jesus’s weeping is dakruo.  This is the only time in the bible the word dakruo is used.  We don’t know why the author of this story chose to use a different word.  I imagine the quality of weeping was different.  The culture of the time had a kind of ritualistic weeping that was done at funerals to properly honor the dead.  Perhaps the author wanted to distinguish what Jesus was doing from that kind of ritualistic weeping.

I imagine Jesus’ tears came from somewhere deep, deep inside himself.  I wonder if, because Jesus knew God had given him the power of resurrection, he was unprepared for the reality of Lazarus’s death. Jesus had grieved before—the death of John the Baptist was deeply upsetting to him—but never before do we see him weeping.  Not only does Jesus weep, but he also feels “greatly disturbed in his spirit”.  While some Bibles translate this word to mean compassion, the word has a more disruptive, angry edge to it.   Jesus was really traumatized by Lazarus’s death.

There is no passage in the bible, in my opinion, that better sheds light on Jesus’ humanity than this one.  Jesus has been ministering to people for years by this point, but somehow the reality of what it means to be human—to be finite, to have a beginning and an end, to be born and to die—really seem to sink in for him here.

Immediately before this passage, Jesus has been describing himself quite frequently as the Good Shepherd.  And in fact, he goes on and calls Lazarus by name, just as shepherds call their sheep by name.  Lazarus hears his voice, and obeys, even after death.  But for now, Jesus is just another sheep.  He is one of us.  For now, in this moment, he understands our feelings of grief and hopelessness.  He tastes the bitter reality of loss.

In this moment, Jesus cements himself as someone we can trust.  In this moment we realize that he has credibility—that he truly understands what it means to be us.

Because of this, we know we can trust him as a Shepherd, who will guide us gently and compassionately. Because of this, we can have the courage to follow Jesus on the rest of his journey to Jerusalem.  We feel empathy for him because of his own experience of loss, but Lazarus’ resurrection also makes us wonder if perhaps Jesus can outsmart his enemies, after all.

Maybe the road to Jerusalem, into the heart of political and religious power, is not a one way road.  Maybe Jesus still has something to show us.  Maybe the rising of Lazarus is just the beginning.

Starting next Sunday, Palm Sunday, we’ll spend eight days in Jerusalem with Jesus.  Come join us and find out how the story ends!