After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” 8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
For Christians, Easter is that season where we yell at each other “Christ is risen!” and it is answered back, “Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!”
Only, most often, the answer back is a little more ho-hum than the one yelled out. I think that’s usually because we don’t really like yelling call-and-responses at one another unless it’s “Marco-Polo.”
And even then, if you’re over the age of 10 you feel a little funny…
For Christians, Easter is that season where you can get away with wearing obnoxiously bright colors and obnoxiously big hats that, I guess, are intended to reflect the celebratory mood that we’re all in, causing all of our eyes to bleed just a little bit as we’re assaulted by pastels…
For Christians…well, wait a minute. I have an ad right here. For Christians, Easter is that time where you can “buy more Easter at Walmart.”
Look at this advertisement. “Get more Easter for your buck.”
For years people have been yelling about “keeping Christ in Christmas,” which I find really ridiculous because, well, you can’t spell “Christmas” without C-H-R-I-S-T…
But maybe we need to keep Christ in Easter these days…
I don’t think you can buy more Easter for your buck. You can buy more crap; for sure. Stuff to clutter your house and shove in baskets with fake grass or stuff into eggs…all traditions I love, by the way. Can’t get enough of that stuff. Really; I mean that. I love it. We even bought Finn some candy this year even though he’s too young to have any of it. Let’s be honest: I made myself an Easter basket this year…
But Easter, this story of a God who has exited stage left of the tomb and invites us to exit as well, to meet him back in Galilee, this story doesn’t have anything to sell you.
Nothing at all.
And that’s good, really, because when we really need to be reminded of Easter in our lives, it’s in those times when we’ve got nothing left.
Because despite the large hats and the pastels and the pretty dresses and seersucker suits and tortured pictures with people in Easter bunny costumes, resurrection is not made for such moments.
Easter Sunday morning is kind of like going to a Star Trek movie dressed in your best Jedi robes: you’re at the right venue but in the wrong film.
Because resurrection is reserved for those who have nothing left, who can’t muster to put on their pastels because they can’t wear a color on their sleeves that isn’t reflected on their insides, who don’t need a big-brimmed hat because they can’t see the sun as it is…
I’m convinced this is why Jesus first shows himself to these grieving women before going to anyone else in the world with his resurrected body. These women who were grieving needed to see Jesus more than anyone, needed to be resurrected out of their grief more than anyone.
Maybe that’s you today, despite your pastel colors. I don’t know.
What I do know, though, is that if there is one gift, and I say this very carefully, if there is one gift of the shadows of the tombs of lives, it is that there is no resurrection without them.
I guess we could say that we wish we didn’t need resurrection in this life; that there was no need for it. But would a life without dying and rising really be life at all? It’d be a life without learning, without knowledge, without love, without any of these things that make breathing tolerable…
‘Cause Lord knows that work doesn’t make life tolerable…many times, even if you love what you do for a living, we find ourselves trapped in the tombs of our jobs, or our lack of jobs.
Poetry, another thing that makes life tolerable, might help us a bit on this resurrection day. In a day and age where we don’t really have many (any?) examples of cells coming back to life and people coming back from the dead, we need language that can speak past any skepticism to dig into truth. Jesus’ resurrection is not about resuscitated cells, anyway. It is not about restoration; it is about resurrection. More on that in a moment.
Wendell Berry has this wonderful poem tantalizingly entitled The Way of Pain. I’ve included it in your bulletins, too. Take it home; put it on your fridge. On the back of it is a lovely picture of the staff. Only the brave will put that side facing out on their fridge…probably best to stick with the poem.
I read of Christ crucified
The only begotten son
Sacrificed to flesh and time
And all our woe. He died
And rose, but who does not tremble
For his pain, his loneliness,
And the darkness of the sixth hour?
Unless we grieve like Mary
At his grave, giving him up
As lost, no Easter morning comes.
“Unless we grieve like Mary/at his grave/giving him up/as lost, no Easter morning comes.”
That last line is kind of haunting for me because, well, here’s two things about resurrection that no one wants to tell you, but that are just true.
For something to be raised, something has to die. That’s the first thing. I talked a bit about this in a sermon a few weeks ago, but it bears repeating because we are death-averse in this world right now. We do everything we can to salvage parts of ourselves, our lives, our way of living, and sometimes we actually just need to let things die. Like our egos. Or our self-indulgent ways that take us to the hospital or to rehab or get us in debt. Or even, perhaps, our relationships need to die because they’re uneven, or unhealthy, or full of taking with no giving.
Something has to die for resurrection to happen.
The second thing about resurrection that’s absolutely true is this: you’re not resurrected back to what you were before. That’s known as restoration or resuscitation. Resurrection is not restoration. Restoration means that things go back to the way things were. I hear that all the time, by the way. I hear couples who have these knock-out, drag-down fights, and one of them just talks about how they “wish things could go back to the way they were.”
But you had this terrible knock-out, drag-down fight because of the way things were…don’t you remember?
That’s true about all sorts of things in life, though, not just relationships. And it bears repeating that resurrection is not restoration. It’s why I don’t encourage people to give things up for Lent if they intend to pick them back up in the same way again after Easter. If you’re just going to eat as much chocolate, spend as much money, or drink as much post Easter as you did pre-Lent, you’re no different than you were before. You just took a vacation…
That’s not resurrection.
Even Jesus wasn’t the same post-resurrection. He had those nail holes in his hands; doors couldn’t keep him out. It was him…but he wasn’t the same. We need to learn from that.
“Unless we grieve like Mary/at his grave/giving him up/as lost, no Easter morning comes.”
Berry tells such deep truth about resurrection in this poem. We grieve because something is really dead. And then we give it up as lost because we know that it can never be the same. And then resurrection happens.
And Matthew tells us that Mary and Mary (apparently there weren’t many other names for women back then…) were full of “fear” and “terror” at this resurrection. And I don’t think it’s because they thought they saw a ghost. And I don’t think it’s because angels scare the bejeezus out of us (although that’d probably scare me half-to-death, too). No. From the text it’s pretty clear that they’re afraid in a way that you become afraid when the thing you don’t think can happen actually happens.
It’s the fear of the unexpected.
And that, I guess, is another gift of being in the shadows: you can perceive even the smallest amount of light and you’re grateful for it. Because in the darkest shadow, you do not expect any light. So when it comes it’s so shocking that you’re almost not sure what to do with it.
It’s like the story of the man I heard who had been diagnosed with cancer. Six months to live. I’ve told this one before, but it bears repeating…
And then one day in the middle of his treatment, he got a call from his doctor saying everything had cleared up and that they couldn’t detect any cancer in him. And he just starts to weep uncontrollably. His wife finds him weeping, and he explains it to her, and she starts crying for joy.
But he says he’s crying for fear. “Why are you afraid?” she asks. “Because I’m afraid I’ll go back to living the way I did before cancer…” A way of not being mindful of life. Only the shadows can teach you that kind of gratefulness. And while I don’t wish difficulty on anyone, that’s just plain true…
Today you’ll leave here having smelled Easter lilies, having dressed to the “nines,” having sung Alleluia. But will you leave resurrected?
I don’t know. Maybe resurrection isn’t what you need right now, and that’s a good thing. But I have to guess there’s probably something in you that’s dying, or dead…or should be.
And I wonder what it might look like, today, for Christ to raise you up differently, more mindfully, in the faith of God as you leave this place.
Heck, maybe even that’s what needs resurrecting in you: faith in God. My own faith had to die for me to come back to faith…but it was resurrected as a different faith. I was resurrected as a different person of faith in that moment.
See, the resurrection of Jesus is for all of life. We are dead and resurrected again and again and again until, on that last day, there won’t be a need for that cycle anymore because we’ll be safe with the God who is the alpha and omega; beginning and the end, in whose being there is no ending.
But until then, how can we be a resurrected people? How can you leave here, today, different than when you came in?
“Unless we grieve like Mary/at his grave/giving him up/as lost, no Easter morning comes.”
It has something to do with actually having death, with actually giving things up, and with God surprising you with something new. That’s Easter.
And maybe that’s why we shout “Christ is risen!” at each other so loudly and obnoxiously. It’s kind of like shouting into a tomb. If you’re not in a tomb, it sounds like it is too loud…and we delude ourselves into thinking we’re not in tombs all the time. Tombs of wealth as well as poverty. Tombs of middle-class monotony and comfortability, tombs lower-class struggles, and tombs upper-class affluenza. All sorts of tombs that need resurrection.
If you are in a tomb, well, then it’s almost like you can’t shout loud enough…because you need to wake the dead.
And this story today shouts so loudly that it can raise the dead, and the dead parts of us all, into resurrection. And, luckily, you can’t buy resurrection; it’s all gift.
Resurrection is all gift; a gift of the shadows and the God who works best in the shadows of life. Happy Easter, happy resurrection, and may the pastels on your sleeves match those of your heart in the miracle of God’s resurrecting love. May you be a resurrected people today.
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples returned to their homes.
11But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and 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. 13They 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.” 14When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
Resurrection Sometimes Takes A While
Really, anything that could be said right now about it all would be redundant. If you don’t get that we were down in the tomb of life, listening together to the promises of God, and that we’ve now risen up to this garden to meet the living Christ in bread and wine…
And to be the living Christ…well, then, I’m not sure how else to tell you this.
Because we’ve had five readings of salvation stories, the last one you actually participated in bodily, and we’ve just had Hudson raised from the waters like Noah and his family, saved for God’s good work. And we’ve just added the faithful to this particular body of Christ here at the corner of Wilson and Campbell. This is what resurrection looks like.
But let’s wait just a moment, just two seconds, to ponder a deep truth about tonight, about this Vigil. A deep truth that I want you to carry with you.
It is this: sometimes resurrection takes a little while.
That’s not a popular thing to say, of course. We all want renewal instantly, right? We all want refreshment right away. And, really, we’re all just one Coca-cola add away from believing that refreshment is just one sip away…
But I know you. And I know that there are many battling cancer, still grieving the loss of loved ones, still wrestling with “empty nest syndrome,” or wrestling with children that cannot or won’t leave the nest…
I know about the job losses, and the impending moves, and the forced down-sizing, and the depression that still seems to keep you locked inside a tomb wonder, with the Mary’s in today’s reading, how that stone of fear and anger and hurt is going to be rolled away…
Hear this: resurrection sometimes takes a while.
Which is why tonight we hear not one salvation story, but six. We heard four downstairs, one at the sanctuary doors, and now…one more. Your own.
Because the resurrection of Christ is also about you. As we have been buried in a death like his, so we shall also be raised in a resurrection like his. You will not be the same, of course. That’s something else they don’t tell you…we often think resurrection is a “going back” to the way things were.
But the way things were killed you. Had you down. Destroyed you. No. In resurrection we are changed, thank God. Hence why it sometimes takes a while…
But sometimes we do this thing called “sneaking a foretaste.” It’s like when you’d go to your parent’s fridge and stick your finger in the birthday cake icing the night before. You weren’t quite ready to celebrate, but you could at least have a taste.
And for some of us, that is what this meal and this celebration will be: a foretaste of the resurrection to come. Because resurrection will happen. And we will remind ourselves of God’s salvation stories until the day when all of a sudden you stand blinking into a new light that takes you totally by surprise: the light of being raised out of that tomb you’ve been trapped in for too long.
So tonight, on this, our longest service, we remember this deep truth: resurrection sometimes takes a while. But there is no reason to wait. Come and get a foretaste…it’ll tide you over. God promises this to be true. Amen.
On Passion, Hollywood, and a Jesus We Don’t Recognize
It’s not easy to navigate because it is so bare. Bare: like a body hanging from a cross, exposed for all to see.
What are we supposed to see, anyway?
Hollywood says that this story makes for great viewing. It has drama. It has violence. It has intrigue and sinister plots and deceit and heart-pulling moments of sadness.
Hollywood says that this story makes for great viewing.
I don’t know; it’s just not.
A colleague of mine once posted that Good Friday should be called “Great Friday” because he was so proud of how his church service went that night.
That makes no sense to me.
No. What makes sense to me tonight, here, tonight, when faced with this story of a God who loves and a people who would rather kill a person than be wrong about life…
What makes sense to me tonight, here, tonight when faced with this story of betrayal and intrigue, and all sorts of Hollywood elements, is not to put it up on a screen…
It’s not to call it great, either…
It’s to approach the central character, this cross, with my head low, slowly, kneel, and kiss it the way you kiss something you know is tender.
This story is tender; like a wound that has cleaned itself and is now ready to heal…but not there yet.
Such a wound is not “great;” not yet. Things could still turn sour; something new has begun but not arrived.
Such a wound is not ready for prime-time viewing. It might have the elements to make a Hollywood blockbuster…though some have tried that path…but it doesn’t have the strength. All its strength is gone in the empty silence at the end of it all.
Tonight, I see nothing good, nor great. Tonight I do not see the individual elements just made for Hollywood viewing.
Tonight I see something that only faith can grasp at with any hope: a cross that, despite every appearance to the contrary, contains a deep promise of grace from a God who won’t let violence and death have the last say in a world hell-bent on wielding death as the ultimate weapon.
Tonight I see a God who undoes death through self-giving love.
But it’s a tender tale. We humbly call it “good,” but we dare not approach it as if that’s a given; dare not call “great” nor devise ways to exploit it. The spiritually strong try to emulate it.
But usually all I can muster to do is fall to my knees and kiss it as an act to honor a mystery my head and my heart can’t make sense of, but that my faith yet clings to.
In the cross I don’t recognize Jesus. And, yet, I know from Jesus life that this means that Christ most definitely is present…no one ever recognized him fully.
And I’m awestruck and humbled and sad and hopeful that perhaps tonight we finally do.
Two Sermons for Maundy Thursday: “The Clothes You Wear Says Something” and “What Makes This Night Different From Every Other Night?”
Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” 9Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” 11For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
12After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13You call me Teacher and Lord — and you are right, for that is what I am. 14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
The Clothes You Wear Says Something
“So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet,” Jesus says rather pointedly.
There’s not much ambiguity there; not much wiggle room.
Before assuming the position of the foot washer, Jesus first dresses for the part.
Or, rather, undresses for the part. Taking off the outer robe and tying on a towel. Only servants dressed like that.
The clothes we wear say something, I guess. Jesus surely could have just washed Peter’s feet wearing the clothes he was in, right? He could have done that, I guess…
But it’d be a mixed signal, right? To really, truly serve, to stand in solidarity with the servant…because that is what Jesus is doing here, right? He’s not just playing servant…that won’t do.
No. He becomes the servant. He is the servant.
Jesus is great at going whole-hog in ways that make us feel really uncomfortable…
To really, truly serve, one must wear what a servant does. Be where the servant is.
To really, truly serve humanity, God had to wear humanity. Hence, Jesus.
Including the parts of humanity that even we would rather shy away from…feet, bowels, the low moments when we’re forced by circumstance to kneel in front of someone else, metaphorical and otherwise.
If there’s one thing that Maundy Thursday imparts upon the soul it is this: the God who expects to hear the lives and confessions of the people is also the one willing to be there in the hells of those places.
To wash their feet as they walk to wholeness.
To walk with them.
And in the face of such sacrificial, serving love, who are we, then, to not do the same for our neighbor who may need just a little more than the words I just spoke to you to feel the presence of God on their journey through life?
Madeleine L’Engle once wrote, “When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability… To be alive is to be vulnerable.”
Maundy Thursday is the feast day of a grown-up spirituality that is vulnerable. It is a day when we are most fully alive, too…appreciating the life of our bodies as our feet get center stage whether we like it or not. Today is a day for a faith that doesn’t pretend to be the servant, but one that actually dresses the part…and also allows itself to be served, allows others to dress the part and serve, too. Come to these bowls. Be washed. Wash. Allow yourself to be the part.
And in doing so we participate in the grown-up love of a God who not only hears us, but is with us, even those parts of us we wish no one to see. Like the bottom of feet well worn from walking this road of life. That’s what we see in the clothes, the person, the being of Jesus.
And if we want to think of Jesus as God’s clothes for a humanity well worn, well…that says something. Something you’re invited to right now.
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
23For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
What Makes This Night Different from Other Nights?
At the Pesach Seder meal, the youngest person at the table will ask, “What makes this night different from other nights?”
It’s a nice little soft ball question to get the night rolling, but it’s an important one. It frames the night for the whole family in such a way that everyone realizes that the meal, this meal, this particular meal, appears just like the other ones but is not at all like the other ones.
There is something different about this meal, here.
The question is asked by the youngest person as a way to indicate the confusion of youth.
But there is confusion at every stage of life; we know this.
Hence why we gather for this meal every single year.
Hence why we gather for communion every single Sunday.
One of my most memorable meals was shared with a dear saint of this congregation, Bernie Zommer.
We met out at her house in Des Plaines, traveled over to this little diner called The Sugar Bowl, and as we ate she slowly choked down her food. I say “choked down” because Bernie had trouble swallowing; had for years. Sometimes the food would get caught, she’d cough, the conversation would pause, she’d take a sip of water, and we’d continue.
When I dropped her back off at her house, she again insisted that I come inside; that I have a glass of wine…though it was only 2pm. I did.
Not one to refuse hospitality, or wine, I did. And I remember that she mentioned briefly a recent suicide and how tragic it was.
“Yes,” I said. “You never know what demons people wrestle with.”
To which she responded, “What demons do you wrestle with, pastor?”
Silence. Now I was the one who was choked.
These things happen at meals. I cannot imagine the demons that Jesus was dealing with on the night he met with his disciples in the upper room. I do not dare to imagine them for fear that I know some of them, too…
But the reason we share this meal yearly, weekly, is to remind ourselves that those demons that we wrestle with were also wrestled with by Jesus…and that at the end of this journey, the end of these three days, he’ll take them to a cross and we’ll go away free from their burden.
Sure, we’ll clink some coins in a pot to remind ourselves how we forget about that…how we betray that reality. That may cause some guilt…that is not its intent; guilt is useless as a behavior changer.
The fact of the matter is: tonight at this meal, this very meal, Jesus shared with his friends despite the demons inside, a real piece of himself that we, therefore, can share with one another and the world. A piece of grace in a world full of demons.
And we share it despite our demons…or, better put, to eliminate our demons. For there is nothing more powerful than to hear that something is “for you.” You, even with all your demons. You.
Bernie never thought I wasn’t her pastor, despite the fact that she, in her aged wisdom, knew I had…have…demons. Her life was there for me, and mine for hers. And as I buried her last year, this was not lost on me.
So, tonight, we will share parts of ourselves with one another. After introducing yourself around your seating area, share first, your most memorable meal. What made it so? Who were you with? What was the circumstance?
Secondly, share how you show your faith outside of the church walls. That might take a minute of reflection, but do it. Share a piece of you with these people.
And tonight, as we leave this place, grab a handful of those coins and toss them in the jar knowing that, despite how our demons sometimes take the day, cause us to turn and betray our best selves and the God who loves us, Jesus is still here in life, and death, for you.
Being mindful of that makes this night different from all other nights.
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her, untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “the Lord needs them.” And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
“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.”
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”
The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
I Do Not Think That Means What You Think it Means
Ride on, ride on in majesty!
In lowly pomp ride on to die.
Bow your meek head to mortal pain,
Then take, O Christ, your pow’r and reign!
Amen. (Henry Hart Milman, 19th C)
I have a musical memory. I learn songs quickly and well…but, here’s the thing, if I don’t know the lyrics, I’ll just make them up. You do that, right?
Steve Winwood has this song, Higher Love. You know it:
Bring me a higher love
Bring me a higher love, whoa
Bring me a higher love,
It’s a higher love, I’ve been thinking of!
Only thing is, I was very used to the tune, but didn’t quite know what he was saying. So I’d sing,
Bake me a pie of love.
Bake me a pie of love, whoa…
I kind of like my lyrics better.
We say all sorts of things that we can’t truly grasp the meaning of, right?
We say “I love you” prematurely in relationships. We say “don’t worry about it” when, really, we do need them to worry about it because it’s a big deal. We say “I’m fine” when we’re not.
It’s like we say these things flippantly, just off the cuff, without fully comprehending just what it is we’re saying.
Like, and I’ve said this before, like when we call a burrito “awesome.” Folks, there is no burrito in the world that will instill you with awe. Or if there is, perhaps you’re standard for being in awe of something is pretty low…
Today we hear a gospel reading and participate in this parade here, and I don’t want you to be confused about its meaning. I want you to fully grasp it.
And two words in particular that we read today can help to focus us in on what’s going on.
The first is the Greek word that is used in the Gospel reading to describe the city of Jerusalem. Matthew notes that “the whole city was in turmoil.” That word for “turmoil” there in the Greek is seis. You Californians will know that word well; it’s the root for the English word “seismic.”
Literally Matthew is saying that “the whole city was shaking.”
Why was it shaking?
Because after living under Roman rule for so long, there was an undercurrent of unrest and uprising within Jerusalem, especially as people gathered for the Passover causing a city of about 40,000 people to swell to over 100,000. It’d be like if the Olympics came to Chicago…an idea I was never super fond of because, well, it’s hard enough to drive here, right?
But this whole city was shaking with that anticipatory energy that happens when you know something is going to change.
And then enters Jesus on this donkey, an entrance which was mocking the way that Pilate rode around town on his white horse, forcing people to celebrate him. Jesus rides in on an ass and there’s no need to force the people to celebrate him, they just do.
They do because they feel that something has to change in this world; that God is up to something in this world.
The whole city was shaking.
The second word I want us to look at is Hosanna. We say that word every year; do you know what it means?
It’s Aramaic and it’s a word of praise. But it’s a praise word that actually pleads for something. It pleads, “Save us! Help us!”
Literally, Hosanna means something like “Save us! Help us!”…but you say it with a smile on your face, in a way of praise.
It’s an odd word like that. It’s like what you’d say to someone when you want them to join in a movement with you, a movement to change the world. “Help us! This will save us! Hosanna!”
I would even liken it to that other hymn that my mothers and fathers of faith sang when marching through the streets, a song that I didn’t fully grasp the meaning of until I understood the deep impact of racism and sexism and classism in this world:
We shall overcome
We shall overcome
Hosanna is like singing that song. We shout Hosanna! We sing that “glory, laud, and honor” belong to Jesus. Not to our checkbooks. Not to the government. Not to the city of Chicago. Not to any principality, but to the God made known in Jesus.
But it’s to a Jesus who rides into the scene on…a donkey. On an ass. And because of that we kind of feel like donkeys put our trust in such a meager spectacle…
In such weakness.
Jesus always arrives in a way you don’t expect…not in with any sort of power that you’d expect.
And that’s why these shouts of “Save us!” or Hosanna! turn so quickly into shouts of “Save yourself” as Jesus hangs from a cross.
When power doesn’t appear as we want, as we expect, we turn our backs on it.
But today…today I invite you, the whole church invites you, to lay down those palms, lay down your cloaks and the souls of your being in front of the donkey rider. You are invited to watch and pray today.
Because in your life when it seems you are most powerless, God is your perfect strength.
And we see that today in the donkey rider.
And that’s the message we shout out to the city of Chicago and the world today. Salvation comes, but not in the way you expect it. And when your life is shaken, gripped by seismos, in turmoil, you’ll be tempted to ditch and run when things don’t turn out exactly like you want it. You’ll be tempted to forget about this whole faith thing, to tell Jesus to save himself…
But this week, and every week after, you are invited to watch and pray and witness resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection, and your own.
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
7Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
17When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
28When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 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.”
45Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
Hurry up, Jesus
Hurry. It seems cruel to go slowly
And yet, Lord, you know.
There is an epidemic covering our nation, our world. You know what it is. Yes, it’s the popular Pharrell song Happy.
It’s catchy beyond belief.
‘Cause I’m happy; clap along if you feel like a room without a roof/ ‘Cause I’m happy; clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth/ ‘Cause I’m happy; clap along if you know what happiness means to you/ ‘Cause I’m happy; clap along if you feel like that’s what you want to do!
Let’s be honest: it’s just a riff off of, “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands”…
But it’s a song that you want to play in the morning as you’re getting ready for work to get you to that emotional state where you want to be…whether you feel that way or not. It’s like, if you repeat the lyrics “’Cause I’m happy…” enough times, you’ll convince yourself that you are, indeed, happy…for whatever that might mean.
And there’s some truth to that. We can easily convince ourselves of a lot of things in this world by repeating, repeating, repeating. This is the trick used by all the major media outlets, right? Agenda driven news just tells us something, suggests an interpretation of truth, so much that we eventually just start believing it…
Repetition leads to belief.
But underlying the popularity of this song and I think this practice of repeating, repeating, and repeating as a way to dig out truth is something much more revelatory about us in this day and age: we fear death.
And I mean that in many ways. We fear not only literal death: our death and the death of our loved ones.
We also fear the death of our way of life, we fear the death of our habits that bring us comfort, we fear the death of the way things have always been.
We fear it. And for some good reason, I think. Death, change, all of it means we have to do things differently.
And there’s some reason to fear that, I think. Death and change are not easy; this is true.
See, I think the problem with this topic for most, and especially for people in my generation and the immediate generations around mine, is that we’ve been taught, by and large, that pain is always to be avoided or masked over.
By the same token, there are some who believe that the only real thing in life is pain: physical, emotional, psychological pain. So they seek it out and seek to inflict it on others.
There is a different problem, there. In fact, it’s a problem that is highlighted by the Goodman’s most recent production, God’s Work, starring one of our very own youth here at LMC. And it is a masterful and heart wrenching work. You should go see it, but know it’s not a show for kids…I’ll talk more about it in a minute.
But see, here’s the thing about pain and death and resurrection: you must have death to have resurrection, though not all pain and death leads to resurrection.
And that is a hard concept to grasp. It’s a truth-bomb I’m still grappling with daily.
It’s hard because we have been taught, by and large, that all you need to do is implement some small self-improvement strategies and you’ll evolve into a better you. I just heard it the other day on the radio, actually. Another star coming to town and you can pay a couple hundred dollars to hear her speak as she teaches you how to “maximize your life.”
But a lot of the things that plague us in our lives are due to their being maximized. We do not enter into abundant life by reaching higher; but rather Jesus continues to break through the floor of the ego to bring abundant life. We don’t like to hear that. We don’t like to see that. But it’s true.
And we’ve been taught that we just need to tweak ourselves a little bit, and then all of a sudden things will be better. Perhaps the tweaking that we need is just a little positive talk, a little motivational speech; smile a little more and remember that “the sun will come out tomorrow.”
But smiles did not march on Selma. “The sun will come out tomorrow,” did not help the Stonewall movement get where it is today. And, a little truth here, positive talk is not going to curb the violence we have on Chicago’s city streets.
People often ask, “How many more have to die before we realize the systems of violence here in Chicago?” to which I’ve come to respond, “We’ve all got to die: to our egos, to the status quo, to business as usual to get us there,” because obviously the deaths of our babies are not doing it. No. We need to die. We need to die to our addiction to violence first. You and me. Then, maybe, things will change.
In a world of “the sun will come out tomorrow,” there’s no place for death, only for repeating positivity and letting tomorrow fall away.
But, actually, we need death. Things have to die for new life to happen.
It’s one of the things we see clearly in this Gospel passage today. Lazarus was dead. Jesus says it plainly. The Gospel writer tells us plainly that Lazarus is dead, and you know this because the Gospel writer goes to great lengths to show us that Lazarus had been down for four days…in ancient Jewish belief the soul hung around the body for three days, and on the fourth got to its destination with God.
Lazarus was dead.
And throughout the story people keep encouraging Jesus to circumvent death, or propose that he should have. “Your friend Lazarus is ill, go save him” they tell Jesus…and he just hangs around, not moving very quickly. You can almost hear them saying, “Hurry up, Jesus! You need to get there before he dies.”
And when he meets Mary and Martha, what do they say? “If you had only been here, he wouldn’t have died…” as if the presence of the Divine is seen only in the absence of death.
And death genuinely causes Jesus to be disturbed. He cries. And not the ritual sort of crying that everyone else in the passage is doing. Klaio is the word used to describe the weeping of those around Mary and Martha, probably indicating some sort of ritual weeping that you’d hire someone to do to make a big scene over the death. It was a common practice.
In fact, I might even suggest that klaio is the kind of ritual weeping that so many in power do over the violence on the streets of Chicago, a kind of ritual weeping that everyone expects but doesn’t take seriously anymore.
But Jesus…his weeping is described using the word dakruo. Which is altogether different. And where this translation of the text describes that Jesus “has compassion” on those who weep, the actual Greek here uses the word “angry” or “ticked off.”
It seems that Jesus is a little ticked off at the ritual weeping that is done for show here in the text, and this is contrasted with his deep, heartfelt weeping.
Because real death, real change, causes real pain, not fake pain. And it can make us angry and ticked off.
And so much in our culture tells us that when we get to the angry or ticked off stages we should back peddle it a bit, put on a happy face, and remember that “the sun will come out tomorrow.”
But, remember this: Lazarus was really dead. And that’s something to be sad about. We must be real.
And, in being real, resurrection can only happen when something is really dead.
See, we spend so much of our lives avoiding death, maintaining the status quo. We do this in our systems, our governments, our streets, but we also do it with our inner lives, too.
Because Lord knows there are some things in us that could use some death, and we want to lead resurrection lives. But we’ve been taught by society that leading a resurrected life means just rising above those things that hold us down, tweaking habits…and that’s just not true.
That’s the call that says, “Hurry up, Jesus! If you get here in time we won’t have to die.”
And Jesus’ response is to tarry a bit. And I think Jesus does that because there is no other way around it. In our lives death must come for resurrection to happen.
We talk about this all the time in religious circles, especially Christian circles. We say that we must “die to self.” But so often I think that’s just a noisy gong or clanging cymbal to most of our ears because the church usually talks like that when they’re trying to get you to adopt some sin management program. And I hate sin management systems. They always fail.
We’ve been taught that resurrection can happen if we just tweak life a bit; maximize life.
But resurrection only comes after death. Real death. Us dying to those things in our lives that are causing us as people, as a society, to be ill.
Now back to this show, God’s Work. It’s a tense show about abuse and a father who abuses his children with religiosity and hyper-fundamental Christianity. They are beaten. They are barely fed. They are manipulated.
And the story is hard to watch. The story is hard to watch because it is so violent and so painful. And it’s even more painful when you know that it is true. Many of us went to see it opening night because one of our youth is in it (and he’s fantastic in it, btw).
But someone else was in the audience that first night: the woman whose story it is.
She was there, watching the pain of her life unfold. And the tension in the play is only relieved when she is taken from that abusive family, when that part of her life dies, and she’s put into this new family.
And it’s depicted vividly, sacramentally. The pain of abuse is symbolized by paint, smeared on the children every time their father beats them. And in her new family they bring out this large bathtub and begin to wash her, body part by body part, making her new, raising her up. Literally, with arms like this, they raise her up.
And you can hear in this story Jesus call her (her name is Rachel), “Rachel: Come out!”
There was not going to be resurrection by her just rising above her circumstances. No. That environment, that destruction, that abuse, that needed to die.
And there’s this really telling scene where her parents try to scrub off this bit of paint at the nape of her neck…and it won’t come off. They scrub and scrub and scrub, and it won’t come off. Because a resurrected person is made new, but that doesn’t mean they don’t still bear the scar of death.
Lazarus is resurrected, but he’s still bound. “Untie him; let him go” they have to say to him.
In death our grave clothes still stick to us some; there’s no denying that. Dying to addiction doesn’t mean you can use again; you can’t. Dying to your past doesn’t mean you can relive it again in the same way without being affected. You can’t. I’m sure it was difficult for that woman to watch the play and see her death and resurrection like that.
But at the end of the play, Rachel talks about her new birth, her second birth. And she says, with a smile that is not fake, that she is happy about her new birth, her resurrection. And I believe that is true. She doesn’t have to repeat it. It’s resurrection.
And that is the truth of real resurrection: our grave clothes can still stick to us, but they do not hold us back from living, we don’t have to convince ourselves it’s a good life.
So, hurry up, Jesus. Not to prevent death. But to give us resurrection life. Amen.
This Sunday we’re pondering Lazarus.
Anyway, I see a couple of pitfalls for the preacher and hearer in these texts.
First: the current zombie resurgence. Dude (a non-gendered word in my book), if you’re going to make a Walking Dead reference, do it on a text where it’s not expected. This is a little too literal of a text if you ask me. Plus, Walking Dead is all about the living, not the zombies. In fact, the zombies are the least interesting part of the Walking Dead. So an expected, if not useless, reference here, I’d say.
That being said, I think Lazarus is also the least interesting part of this text…
Second pitfall: Resurrection. I’m talking about the TV show. It’s not that it shouldn’t be referenced. I don’t know if it should. Truth is, I haven’t seen it. But that show is about people coming back years after they died. Lazarus is in the ground four days…just long enough for his soul (if we’re going by ancient Jewish belief systems) to hike it’s way out of there. If you wondered if Lazarus is really dead, the text wants to assure you he is. I think the popularity of the show indicates that people are wondering about resurrection as a reality; they’re curious. But I don’t think this story, Easter, and the TV show have a whole lot in common.
Third pitfall: metaphor. It’s not that this text doesn’t scream metaphor, it’s just that, well, I think the people in the pew have heard it all before in a lot of ways. My generation is the generation that has seen the come-back kid rise and fall and rise again, and we’ve been told over and over again that we can change the world, that tomorrow can be different, that “the sun will come out tomorrow”. Old news. Tomorrow is a new day, yada, yada, yada. Joel Osteen even gives a version of it with his best-selling crap heap, Your Best Life Now.
A “resurrected life” is not your second chance, your “New Years Resolution Do-Over.” After all, Lazarus will have to die again. And somehow Lent has turned into this…which is sad. That’s not what Lent, or a resurrected life, is about.
It’s not the self-help, “you-can-do-it,” carpe diem stuff.
That stuff makes for great motivational speaking…but it makes for crappy sermons, in my opinion. Sure, the people may leave the church motivated to live their best, new, “resurrected” life (whatever that means).
But are they changed?
You may counter with, “Well, what evidence do you have that Lazarus was changed?”
A good question. We don’t hear much about this guy in the Gospel of John later, other than he eats with Jesus…which is kinda creepy, if you think about it. Eating with a guy you just knew to be dead.
But there is one way Lazarus changed that we know for certain: he was dead. Actually dead.
Living a resurrected life now does not mean putting a bright smile on for a gloomy day. Nor does it mean being optimistic despite a rocky road ahead.
Living a resurrected life now means dying to something now. Really dying to it. Dead. As in, “stinks for four days” sort of dead.
I think we have some dying to do. Like maybe dying to hate.
Richard Rohr noted in All Things Belong, “Jesus says that if you walk around with hatred all day, you’re just as much the killer as the one who pulls out the gun. We can’t live that way and not be destroyed.” (80) He’s right, you know. Both Jesus and Rohr. We fight against the destruction that hate puts in us, but what if we just go ahead and let it kill us?
We all have hate and anger (not the same thing, but kissing cousins) well up inside of us. Most of us have learned to trample it down or, maybe, to let it out in a big burst as if to get it out altogether.
But what if we just let our hate kill us instead of trying to mediate it?
I’m sure the Mary’s and Martha’s in our lives, genuinely weeping at our deaths, would stand around and say, “If only Jesus had really been present, hate wouldn’t have destroyed him so…”
But I don’t think that’s true. Perhaps the presence of the Divine in our lives is evidenced by the fact that we actually do die to things. Literally. Because I think we fight against the hate in our lives all the time: we mediate it, try to diffuse or process it in some fancy way, and that fight and struggle just often makes people angrier, I find.
I see this most often when I ride in cars with people. They are so angry at anonymous drivers, these other people trying to get from A to B just like they are, that it can be scary. Anger when driving is indicative of deep-seated unrest, I think. Because driving should not be so anger-inducing. And anonymous drivers are easy targets for hate because the repercussion is low. A flick of the finger here, some loud cursing there, and off we go back to point B.
But the air such vehemence leaves…it stinks. Stinks like a body in a grave for days.
What if, instead, we died to that hate? We let it consume and kill us. We didn’t fight against it, but actually embraced it as a momentary reality and let it kill us.
Then, instead, I think we’d probably be able to rise again differently as more peaceable people. After-all, once we’ve been through death and are called back out of it by the grace of God, well, there’s really not much to fear anymore…the worst has been bested.
This is, I think, what Jesus points us to.
There is genuine pain in dying to things. Worth weeping over.
Last night in a fit of fatigue and anger I had to put my crying son down (we’re teething) and walk into the next room as he screamed at 2:30am. I had to die to that anger, die to the idea that I was going to go back to sleep in five minutes, die to the idea that he was going to do exactly what I wanted him to because, well, didn’t he know what time it was? (Answer: no. He’s a 1 year old).
And then I rose again to re-embrace him, having let the stench of the anger go, to attack the morning anew. And so we laid on the guest bed, and he cried, and I soothed, and we drifted in and out of sleep for four hours.
Some might say, “If you had relied on Jesus, he could have gotten you through!” or “If God had answered your prayers, things would have been different and you would have gotten your sleep!”
But actually, I think the fact that I died to myself, my agenda, my desire, and rose again last night was proof of the inner calm of a present God.
Nothing had really changed but me.
Anyway, that’s what I’m meditating on today as I’m finishing up this sermon. I hope it’s not crappy.