Sunday, April 10, 2011

Lent 5A - Service of Prayer and Healing

“What bible readings do you suggest, pastor?” she asked as we sat across the table from the funeral director.

“How about Psalm 23, ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want...’”? I asked

“Perfect. Mother loved that psalm. She had a copy of it on her bedroom wall.”

“Also, what about Romans chapter 8, ‘Neither death nor life...nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

“Lovely. I think she would have appreciated that message.”

“For a gospel reading, how about John 11?”

“Which one is that?”

“‘I am the resurrection and the life, those who believe in me shall not perish, but whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.’ It’s the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.”

“Absolutely NOT! No one is raising mother from the dead. She is NOT coming back to life. How dare you suggest that story!”

She looked at me as if she couldn’t tell if I were a monster or moron. Or just some religious nut spewing biblical nonsense.

I was shocked by her vehemence, but could see her point. She was still trying to come to grips with the fact that her mother had died. She was drowning in details and trying to just get through the next couple of days. She didn’t have time to reconcile the Christian proclamation with her own secular scientific perspective.

“No one is raising mother from the dead. She is NOT coming back to life!”

They probably said the same thing about Lazarus. No one is raising him from the dead. He is NOT coming back to life.

He’d been dead for four days. Tradition said that the soul had since departed and what was left in that tomb was an rotting, empty, shell.

When Jesus arrived on the scene he must have seemed terribly insensitive. People were grieving. He even wept.

Then Jesus shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” I’m sure that some of Mary and Martha’s friends wanted to put a hand over his mouth and hustle Jesus back to where he came from. How would you respond if some preacher showed up at family member’s funeral and starting pounding on the coffin, and shouting “Wake up! Wake up!”?

This was NOT a pleasant scene.

It got even worse when Jesus demanded that the grave be opened. And when the stone was pulled back, the smell probably reached their noses before Lazarus appeared at the entry way. This was no sanitary resurrection, because death is not clean.

I’m sure Lazarus emerging from the tomb was met with mixed reaction. His sisters I’m sure were overwhelmed with relief that they got their brother back. Others might have been terrified at such a passionate display of God’s power. Still others probably didn’t know what to think.

For the reader, questions remain. Was his body healed? Was his skin repaired after days in the hot tomb? What could he tell us about his experience during those four days in death?

Not everyone was glad to see Lazarus alive, however. For the religious authorities, Lazarus being raised from the dead created a problem. Seeing Lazarus walk around again would create a huge support base for Jesus, which would catch the attention of the Romans, who would then act swiftly and mercilessly to protect their rule.

If Jesus became too popular, the Romans would step in. If Jesus became too powerful, then Caesar would protect his painful peace by killing Jesus’ supporters.

But if Jesus died, then the Romans would stand down. If Jewish leaders dealt with the Jesus problem themselves, then the Roman problem would take care of itself.

So there is a direct line between Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, and his own execution.

“It is expedient than one man die than to have the whole nation destroyed,” admitted Caiphas, the high priest. Most bible commentators call Caiphas “ruthless,” sentencing Jesus to death to spare the country.

But I’m not sure that’s true. I can see the bind he was in. Despite the way history reports it, I’m sure Caiphas wasn’t happy about sacrificing one of his fellow Jews to satisfy Roman anger. It wasn’t a perfect solution because their wasn’t one.

I’m obviously not saying that I agree with Jesus being executed. But I understand the reasoning behind it. At least in this situation.

But what Caiphas didn’t know, was that he was sending Jesus to his death not just to “save a whole nation,” but to save the whole world. Jesus’ death wasn’t just for his own people, but for all people everywhere. His death was political. And it was universal. The cross wasn’t just an isolated event on a lonely hill just outside the city. It was an event that touched history with the force of its love.

And unlike Lazarus who appeared from the grave still wrapped in his grave clothes, still bound to death, Jesus rose from the dead with his grave clothes neatly folded and tucked away. He wouldn’t be needing them any more.

“No one is raising mother from the dead. She is NOT coming back to life!”

That’s true today. But that’s not true tomorrow. There will be a day when our grave clothes will be neatly folded and put away forever. There will be a day when the strength of Jesus’ death and power of his resurrection will be shown in its fulness. There will be a day when the whole world will rise and meet its God. There will be a day when tomorrow lasts forever.

And today, we cling to that promised future by coming to altar for a taste of what God has in store for us. Today, I invite you to come to the altar and bring your hurts and your wounds, or those pains you carry for others. We will offer them to God with the hope that you will receive a touch of eternity today from the one who said, “I am the resurrection and the life, those who believe in me will live. And those who live and believe in me shall never die.”

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Lent 4A

“He put some mud on my eyes. I washed. And now I see.”

Simple. To the point.

But that wasn’t enough. They wanted a fuller explanation. The religious types couldn’t accept his version of the story. There had to be more to it.

Jesus meets this blind man who has been blind from birth. With some spit and dust Jesus heals him. Praise be to God! A man who was blind can now see.

But not so fast. A controversy breaks out. Was this man really healed? How was he healed? If Jesus healed him, what does that say about Jesus?

Fortunately, a bunch of pastors appear on the scene to help sort things out, religiously speaking.

“Who sinned? This man or his parents that he was born blind?” they ask. Like lots of religious folks, they want to place blame. They want to talk about sin. They want to beat this guy with a theological stick.

Jesus doesn’t play that game.

The neighbours can’t believe it. Isn’t this the same blind man who once had to beg to survive?

The pastors alert the bishop who refers it to the disciplinary committee to investigate.

“All I know,” the man tells the committee, “is that this man put mud on my eyes and now I can see.”

Though the man is standing right in front of them, the committee can’t reach a conclusion. They subpoena the man’s parents.

“Is this your son?” they ask.

“It looks like our son, but we don’t want to get into any trouble. We have no idea how he got his sight back. If you want to know what happened, ask HIM,” his parents reply.

They call Jesus back in and say, “Jesus, you don’t have a medical license. You’re not on the clergy roster. You shouldn’t be messing around with things you know nothing about.”

The bewildered and annoyed formerly blind man says, “I don’t know a lot about all that big theological stuff. I don’t have a lot of fancy words. The only thing I know is that a few days ago I was blind and now I can see. If you want to know how all this works ask Jesus.”

“He put some mud on my eyes. I washed. And now I see.” That was his testimony.

Simple. To the point.

Sometimes I think we make it harder than it needs to be. I have, on my bookshelf, a whole section on church growth and personal evangelism.

And here at Good Shepherd, we’ve spent a lot of time and money on resources to help you share your faith. We have ChristCare, Stephen Ministry, Making God’s House a Home, Discovering God’s Vision for Your Life, etc.

I’m not saying that these programs aren’t valuable. They are VERY useful. But I do worry that we place too much emphasis on method, and not enough trust in what God is ACTUALLY doing in our lives.

We make it harder than it needs to be.

But then again, it’s not as easy as it looks. Telling people about what God has done in our lives is a challenge because not everyone welcomes conversations from church folks.

I think the problem isn’t God or Jesus. It’s been my experience that, despite the protest of some high profile atheists and their disciples, people are NOT turned off by God talk. In fact, most people WANT to talk about God. They simply don’t want to talk about the church. And in some peoples’ minds the two can be one in the same.

Given the church’s spotty historical record I don’t blame them. When non-church people ask me what I do for a living I’m often hesitant to tell them. Not because I’m ashamed of God or the church.

I’m hesitant because I know that an onslaught of hostility is probably coming my way. People often unload about the pastor who told them their uncle was going to Hell because he was gay. Or how they’re appalled by the sexual abuse and cover-up by the Catholic Church, or the residential schools abuses.

When people unload on me, I RARELY, if EVER, hear someone say, I have a real problem with God intruding on my life, so I try to stay away from church. And I never hear someone say, I have real difficulty with Jesus’s message.”

People’s problems are rarely with God or Jesus. People LOVE talking about God. Peoples’ problems are usually with the Church. Rightly or wrongly, they see the Church like the Pharisees in today’s reading, blind to what God is doing because they’re too busy protecting the religious institution.

We can’t escape the sins of the past. Those are the burdens we carry into the future. And I’m sure that we’ll create new burdens along the way.

But what I try to do when confronted with the sins of our collective past, is to listen to the pain behind those concerns. And all I can do is tell that person what I know about God, and what Jesus has done in my life.

I can’t apologize for other peoples’ sins, but I can tell them about the grace that I’ve received. And about the God I know and who loves me enough to die for me.

All I can do is say “He put some mud on my eyes. I washed. And now I see.”

Our future as a church will be created by simple testimonies rather than large programs. The church of the future will be sustained by our stories of God in our lives rather than by institutional support. Our life together will be about sharing with each other and the world what God is doing with and among us.

I’ve always believed that the church of the future will look more like an AA meeting than a Broadway musical. The church of the future will have one simple message, a message that will change peoples’ lives and the world.

“He put some mud on my eyes. I washed. And now I see.”

May this be so among us. Amen.