April 2, 2017
Fifth Sunday in Lent
John 11: 1-45
Anthem: Eli, Eli, Lama SabachthaniSenior Choir
This morning I would like to share with you my process of discovery in preparing this sermon. My methodology can be attributed partly to my preaching professor, Dow Edgerton, and the rest to my Polish genes.
Suffice it to say that I no longer take scripture at face value. There are so many facets to the passages and narratives. And each vantage point leads to varied perspectives and interpretations. So, my preparation for any sermon begins with reading the scripture. No brainer, right? But, it’s not a single reading. In order to look at the passages with fresh eyes of discovery, I read them multiple times, with multiple voices and intonations, both silently and aloud. (The aloud part is done when Bea’s not home – otherwise, she’ll really think I’m nuts. Yes, more than she already does.) Now, even if you’re not preparing a sermon, I highly recommend this approach to scripture. It can be very enlightening and fun – but I digress. Here are just some of the discoveries that I made with my multiple readings of John’s Gospel for today.
Of course, one of the first captivating phrases that grabbed my attention was Jesus saying: “Lazarus, come out!” I immediately thought: ‘Ah, this is great stuff. … a powerful preview of Easter coming attractions.’ But I thought that focus was too easy and premature. I can’t go there. We cannot rush through Lent, foregoing the very important Lenten journey. So, ‘Do not pass go; do not collect $200’. Read it again.
On another reading led me to Martha responding to Jesus by saying: “I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Again, I thought ‘great stuff! … a preview of coming attractions for eternity.’ But my gut (i.e. the Spirit whispering to me) told me not to go there either. After all, we need something tangible for today. Prospects of eternity, while well and good, just didn’t feel like enough for the here and now. Read it again.
And that’s when these words from Martha really caught my eye. When they were at Lazarus’ tomb, Jesus said to take the stone sealing the entrance away. And Martha said: “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” That’s when I thought: ‘Martha, you’re right’. Sometimes life just stinks!’ Okay, now we’re onto something. And I began to look at Lazarus’ tomb metaphorically.
How often do we find ourselves feeling buried by life? Some of us may feel buried by our grief and mourning. We have suffered many losses within this community, especially recently. There have been too many deaths and funeral luncheons. And there are others losses, due to poor health and disability that bury us in despair. Or what about those buried by financial troubles, living paycheck to paycheck? And there are those buried by difficulties at work, because of downsizing, understaffing, or abusive bosses or coworkers who create a toxic work environment. Of course, there are yet others who have been laid off, unemployed, buried by job prospects that are few and far between. The list goes on. What is burying you?
Though we might feel buried, Jesus did bring Lazarus out from his tomb. And he commanded those present to “Unbind him and let him go.” The thought crossed my mind: ‘How about unbinding me, Lord? When will you raise me up and unbind me?’ Okay, I’m going to get really vulnerable with you. I’m going to share some of my story of feeling buried alive and bound by the constraints of life’s circumstances. I am willing to go there with you, because unlike other congregations, you are like family to me. You have been with me through thick and thin. The love and trust that I feel among you lends itself to greater transparency and vulnerability. I must give a disclaimer that this is my story. It is not a prescriptive cure all. We each have our own journeys in this life that are unique to us. Yet if there is anything within my story that connects with you to help you in some way, it is worth telling.
I have felt buried by my personal wilderness. You know that I felt a strong call to ministry. I worked my tail off to achieve that Masters of Divinity. It was a six year journey, working full-time and going to school part-time. I told myself that my work in ICU in the Veterinary Medical Center at MSU was temporary. ‘It’s just to get you through school. You can put up with working 3rd shift and all the physical, emotional and spiritual trauma of that work, until you graduate.’ Graduation in May came and went. I was still in that draining and traumatic work environment. Last fall, I was “approved for ordination pending call”. I thought ‘this is it! Now I can move on from MSU!’ Still I found myself there with seemingly no way out. I felt buried alive. My grave was a very cold, dark, and lonely place. I felt entombed and bound by work and a place that no longer fit. It was sucking the life out of me. You know you’ve reached the rock bottom of that metaphorical grave, when you weep every night driving into work. All I could say is ‘How long, Lord, how long? Unbind me, please.’
What’s your story? What is binding you?
If we look again at today’s Gospel, Jesus said “I am the resurrection.” I couldn’t help but think ‘Okay, God, then raise me up and unbind me!’ And you know what? After reflecting on that, I have made some discoveries about myself. I realize that I have helped bury myself. You see, I’ve been holding out and hoping for a big miracle ‘resurrection’, like that of Lazarus. I have been desperately wanting and waiting for a call to a place of ministry. Fixating on that big miracle alone left me feeling stuck with my hands tied and buried alive. And that left me blind to the mini-resurrections in my life.
Now, it’s no secret that I’ve had some health issues. My spine is a mess, with ruptured and bulging discs among other things. It’s really cramping my style – prohibiting many of the things that I love to do, like playing with my chainsaw and diddling in my shop. Yet, at the same time, these physical limitations have led to a mini-resurrection. God has raised me up with medical restrictions at work. What a blessing! I have been called forth from ICU and placed in Central Sterilization – on days. Raised to new life! Hallelujah! It may seem like a little thing, but it’s affecting me in profound ways. Refreshed, I am able to minister others, like my new colleagues, who desperately need to experience the love of God. I still don’t like waiting for a call. Patience is not one of my virtues. But this little blessing makes the wait a bit more palatable.
I have learned that I must stop holding out for the big miracle. I need to look for and count all of the blessings that God puts before me each and every day – my mini-resurrections. Those blessings raise me up. They unbind me from the self-doubt and self-pity that bury me and keep me from living fully. And God has provided an abundance of inspiration from many people in my life, many who have had greater difficulties than me … people like Stan Moore. Was he frustrated by his health concerns? Sure. But he never let it get him down. He was always blessing others, even perfect strangers with a smile, a hug and boundless encouragement. Oh, to be like Stan – there was a Christ-like man. Many others within this community are just as inspirational. I am so grateful to have you in my life! Truly, my wife Bea and this community of faith have blessed me in countless ways. I have seen the face of Christ in you. And through you I have been raised up and unfettered. Thank God for you!
Are you feeling buried? Have you been buried so long, your life simply stinks? Don’t dig a deeper hole like I did. Pause and look around you. Just as Jesus and a loving community surrounded Mary and Martha, you are surrounded by a loving community – the body of Christ – right here. Let those of us who are able raise you up and unbind you. Christ calls each of forth – some from our entombed lives. Still others are called to serve and unbind those who are broken in body, mind and spirit with loving kindness. What is Jesus calling you to do? Whatever it is, trust in the One who calls you – for Christ makes all things new.
Thanks be to God. Amen.