Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Conversations That Matter

John 4:5-42 - Sunday, March 26, 2017

Welcome to the fourth Sunday in Lent. I don’t know about you but I feel that we are at the point in our Lenten journey together in which people start whining a little bit…are we there yet? This is taking FOREVER. How much further do we have to go? How much longer will it take? Are we talking hours or days yet? What do you mean weeks!? Can we stop and get some chocolate?

It might be easy to lose heart and stay reflective at this point along the way of Lent. It’s the beginning of school spring break after all. People are going away on holidays. Although. Lent can travel with you. Three years ago we went on a cruise. The first night in the dining room, our 16-year-old pointed out the flowers on the table and asked, ‘the flowers are purple cause it’s Lent right?’ There’s the feeling of spring in the air. It’s getting warmer outside, there’s a freshness in the breeze. The time we are spending in the darkness is becoming shorter. And yet, here we are, still extinguishing candles, making our holy space more and more dim. Not forgetting that the ministry of Jesus did not end well. Reminding ourselves that the road we are on leads to the darkness of a tomb. In this time of Lent, Christians are to take the opportunity to explore and examine within themselves what their faith, what our faith, means to us as we live our lives in a world that is vastly different and, I would venture, very much more complex than the world in which Jesus lived. Our United Church of Canada has created a handful of faith statements, written since Union in 1925, but we state still, that the foundation of our Christianity is the Bible. We go to the stories of Jesus’ ministry, his miracles, his way of expressing God’s love to all that he met along his way, and we use them to better understand how we, ourselves, can be God’s love for all we meet along our way. And, as we well know, we cannot offer peace, hope and love unless we have experienced, for ourselves, peace, hope and love.

We cannot participate in Jesus’ example of healing in the world unless we work at healing within our very selves. And, this is some of what Lent is all about. Healing. Repenting. Recognizing where you are hurting or where you feel broken, separated from God. Where your actions have caused pain or where the behaviour of others have resulted in your own pain. Over the past three Sundays we have looked at how our wounded hearts can drive us out into the deserts of our own making, seeking solace and understanding. We have looked at the despair that comes with loss, the loss of a beloved, the loss of a dream or future plans. We heard how Jesus felt ‘disturbed’ with the death of Lazarus—that Jesus, through whom God chose to experience all of what it means to be human in God’s own creation, felt the deepest sort of human emotion, that God in Jesus despaired.  And, last week, we looked at the concept of sin, as expressed by the Pharisees and as corrected by Jesus. Sin, to be in such a place so as to not be able to offer one’s best self for the service of God, or to a neighbour, or, even, to yourself.

We have talked about what it means to recognize these areas that need repenting but, once you acknowledge healing is necessary, what IS repenting all about? Catherine MacLean, one of the authors of the United Church’s most recent statement of faith, called A Song of Faith, writes, “We are made at one with God…by our participation in holy possibility…that the holy mystery of of Jesus’ life, work, death, and resurrection includes our willingness to change and [includes] our participation.” How do we move from being willing to change and participate in our own transformation, how do we move into action? The answer is actually quite straightforward. Those of you who have been participating in the Daring Greatly book study this Lent will know what it takes. Brene Brown will say, you need to be willing to be in the arena and be vulnerable with others in your life—your lover, your family, your friends, your neighbour, your enemy. To be vulnerable means to have a willingness to admit that you do not have all the answers. Being vulnerable is being willing to learn and to keep learning. Someone else might have the answer you are looking for or may have the information you need to understand things better. Being vulnerable means being open to the fact that you could be wrong. And that another is right. Or, at least, less wrong than you. Being vulnerable is being aware that you cannot possibly fully understand another person’s experience, if only because you have not lived their life. Being vulnerable often means conceding some of your power so that another can have some power of their own. However, giving up ownership of power in any given situation is uncomfortable. Being vulnerable and open to another person’s point of view and their needs might make what has been CERTAIN in your world//uncertain. And that doesn’t feel good because our society teaches us that we are responsible for our destiny. Our goal in life, we are trained from a young age, is to make certain what is uncertain. Vulnerability, by its very nature, introduces uncertainty into our lives. No one said transformation would be painless.

At the beginning of Daring Greatly, Brene Brown quotes a speech by Theodore Roosevelt in which he says that the person who is willing to enter into the arena to face whatever struggle that is there, if that person falls down and gets up again, they are showing a willingness to be vulnerable in front of all the spectators, of their failures, not just their successes being exposed in front of so many. The Samaritan woman in the scripture reading today was willing to enter into the arena. She was willing to be vulnerable. How do we know this? Because the storyteller tells us in case we don’t get the significance of this societal no-no by saying: “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” In today’s world, we know that in the stories of ancient Israel when a Samaritan enters onto the scene, we, the listeners are to boo and to hiss at them for Samaritans were always the bad guys in the scene. The Samaritans were a disregarded people for the Jews Judea and Galilee. The region of Samaria was once part of the northern kingdom of Israel but they broke away during the reign of King David and set up their own monarchy and form of worship until Assyria invaded and sent most of its inhabitants into exile. We are told in the first book of Kings that the king of Assyria brought five groups of pagans into Samaria to settle there, each worshipping their own pagan gods. Even though the Israelites were joined in covenant to the one true God, they intermarried with these foreigners and adopted their worship and other practices. This is why the Jews, the protagonists of our stories, would not have anything in common with Samaritans—because their assimilation with these pagans had defiled them. Samaria, like the woman at the well, had five husbands and was estranged from her true husband.

The mere fact that Jesus approached the woman at the well put them both in very awkward social positions. The Samaritan is right to be cautious; "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?" She immediately recognizes and names their differences; drawing attention to the fact that it’s unlikely their conversation is going to be fruitful. Yet, she engages, even if guardedly. She may not have high hopes at the moment, but neither has she allowed cynicism to define her whole being. The conversation begins with mutual vulnerability—a willingness to risk something for the sake of faith. Jesus risks critique for talking to a) a single woman and b) a Samaritan. We see the impropriety of it in the disciples’ behaviour. The woman risks ridicule when she testifies to other Samaritans that Jesus is someone worth following, even though he’s not one of them. Relationship requires vulnerability. This is where truthful conversations, which lead to healing and transformation must start—from a place of reciprocal vulnerability, from a space that recognizes that each party risks being known and being seen.

Conversation is essential for relationships to develop and thrive. Not the dialogue happens today, particularly the so-called conversations that are taking place as political discourse seem to dominate the news—“I’m right. You’re wrong. So there.” We are living in a time when open and honest conversation needs to be cultivated and valued. Practiced and pursued. Longed for and lived. Without real conversation, we lack intimacy and understanding; connection and empathy. Without real conversation, we risk detachment and distance. The conversation of the Samaritan woman and Jesus is emblematic of what true relationship looks like—mutuality, reciprocity, and regard. The components of conversation that allow for vulnerability to exist and transformation to happen are questions, time and being prepared to be surprised. Questions are critical to healing. Not the types of questions in which you already know the answers or questions that are asked only to be polite. The questions needed for vulnerability to thrive are those that communicate curiosity, an interest in the other, a longing for information and understanding. The woman at the well is full of questions, thoughtful questions, questions that matter and lead Jesus to reveal to her who he really is. We have seen throughout his ministry that Jesus affirms questions, even invites them, as he does in this encounter at the well. Questions strengthen relationship.

For these conversations that matter and in which there is an intentional and genuine interest in the other takes time. They take time because it is likely there will be moments of misunderstanding. The Samaritan woman is first confused by Jesus’ offer, but she does not let that halt the conversation. And, finally, when it comes to having a conversation with those you are striving to be in relationship with, with those relationships you are working at healing, with those conversations with Jesus, asking him what would he do, what would he and God have you do, you must be prepared to be surprised. Expect to hear something about your lover, your friend, your neighbour, your enemy that you did not understand before but, maybe, makes sense to you now. Expect God to reveal something about God’s self that you have never seen before. We are not told this today but the unnamed woman at the well is the first one to whom Jesus reveals his true identity—I AM, the first absolute I AM in the Gospel of John—not to the Jewish leaders or to the disciples, but to her, a religious, social, political outsider. Be prepared to be surprised. There is one final characteristic of conversation that strives for healing and to be life-giving and that is the anticipation of being changed in the process. The woman at the well goes from shamed to witness. From dismissed to disciple. From alone to being a sheep of Jesus’ own fold.

The failure of the disciples in this story is a failure of the imagination as they awkwardly respond to Jesus’s interaction to this woman and worry about its appropriateness. They do not enter into the conversation. Jane Goodall, “Change happens by listening and then starting a dialogue with the people who are doing something you don’t believe is right.” Dorothy Day, a founder of the Catholic Workers Movement grew up in a middle-class, nominally Christian home in the early 1900s. At university she paid her way. She refused to rely financially on her parents. She dropped out of school after two years and lived a carefree life while exploring socialism and other economies outside of pure capitalism. Although her younger years involved several lovers, an abortion and then the birth of a child out of wedlock, Dorothy’s religious exploration and ongoing call from God, led her converting to Catholicism. She continued to question the injustice experienced by labourers and unfair labour practices. Dorothy recognized a lack of Catholic leadership in social activism and so began the Catholic Workers Movement, which called upon Christians to use their gifts and talents to help fellow workers and the poor.

I mentioned John Newton, who wrote Amazing Grace, last week—about how his mind was changed and he went from being a slave trader to being an abolitionist. He did not change his mind in one, mind-blowing moment of revelation. Rather, his mind was changed over a number of years, as he grew from becoming Christian in his younger years and began asking questions about what it means to be human in God’s world, began asking why one type of person is consider not worthy of being fully human while others are owned and enslaved. His mind was changed, slowly, over time as he turned his face towards God, to what God wants for this world, to peace and hope for every person, so that no one suffers at the hand of another human.

Conversations matter. I invite you to stay in the conversation throughout this Lent. You will not be alone. Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Those That See Must First Become Blind

John 9:1-41

Our marathon of a scripture reading this morning is a remarkable tale, isn’t it? The story goes back and forth between the blind man, the Pharisees and Jesus. It reminds me of those funny, circular jokes – you know how Abbot and Costello would do - who’s on first, what’s on second - that sort of back and forth. Don’t you think it would be great if John Cleese or Mr. Bean would tackle this scripture reading? It does get sort of ridiculous in places. Who cured you? Jesus. Couldn’t have been, he’s a sinner. Clearly not cause he cured me. No. Not him. What do you mean, no, not him. I was there! I was blind but now I see!!

We have this scripture reading today because, for a change, we are actually following the Lectionary for Lent. We have talked about some of the healing miracles not too long ago but we didn’t look at them in the context of what Lent calls for us to do during these six weeks—namely to explore and examine our spiritual and faithful selves. To find the places within our being that need attention, that need consideration for the Christian practice of repenting, of turning from what is hurting and broken inside of us and turning our faces, instead, to what is loving, good and right, towards our God. The assumption, at the start of our story today, is that either the man who was at first blind or his parents had sinned in some significant way so that the man was born without sight. This is a highly disturbing concept of sin that has been perpetuated for centuries over and over again by religious leaders. The idea that being born outside the bounds of ‘the usual’ or ‘the normal’ is proof of a past or ongoing sin is one of Christianity’s greatest failings. I say this as the parent of a child born blind in one eye. As a parent who had to sit in the day surgery ward of the children’s hospital visiting with the parents of other blind children, not knowing if I should be grateful that my child was blind in only one eye or feel guilty because he wasn’t blind in both eyes as was the child in the bed next to us. It is simply offensive to think that our God would cause our children to be blind or otherwise handicapped because of their sin or ours, as their parents.

But let’s back up a step. The Pharisees start this whole story by speaking of sin but not explaining it. In our current day, our United Church denomination would define sin using the 20th century theologian Paul Tillich’s description – sin is anything that separates us from God, or that separates us from others or separates us from our own best self. The Reverend Molly Phinney Baskette would describe the state of living in sin by using the adjective diabolical. She writes, ‘the root word for diabolical is diabalein, which means to separate, to tear apart, to compartmentalize’. In other words, when we have sinned, we have done something that separates ourselves, not only from God, but also from being the best we can be because we do not have the ability to be fully who God made us to be when we are not fully ourselves, when we are ignoring or hating pieces of ourselves because of some hurtful or painful experience we have had-whether it was done by our own hand or words to another or by someone else towards us. Molly later explains that the flip side of diabalein is ‘integrity’.

The root meaning of the word ‘integrity’ is ‘wholeness’ – when we repent, make right with God, with those who have hurt us and those we have hurt in turn, and when we make right with ourselves, we make our way back to being a whole person again. The seven deadly, or cardinal, sins of pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth are not sinful when done occasionally or in moderation. However, those behaviours become sinful when they interfere with living a lifestyle that gives glory to God, when they prevent meaningful and loving relationships with one’s family, friends and neighbours. When they discourage helping the stranger in need and seeking justice for the oppressed and those living at the margins. When they get in the way of caring, loving and living your life to the full capacity God would have you live.

John 9:1-41
If you follow the entire story, not just reduce to something shorter, more manageable to be read on a Sunday, if you hear the whole tale, you can hear how Jesus strives through this story to undermine the simplistic understanding of sin put forward by the religious leaders. The Pharisees begin the encounter by echoing the common understanding at the time; that a disability was the result of sin somewhere in the family, that the blind or disabled clearly must not be righteousness in God’s eyes as they were inflicted in some way. Only those who can see, who can move freely, who are not ill, are pious, God-fearing, Law-abiding people. At this point, I would like to point out that my friend Molly (and I believe strongly that Jesus would agree with her) would say it is not the illness or disability that is a manifestation of sin however sin happens if we refuse treatment or if we refuse to acknowledge that we need assistance, need help. It is not the illness or disability but it is the refusal itself to be open and to talk about the issues at hand which create a state of sin because that refusal allows for secrets to develop between those we love and from those who love us. These secrets damage our relationship with the people closest to us and denies God the power to help in any possible way – if only to have God be the focus of the grief and lament that often needs expressing because life has been changed forever or life will never be the same having been so ill or finding oneself without the more full use of ones’ body as they once had before.

Jesus disagrees with the Pharisees view on sin. He tells those gathered that, in fact, those who claim to see are actually the ones who are living with sin. If only they would admit to blindness, their sin would be resolved. If those who believe they know everything there is to know about God’s will, about God’s hope for the world, about how God’s earth is to become God’s heaven through the active work and participation of God’s people to make peace and wholeness a reality – if only they would put aside their arrogance for a minute and allow for other ways of being, to allow for other ways of being right to exist, transformation can happen. Cause we all know what happens when you think you know all the answers. The moment you think you know all the possible solutions and there are no others is the moment you no longer can be innovate, open, compassionate or empathic. Because you think you know it all.  All great religions call their people towards transformation. Towards recognizing that you are not fully in the light of day, but in fact, live somewhat in the dark of all the great possibilities that exist in our world and our humanity. Our religions, not just Christianity, but Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, any religion worth it’s salt, demands stark self-appraisal. Compels honesty in facing our worst impulses and requires courage in facing our worst fears. In our own religious tradition, this is the time of repentance. Of hearing of the ministry of Jesus, the miracles he performed and the challenges he experienced from those around him, we hear of how this person of God was able to change the hearts and minds of those who heard him and then look within ourselves to understand better our relationship with God, with Jesus, where we allow the Holy Spirit to move, what is not healthy, whole and good in our heart of hearts and to lift those up and allow God to know we wish to be changed, we wish to learn more, we wish to seek wholeness, we strive to find peace. And through the grief and pain of cracking our inner selves open just a little bit, through the lament that needs expressing so that the light can make it’s way into the darkness, we can find ourselves, turned a little more closely to God. Not that things are forgotten. Not that wounds are ever completely healed. But the itchiness that comes with healing can remind us that others, too, are hurting, feeling pain, loss, despair. And, in our own healing, we have the ability to offer healing to others.

Henri Nouwen speaks of being a wounded healer – put our wounds into the service of others. Because we do not heal on our own. We do not heal in the comfort and peace of our own homes, in the privacy of our own minds, with our hearts fully protected. We heal when we are open, when we dare to make ourselves vulnerable, when we allow others to join us along the journey. When we can ask the question and ask our trusted, beloved people in our lives to help us to answer. Where have we felt blind? Where have we experienced a new sense of sight? A new sense of life or the chance to be the person we have been called to be? There are many stories of people who have experienced dramatic changes of heart from one way of thinking to another—almost opposite point of view. When we hear their stories, we can understand how their healing can inform our own healing.

Saul of Tarsus experienced such a transformation on the road to Damascus. In fact, he was blinded on that journey and only when he professed Jesus to be Lord above all others did the scales drop from his eyes.

As did the Roman Emperor Constantine who was very much opposed to the emerging Christian sect of Judaism until he had a dream in which he figured God told him to put the image of a cross on the shields of his army. Which he did and the army won their battle. Upon his Christian conversion, Constantine stopped Christian persecutions and legalized Christianity, making it possible for the religion to gain strength and begin to move beyond the Roman Empire.

We must not forget Ebenezer Scrooge. A perfect tale of transforming from being a miser to being generous. Scrooge’s transformation is from living a life of scarcity to living a life full of abundance. While he was not made blind in his transformation, like Constantine, his experience took place while in a dream. Of course Scrooge was not a real person but his story is so familiar to us and it is filled with such hope and possibility, we should not ignore it. Charles Dickens lived in a time of great poverty and desperation for so many people. Such transformation of the powerful men in leadership was likely the only perceived way changes could be made in work place regulation, health care, education and prison reform.

As did John Newton. He wrote his famous hymn, Amazing Grace, as a testimony of the change of heart he experienced and how he went from being a slave trader and became an abolitionist.

As did FW de Klerk. He became Transvaal provincial National Party leader in 1982 For most of his career, de Klerk had a very conservative reputation. The NP's Transvaal branch was historically the most staunchly conservative wing of the party, and he supported continued segregation of universities while Minister of National Education. It thus came as a surprise when in 1989 he placed himself at the head of verligte ("enlightened") forces within the governing party which had come to believe that apartheid could not be maintained forever. 1989 he was elected to a full five-year term as state president. His presidency was dominated by the negotiation process, mainly between his NP government and the ANC, which led to the democratization of South Africa.

The Pharisees were so bent on finding fault with Jesus that they could not see the miraculous gift of Jesus, himself. They thought their knowledge meant they were filled with righteousness when, in fact, it blinded them to what was really important. Love for one another. Love over injustice, love over unfairness, inequality, hatred, phobias. Love for the stranger, the enemy, they one who knows not what they do. In the righteous blindness of the Pharisees was fear—fear of the unknown, fear of being vulnerable, fear of feeling helpless, dependent on another, fear that there may not be enough love for them when judgment was made. What this story comes down to, is the Pharisees and other religious leaders of Jesus’ day, and let’s not forget those holier-than-thou, pious everyday citizens who easily passed judgment on those who did not follow the Law as strictly as they did, ALL of those people had some soul-searching to do. They had to get down from their high horses and do some muck-raking with their own fears, struggles, insecurities, vulnerabilities. They had to do a little repenting.

This story today is not just about the miracle of what Jesus did. It never is. That is why we need to hear the WHOLE story, from start to finish. Because the story today is not for us to cluck at the Pharisees and shake our heads at their ignorance of God’s will, at their ability to avoid God’s call to find wholeness and peace in this world—with ourselves. No, this story is for us to hear and then to consider, to turn your gaze inward and ask yourself, “To what am I blind? Where do I not fully see?” May it be so. Amen.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Standing Naked Before God

Okay, let me say, right off the bat, if you are going to do a Google search for this next book that I have read, please type in the ENTIRE title.

Do not - I repeat - DO NOT just type in, "Standing Naked".

Especially if you are using a public computer.


The resulting images that I found when I made this mistake, took me back to a certain music director's birthday and I wanted to find her a picture of a man in a kilt wishing her a 'happy birthday' (cause, you know, she appreciates the art form). Well, apparently the words I used were too specific for Google and the photos that appeared cannot be unseen. EVER. God help me.

But, I digress.

During this 11th week of 2017, I read this lovely book by Molly Phinney Baskette. The full title is, Standing Naked Before God: The Art of Public Confession. Many people who attend SVUC will be familiar with some of the content of this book as I have used the ideas from this book during our worship services.

I met Molly last year at the gathering for the clergy for Alberta Northwest Conference in the United Church of Canada. The idea of only clergy (ordained, diaconal and designated-lay ministers) coming together to network, socialize and encourage one another came out of the last business meeting of the Conference. While we pride ourselves on being an inclusive church, we also recognize the value and necessity of meeting in specific groups so that stories and life-experiences can be shared with those other people who have chosen to follow a similar life-path. There is level of safety that can be achieved and a deep vulnerability that can be shared when you know the others in the room know EXACTLY what you're talking about.

Molly was the theme speaker for the gathering. As I was a member of the planning team, she invited me to participate in a worship practice involving vulnerability that her congregation has embraced over the years. She asked if I would and I said 'sure'. My beloved asked me later that day, what exactly do you have to do? How bare do you have to make your soul? Is there crying involved? Can you get out of it?

I had to admit that I asked her NONE of those questions. I just jumped in with both feet. I regretted it the moment I received her follow up email.

I was to confess my insecurity/doubt/fear/feeling of abandonment by God and then offer words of assurance. Just that little thing. To a room full of my colleagues. Most of whom I don't know very well. Or at all.

Molly is strong advocate of the use of personal confession in a public place (aka: church) so that each of us can take those pieces of ourselves that are broken and reconcile them with God. To be broken, to have sinned, is to have done "anything that separates us from God, others or our own best self." By speaking about this brokenness/sin out loud, to our church friends and family, we break open a part of ourselves and let God work within us. Our confession can be heard by others and shine a light upon what hurt and pain they are secretly holding. And the words of assurance {where God was found in all the mess, where God showed up} is the hope and the reminder of God's love and grace that is offered to each and every one of us. Regardless. Without exception.

So, that day, in front of my clergy colleagues, me and another clergy person confessed our pain, our brokenness. And we offered words of assurance. What I heard from my colleague was deeply touching and very moving. When it was my turn to speak, I felt only love and grace from those gathered. Everyone agreed that those moments of confession and assurance were vulnerable and a bit unsettling but, above all, they were real moments of connection - with each other and with the Divine.

When I returned to SVUC after my sabbatical, I instituted this practice of confession and assurance. Four people have gifted the congregation with their stories. I have just muddled along in my leadership of this practice, using my own experience as the guidance. Now that I have read this book and learned how this practice developed in Molly's congregation, I have a more solid place of understanding to ask and encourage the people of SVUC to get up themselves and stand naked before God.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

When You're Going Through Hell

Scripture Reading: John 11:1-45 - Lazarus is Raised from the Dead

Our society spends a lot of time and money entertaining itself. Distracting itself. Numbing ourselves. Getting lost in stories that have a resolution, usually a satisfactory end to the tale. We become wrapped up in the achievements of sports teams and reality TV competitors. We have learned how to subdue our own emotions while observing the emotions of others—however authentic they may or may not be. But that doesn’t mean our own story is not still there. That the dramas in our own lives are not forgotten. We can try to ignore ourselves for only so long, but on some days once the tv is off, the game is over, the book is laid down, the movie is finished, we remember what we’ve been trying to lay aside.

As we move through this season of Lent, we Christians are encouraged to take time to reflect, to examine and explore what it means to be people of God, how we can best follow the teachings of the one who became our Christ, and how we can be active participants in making real God’s Kingdom on this earth. We spoke last week about John the Baptist’s call for humanity to repent, to turn from what might be broken and turn, instead, towards God. To repent is a necessity in healing. It is critical. Crucial. Because if we do not address what it is that hurts us, where we, ourselves, have caused pain and the pain that has been done upon us, if we cannot bring these bits of brokenness within ourselves to the light of day, we cannot fully heal and know the peace and love that Jesus would have us be in God’s world, God’s Kingdom. This is why, in these first Sundays in Lent, we are spending some time exploring grief and the impact it has as we make our way through the world.

Our scripture reading today is the story of Lazarus, his sisters Mary and Martha and their dear friend Jesus, the healer and teacher they had long been following as disciples and as believers in the possibility of God’s peace on earth. It is a fascinating tale as we hear the whole story, from start to finish, more or less. The one piece we do not get to hear what the life of a resurrected person looks like, as we are not told how Lazarus went from stinky and beginning to rot to walking, talking and living once again. Only that he was raised and he exited his tomb. Going forward, we know that Jesus, upon his resurrection, was, at times, there but not there, was able to move through walls and carried the marks of his execution with him. We are not given the details of the rest of Lazarus’ life. I suppose we are to presume that he went on and lived a rather normal life because, if for no other reason, the Bible does not tell us otherwise. Detailed or not, the natural focus of this story is the ending—this incredible miracle of life ending and starting again, as if Lazarus had a reset button that only Jesus knew how to push. However, just as last week we did not look at the obvious bits about power and authority in the temptations of Jesus in the desert, for this story I want to spend time acknowledging that, first and foremost, this is a story of lament and a story of experiences of grief and absence. Sure the miracle at the end is pretty awesome but there is so much more to the story that can be explored.

This tale of the illness, death and raising of Lazarus is made up of so many smaller pieces. I wonder, as you listened to this story, what pieces might have caught your attention?

Did the fact that Jesus did not rush to the side of his beloved and deathly ill friend cause you to wonder?

Did you catch that Jesus purposely delayed going to Bethany until he was sure that Lazarus had died so that his followers would fully believe in him and the power of God? Even if it meant the deepest pain for his dear friends Mary and Martha?

What about the grief and despair felt by both the sisters? Did you stay there, caught up in knowing exactly how they must of felt because you have felt the pain of that loss too?

Were you stopped short that Jesus wept, alongside the sisters, even in his daring of arriving much, much too late?

Did the resurrection cause you to leave the story in disbelief? Was it the stench that stopped you or was it, in today’s scientific world, knowing the impossibility of it all that made you leave the intrigue and mystery of this story?

Did you make it all the way through to the end and think, oh thank God, all is not lost, there is hope. In spite of the death, the dryness, the finality of the door at the entrance to the tomb, Jesus offers us life, for he is the resurrection and the life and those who believe in him never die.

This remarkable story of death and rising is a premonition of the Easter story that is not far off into Jesus’ future. There is a warning that Lazarus will die, just as Jesus warned that he was not long for the world. Death occurs followed shortly by resurrection. The important part of this story seems to be about the resurrection. That’s where the undisputed hope lies, doesn’t it? Death came and death was overcome. I am the life, says Jesus, those who believe will never die. It would be so great if we could just rush our way through this tale of woe, skip the Good Friday of it all, and land firmly in the hope that all can be made better, with just a simple command, of knowing the right person with the right connections, of not giving up. That is what our instincts tell us, don’t they? Don’t focus on the bad, it doesn’t feel good, find something lighter and happier to hold on to. Country songs are full of this wisdom. Rodney Atkins has it down pat…

Well, you know those times when you feel like there's a sign there on your back
Says I don't mind if ya kick me seems like everybody has
Things go from bad to worse, you'd think they can't get worse than that
And then they do

You step off the straight and narrow and you don't know where you are
Use the needle of your compass to sew up your broken heart
Ask directions from a genie in a bottle of Jim Beam
And she lies to you
That's when you learn the truth

If you're going through hell
Keep on going, don't slow down
If you're scared, don't show it
You might get out before the devil even knows you're there

Unfortunately, like most country songs, life doesn’t work like that. When you’re going through hell and you try to deny all that comes along with the trip, you don’t get out unscathed—cause whatever you were trying to avoid will, someday, catch up with you. And I know that alls y’all know what I’m talking about. Hope comes only once you have felt forsaken. To feel found you have to first have felt lost. You have to feel these painful moments before the relief and joy of hope and resurrection can be known. And pain changes you.

The time our son, Simon, broke his collarbone, we were at the highest point of Lake Louise. He had tried to turn down the hill and, rather than continuing to ski, he became, instead, a human sled, slamming shoulder first into a piece of solid snow as he rocketed his way down the hill. The screaming quickly confirmed that he was, indeed broken. Rather than wait for rescue, the practical mom part of me compelled him to ski to the very bottom and along the backside of the hill, then ride the chair lift up and finally take the gondola down to the lodge. It was a process. He managed. I don’t know how, but he did. On the chair lift up the hill, he was muttering under his breath. “There is no happiness without sadness. There is no joy without despair. There is no healthy without being sick.” He was telling himself that his extreme discomfort would one day be balanced by the relief in healing. But that did not diminish the pain he was feeling right at that moment. THAT pain could not be denied. He had to go through it, the pain could not be fast-forwarded, it could not be skipped over. Just as the disciples had to endure the silence that was the Saturday of Easter—that day after the terribleness of Good Friday and the day before new hope arrived with the sunrise on Sunday morning, just as the disciples lived through the silence and despair, knowing only that they had lost the one who had been for them their beloved, their teacher, their rabbi, their guide in a world fraught with fear and insecurity, I invite you to consider what impact your Easter Saturdays have had in your ability to heal, to repent.

Mary and Martha lost their dearest relative when Lazarus died. Many of us know the pain of such a death, such a loss in our lives. When we lose the one we love above all others, our siblings, our parents, our dearest friends, our children, our spouses, our other halves, we do not simply lose them, we lose a piece of ourselves. Grief because of loss does not come only at the hands of death. Loss of a future with those that we once closer to us than any other can be as painful as death. We turn, in these moments of despair, to our faith, our scriptures, the foundational text of our religion to give us strength, courage and hope. But if we are not cautious and we move too quickly, looking for the silver lining or the window that’s been opened for the closing of a door, we do our faith a disservice. Our Good Book is full of stories which tell of the hope and good that is in God, Jesus and the Kingdom of Heaven. And in perfect world, we could be as Jesus and move quickly to forgiving the very ones who persecute us, who are willing to hang us on the crosses of our lives—forgive them God, for they know not what they do. But we are human and must live fully into the messiness of what our humanity is all about.

We are told, in experiencing the loss of Lazarus, once the consequences of his delay is made real to him, Jesus feels disturbed. He is disturbed by the grief he experiences in the people surrounding him and the feelings of his own grief welling up within him. The Greek word that is interpreted as ‘disturbed’ in this translation is used just two other times when describing the emotions of Jesus – when he tells the disciples that his hour has come and when he realizes that he will betrayed. It is used a third time when he is telling his followers to not be disturbed when he is about to depart from them one final time. This is the deepest sort of human emotion felt by Jesus—even the one who is himself the resurrection and the life is deeply unsettled by human grief and death. And if Jesus feels and knows what it means to be unsettled deeply by grief, then Gods knows too this pain and despair, because Jesus, being the Word incarnate, allows for God to know the fullness of what being human is all about—the joy and celebration, the pain and the hurt. 

Mary, Martha and their friends were weeping and lamenting when Jesus arrived. Jesus soon joined them in their expressed grief. It was not kept silent. It was not done behind closed doors. It was not done alone. We cannot ignore the necessity of experiencing grief and being willing to lament to God for the hurt, pain and despair we feel. That is the only way we can make our way through the hell we find ourselves in. However, even with the many tales of woe, disappointment and exile within the Bible, there is no Christian practice of grieving. There are Christian practices for marriage, for dying, for stewardship but nothing prescribed for grieving as a Christian. Christian practices are such as those based on what Jesus and the New Testament would guide us. But, for some reason, no one has determined how it is that a Christian would grieve. But the Bible has ways of grieving built right into it. The Books of Job and Lamentations. The cries of the prophets. And in the stories of those people who are not well in Gospels. And laid out here, in this story before the miracle happens. Before the calling out, there’s weeping. There’s lament. There’s the crying out to God, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? Brene Brown, in Daring Greatly, gives us an idea of why it is so hard for us modern day Christians to grieve fully, in healthy, healing way. She writes, ‘with Western idealism our goal is to have no needs we cannot meet on our own. We are taught to be an island unto ourselves, self-sufficient in every practical way.’ So, we are each taught self-sufficiency but it is very hard to grieve and to lament in the privacy of the inner workings of your head. I don’t know about you but I find it helps to talk about what hurts me. What pains me. In safety. With the people who are my people, who allow me to be vulnerable without trying to patch it over. Who don’t get uncomfortable when I cry because, it’s inevitable, when I talk about the inner workings of my heart, my deepest worries, my deepest loves, my deepest pain, I cry. Each and every time. My God, I cried when wrote that last line!

When the discussion gets around to the what the purpose and relevance of church is in the world today, I say, THIS is one of the most important pieces of work of Christ’s church today. To be community – to take the messy, snot running, tears flowing, the babbling, and anger towards God times as well as the happy, meaningful, joyous, spirit-overflowing times. To offer love and security to those needing comfort, community, a sense of belonging, a safe place to land, a place to be fully who God made them to be. To be together in this community of love and safety, to model for each other our own healing through pain, hurt and despair by grieving and lamenting together and, then hopefully, to move with each other from the foot of the cross on Friday, live through the silence of Saturday and rise up to Sunday morning. To fully who we are together. Thanks be to God.