Monday, April 7, 2014

The Raising of Lazarus: What part of your life craves divine resuscitation?



The Raising of Lazarus: What part of your life craves divine resuscitation?
A sermon preached Lent 5 (April 6, 2014)
The Rev. John Ohmer, Rector,
The Falls Church Episcopal, Falls Church, Virginia

When 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." When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to him, "Lord, come and see." Jesus began to weep.

This morning I want to make five points about the raising of Lazarus story we’ve just heard. My first two points are very short. My third point is a long one – get settled in. My fourth point is short. My fifth point is kind of medium-length.

My first point flows from the fact that Jesus is "deeply moved" in this story. If you believe, as Christians believe, that Jesus was more than just a great man, a wise prophet, but God himself…God incarnate, God in human form…then this story reminds us that God is compassionate. God weeps. God is not distant, or far off. God does not stand far off from human suffering, but enters in.

So my first point is, “make your desires known to God, confident of God’s closeness, compassion, and love for you.”
»

So the Jews said, "See how he loved him!" But some of them said, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?"

Notice there are two reactions: One, “look at how much Jesus loved him!” (or, “wow, how much God loves us!) And two, “well, if he loved him so much, why didn’t he prevent his death?” (or , “if God loves us so much, why does he allow suffering?” “Why doesn’t he use his power to keep bad things from happening?”

Which brings me to my second point: yes, make your desires known to God, confident of God’s closeness, compassion, and love for you, but (my second point), “God’s closeness, compassion, and love does not mean everything goes our way all the time, or that we’re spared from heartache.”

»

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus 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."

God is close, compassionate, and loving; Jesus is greatly disturbed, and comes to the tomb. It’s a cave. A stone was lying against it, as a way to seal the tomb. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Lazarus’ sister Martha says, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”

“Already there is a stench”

It’s been too long.

It’s too late.
                                
Gotta love the King James’ version:

39Jesus said, Take ye away the stone. Martha, the sister of him that was dead, saith unto him, Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days.

“He stinketh.”

He’d been dead four days.

There are parts of our life that have been dead longer than that. There are parts of our life needing God’s closeness, compassion, and love that may have been dead for four decades.

Aren’t there, in each of our lives, aspects of our personality – deeply ingrained attitudes and habits – that we know don’t serve us well?

At one point in a particularly difficult part of my life, the very wise counselor I was seeing would ask me, “John, in what ways do you get in your own way?” “And what would it be like not to get in your own way?”

Couldn’t we all use God’s healing touch in some aspect of our life? It doesn’t have to be an outright crisis: Isn’t there some part in our life that feels dead and buried, no longer fully alive?

Isn’t there some part of us where we say, as “the whole house of Israel” says in the Ezekiel passage, “our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, we are cut off completely (NRSV)/completely finished (CEB).” and we say,

"I’m done." "It's too late."

"I've had enough."

Nothing is too far gone, too deeply buried, for God to get at it. So what part of your life craves newness, healing, divine resuscitation, restoration, revival, renewal?

Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your grave, and bring you up from your graves. … I will put my spirit within you, and you – that part of your life – shall live.

What part of your life craves newness, healing, divine resuscitation, restoration, revival, renewal? What part of your life do you fear, “it’s just too late, by now there’s a stench”?  

Thus says the Lord God: “Take ye away the stone.” 

And so my third point is, Don’t be afraid, or reluctant, to take away the stone because you’re convinced parts of your life stinketh. God is the Lord of life. Behind that stone, deep in the tomb, God brings life.  
»

Jesus said to her, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, "Father, I thank you for having heard me. I 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." When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" The 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."

There are examples in the Bible (in fact, one at the very end of this story!) where a miracle leads to belief: people see something God do, and they go off with faith, or deeper faith.

But what’s interesting about so many of Jesus’ miracles is that the order is reversed: instead of a miracle leading to belief, belief leads to a miracle. If you believe, (then) you will see.

That’s my fourth point and I’m just going to let you sit with it for a minute: Sometimes miracles lead to belief…but sometimes belief leads to a miracle.

I took this photo on our first mission trip to post-Katrina New Orleans. It's not a bad daily prayer.
»

As long as this Gospel story is, it doesn’t end here. When is Lazarus mentioned again? A little later, in chapter 12,

1Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2Here a dinner was given in Jesus' honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. 3Then Mary took about a pint[a] of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus' feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

You get the picture? Jesus is eating at the home and dinner table with Lazarus and presumably other disciples because Judas is present; and Martha and Mary. Lazarus has been resuscitated only a little while ago.
Mary opens a large jar of expensive perfume and pours it on Jesus' feet, then wipes his feet with her hair.
Each of those gestures are over-the-top:  
  • It's a large jar, containing a pound or a pint of perfume: picture a pint of strawberries, or a pint of Guinness...that's a lot of perfume.
  • It's "costly" or expensive perfume: worth "300 denarii" nearly a year's salary worth of perfume.
  • It's exquisite perfume: a rare, precious possession
  • Mary pours it on - she doesn't just lightly, politely drip a few drops. She pours it on Jesus' feet.
  • Then she wipes his feet with her hair: letting one's hair down in public would have been unusual, and maybe even scandalous. "Letting one's hair down" still means to act in a free, uninhibited manner, to relax, let loose.
Here's the fifth and final point: we are blessed to be a blessing to others: being a recipient of the miraculous leads to over the top generosity.  
And this over-the-top abundance isn’t an isolated instance here. It’s a recurring, consistent theme:
  • Remember when Jesus was the wedding guest at Cana, and the scene of his first miracle in Gospel of John? It’s the story of Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding feast: not just a little wine, but 150 gallons, 750 bottles: 64 cases of wine. And not just any wine: an exquisite wine, the “best wine.”
  • The miracle of loaves and fishes: Five thousand people are fed by the sea of Galilee…and we’re told twelve baskets of bread are left over. 
  • After fishing all night, Simon Peter will be told by the risen Christ to cast his net on the other side of the boat and he catches 153 fish…his nets are ready to break there’s so many.
There is abundance everywhere Jesus shows up.
Is Jesus showing up in your life?
So…


  1. Make your desires known to God, confident of God’s closeness, compassion, and love for you.  
  2. God’s closeness, compassion, and love does not mean everything goes our way all the time, or that we’re spared from heartache. 
  3. Don’t be afraid, or reluctant, to take away the stone because you’re convinced parts of your life stinketh. God is the Lord of life. Behind that stone, deep in the tomb, he brings life. 
  4. Sometimes miracles lead to belief, but sometimes belief leads to a miracle.
  5. We’re blessed to be a blessing to others: being a recipient of the miraculous leads to over the top generosity.


--##--

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Three Reasons to Rest

When we hear warning bells telling us we are tired -- warning bells such as getting brittle, grumpy, impatient, judgmental, weary -- we need to withdraw, and rest.

Jesus - who, remember is "the pioneer and perfecter of our faith" (Hebrews 12:2) - was able to withdraw. He frequently went off alone for times of solitude. 

(Interestingly, it was in such a time of solitude and rest that he encountered the Samaritan woman at the well, one of his most powerful ministry moments. Had he been "at work" or with his disciples, and not alone, that conversation would never have taken place.)

And when Jesus' first followers went off to work, and came back full of excitement about all they had accomplished, what was the first thing Jesus told them? Did he say, "Well, get back out there!"? "Capitalize on your momentum"? "Come Labor On, Who Dares Stand Idle"?

No.

He said "Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place. 

And get some rest."

Photo credit: Graham Ohmer
There are three reasons to rest: 

One: rest - getting away, stepping back and withdrawing from the thousand things that call for our attention - is our primary weapon against the enemy of tiredness.

Two: rest - getting away, stepping back and withdrawing - is the primary recovery tool for work addiction.

Ah...but here's the thing, here's the catch: Rest - getting away, stepping back and withdrawing - takes humility.  

It takes humility to not over-identify with our work - to realize there is a difference between "what we do," and "who we are."  

It takes humility to realize that the world (and even our work!) will go on without us. Often quite happily.

It takes humility to realize that It - whatever "it" is - Does Not All Depend On Me.

And the beautiful irony is, what happens when we do take regular times to withdraw and rest?

That's the third reason we should rest: upon our return - precisely because we have stepped away for a while and rested - not only our attitude will be improved, but so will our work. 

(This post is a bit of an experiment: a re-post of only the last and most important 1/3 of a post I wrote last week about work, tiredness, and rest. I wonder: would re-posting that third with a new title, in a much shorter piece give the point I'm trying to make new legs? Well, did it?)

Friday, March 28, 2014

Work Addiction


On the (risky) assumption that "that which is most personal is most universal," today I'd like to share some personal observations and insights about work, tiredness, and rest.

First, work.

Work is addictive.  

Especially if, like me, you like and enjoy your work, and find it meaningful and rewarding, it can be addictive.
 
We tend to think of "addicts" as people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol. And while those are serious addictions, I'll bet they are not as common an addiction as work is.

However, many of us are "addicted to work" to such a degree that if that same addiction were to drugs or alcohol, our families, friends, and work colleagues would not tolerate it. They'd insist we seek help and get into recovery.

But those kinds of interventions don't often happen with our addiction to work. I suspect that's mostly because our addiction to work (at least now, in the United States) is not only socially acceptable, it is socially (and financially, and prestige-wise) downright rewarded. This, I understand, was not so strongly the case in previous generations here and is still today not so strongly the case in other parts of the world. 

Photo credit: Casey Quinn

Photo credit: Casey Quinn
 So when I catch myself slipping into work addiction, I find it's helpful to step back and recall that what I'm doing to myself/what we are doing to ourselves is not (historically or worldwide) "normal." More importantly, when I find myself slipping into work addiction, I find it's helpful to recall that work without adequate rest is not how we are hard-wired: We are created (hard-wired) in the image, or likeness of God. And remember, God's resting is 1/7 of the creation story.  

How do I know when I am slipping into work addiction? That brings me to my second point: tiredness.

Here's a helpful distinction I heard about tiredness: There's nothing wrong with putting in long, hard days, and as a result being tired IN the work we're doing. (I'm that kind of tired most of the year, and I only get over that kind of tiredness if I take a true vacation.) But there is something wrong when we get tired OF work we're doing. Assuming we generally like our work, being tired OF it is a symptom of work addiction. When we get that kind of tired, it should act as a little warning bell in our Spirit: ding-ding!

Another warning sign, for me, of work addiction tiredness is that I get brittle. Ding, a warning bell. I get snappy. Ding, another warning bell. I'll get impatient in traffic. (Ding-ding!)
 
Ignore those warning bells enough, and things get worse: I find myself getting grumpy at otherwise lovely people (and pets), not to mention downright judgmental toward less lovely people (and pets). Ding, ding, ding! 

Keep ignoring those warning bells, keep doubling down on my work effort despite diminishing returns, keep running away from my need for solitude and rest and then what? A sense of ennui sets in. Synonyms for ennui are boredom... languor...tedium...world-weariness...dissatisfaction. Sense any of those emotions starting to creep in - none of which are from God - and it's DING-DONG-CODE-RED-ALERT. We never solve a problem well when we are in a dark and discouraged place.  

We seldom solve a problem well when we are on one of these, either.
Which brings me to third point: hopefully, when we first hear the warning bells, we need to withdraw, and rest.

Jesus - who, remember is "the pioneer and perfecter of our faith" (Hebrews 12:2) - was able to withdraw. He frequently went off alone for times of solitude. (Interestingly, it was in such a time of solitude and rest that he encountered the Samaritan woman at the well, one of his most powerful ministry moments. Had he been "at work" or with his disciples, and not alone, that conversation would never have taken place.)

And when his first followers went off to work and came back full of excitement about all they had accomplished, what was the first thing Jesus told them? "Get back out there"? "Capitalize on your momentum"? "Come Labor On, Who Dares Stand Idle"?

No.

He said "Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place. And get some rest."

Photo credit: Graham Ohmer

Rest - getting away, stepping back and withdrawing from the thousand things that call for our attention - is our primary weapon against the enemy of tiredness.

Rest - getting away, stepping back and withdrawing - is the primary recovery tool for work addiction.

Ah...but here's the thing, here's the catch: Rest - getting away, stepping back and withdrawing - takes humility.  

It takes humility to not over-identify with our work - to realize there is a difference between "what we do," and "who we are."  

It takes humility to realize that the world (and even our work!) will go on without us. Often quite happily.

It takes humility to realize that It - whatever "it" is - Does Not All Depend On Me.

And the beautiful irony is, what happens when we do take regular times to withdraw and rest?

Upon our return - precisely because we have stepped away for a while and rested - not only our attitude will be improved, but so will our work.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Your Heart

Today, something a bit different: as a way of reflecting on this Sunday's gospel passage (Jesus' encounter with a woman at a well), I want to share a fantastic passage from the Christian writer John Eldredge's book The Sacred Romance: Drawing Closer to the Heart of God:
"This may come as a surprise to you: Christianity is not an invitation to become a moral person. It is not a program for getting us in line or for reforming society. It has a powerful effect upon our lives, but when transformation comes, it is always the aftereffect of something else, something at the level of our hearts. And so at its core, Christianity begins with an invitation to desire.

"Look again at the way Jesus relates to people. There is the Samaritan woman Jesus meets at the well. She has come alone in the heat of the day to draw water, and they both know why. By coming when the sun is high, she is less likely to run into anyone. You see, her sexual lifestyle has earned her a "reputation." Back in those days, having one partner after another wasn't looked so highly upon. She's on her sixth lover, and so she'd rather bear the scorching rays of the sun than face the searing words of the "decent" women of the town who come at evening to draw water. She succeeds in avoiding the women, but runs into God instead.

"What does he choose to talk to her about-her immorality? No, he speaks to her about her thirst : "If you knew the generosity of God and who I am, you would be asking me for a drink, and I would give you fresh, living water" (John 4:10 The Message). Remarkable. He doesn't give a little sermon about purity; he doesn't even mention it, except to say that he knows what her life has been like: "You've had five husbands, and the man you're living with now isn't even your husband" (John 4:18 The Message). In other words, now that we both know it, let's talk about your heart's real thirst, since the life you've chosen obviously isn't working. "The water I give will be an artesian spring within, gushing fountains of endless life" (John 4:14 The Message).

"In the gospel of John, Jesus extends the offer to anyone who realizes that his life just isn't touching his deep desire: "If you are thirsty, come to me! If you believe in me, come and drink! For the Scriptures declare that rivers of livingwater will flow out from within" (John 7:37-38 NLT). His message wasn't something new, but it confounded the religious leaders of the day. Surely, those scripturally learned Jews must have recalled God's long-standing invitation to them, spoken seven hundred years earlier through the prophet Isaiah,

"Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare." (55:1-2)

"Somehow, the message had gotten lost by the time Jesus showed up on the scene. The Jews of his day were practicing a very soul-killing spirituality, a lifeless religion of duty and obligation. Desire was out of the question. No wonder they feared Jesus. He came along and started appealing to desire.

"To the weary, Jesus speaks of rest.

"To the lost, he speaks of finding your way.

"Again and again and again, Jesus takes people back to their desires. "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you" (Matt. 7:7). These are outrageous words, provocative words. Ask, seek, knock-these words invite and arouse desire. What is it that you want? They fall on deaf ears if there is nothing you want, nothing you're looking for, nothing you're hungry enough to bang on a door over. "The religious technocrats of Jesus' day confronted him with what they believed were the standards of a life pleasing to God. The external life, they argued, the life of ought and duty and service, was what mattered. "You're dead wrong," Jesus said. "In fact, you're just plain dead [whitewashed tombs]. What God cares about is the inner life, the life of the heart" (Matt. 23:25-28). Throughout the Old and New Testaments, the life of the heart is clearly God's central concern. When the people of Israel fell into a totally external life of ritual and observance, God lamented, "These people . . . honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me" (Isa. 29:13).

"Our heart is the key to the Christian life."

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Prayers Answered?



Years ago, I was in a conversation with a bride at whose wedding I was going to officiate, who was planning a big  outdoor reception in the back yard of a historical property...there were to be elegant tables, seating ten people each, and there were thirty five of those tables.  

They were not allowed to set up tents outdoors, and so when the bride was asked, "what will you do in case of rain?" she said, well, "we'll have to cram 350 guests into a space meant for 150, and they'll eat off their laps, and we'll make the best of it."

But this bride was praying - and I mean praying - for good weather.

Now I'm not preaching this Sunday - long ago we arranged for The Rev. Gideon Pollach, Head Chaplain at Episcopal High School, whom you will find to be a delight! - to be a guest preacher and teacher of Adult Forum.  But some thoughts have come together this week that I'd like to share here.  

The first is the Old Testament lesson appointed for this Sunday where Abram (later to be called Abraham) is told to leave his family, his society, his home.

On the one hand, he is given rather vague directions: to go. But go where? He's not told. He's simply told to go to "the land I will show you." On the other hand, he is given a huge promise: "I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you...and you will be a blessing."

What is Abram's response? "Abram went, as the Lord had told him."

That's faith.

You hear God say, "Go!"

You wonder (or ask), "Go where?"

You hear God say, "I'll tell you."

So you go.

In the weeks before this bride's wedding, at one of our pre-marriage counseling meetings, the bride said something to me about  prayer.   

She said, "John, I know you aren't supposed to bargain with God, but my prayer has been, 'God, if you make it a nice day, I will never complain about anything.'"

(I think the prospect of that coming true got her fiancée praying as well!)

So the day came, and it was a beautiful day. And she kept her word: even though the caterer messed up several things (including bringing her some other couple's cake!) she really did smile through the whole thing, saying, "it's okay, it's not a problem."

She had a peace about her, "the peace that passes all understanding."

Why? Is it because her prayer was answered? Well yes, at one level, sure.

But let me tell you how her prayer was answered...this young lady also told me that while at first she was praying for good weather, she found that over time, she was also praying, "and God, if it is a rainy day, please give me the patience to deal with it."

That' a good lesson on prayer: the goal of prayer is not to tell God what we want and wait for God to fill the order as if God were some sort of Divine Restaurant Waiter, but rather the goal of prayer is to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

If we pray persistently enough, honestly enough, and often enough, God will pour his holy spirit into our hearts.

And - a little like that bride - we will find our prayers changing..."I want a pretty day, but if it isn't, give me patience."

You see? By the time her wedding day came around, she'd made peace - she still wanted good weather but she realized on a deeper level what was more important was the weather she was going to carry with her, no matter the weather outside.  
She'd prayed enough that she let go to some degree her need for good weather, even if it was still her desire.

Often when we pray we aren't really praying, but just telling God what we want and asking him to rubber stamp it.

But if we pray often enough, and honestly enough, and persistently enough, God will change our desires. Re-arrange our priorities. "Cleanse our hearts by the inspiration of God's Holy Spirit." Shift our worldview.

It's no coincidence that those thoughts on prayer are on my mind in light of this Monday's decision by the United States Supreme Court that - by not granting an appeal - let stand the unanimous ruling of the Virginia Supreme Court that returned, in 2012, The Falls Church Episcopal Church property to The Falls Church Episcopal and the Diocese of Virginia.    


Like many of you, I've been praying for that outcome. And the "other side" - our brothers and sisters in Christ who are members of The Falls Church-CANA - have been of course praying for the exact opposite outcome.

To the degree that God listens to and answers prayers regarding what was essentially a secular legal dispute over land ownership, God does so not by filling orders or rubber-stamping desires, but by filling us and them - (ultimately I reject the whole mentality that even is an "us" and "them" - step back far enough, and you'll see there is only a "we") - with the Holy Spirit.  My hope is that our prayers, offered often enough, honestly enough, and persistently enough, helped everyone concerned let go of what we think we needed, even if it was still what we very much desired.  

In other words, I wonder: to what degree did this long messy legal chapter change our desires? Re-arrange our priorities? Cleanse our hearts by the inspiration of God's Holy Spirit? Shift our worldview? Allow us to step out, like Abram, in faith, assured of God's blessing, using us all to be a blessing to others?
 

ShareThis

Previous Posts