It’s Not Knowing It’s Knowing

A sermon for Lent 5: Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45

Vincent Gray was a child with problems seeing things; he saw ghosts. His therapist, Dr. Malcolm Crowe, is not successful in helping him. Years later Gray shoots Dr. Crowe before killing himself. Crowe recovers and later that year begins seeing Cole, another child with a similar problem. He is completely dedicated to helping Cole, inspired in part by his perceived failure with Vincent. He rarely interacts with his wife anymore. And in fact, there is no conversation at all anymore.

Crowe becomes convinced that Cole has a gift to help the dead, complete their unfinished business. He is successful in helping Cole understand and accept his gift, and Cole saves the life of one ghost’s younger sister. He is also able to help his mother reconcile with her dead mother.

One evening when Dr. Crowe retunes home, he begins to notice subtle differences. His wedding ring is on the on the bed; he recalls that he has not had it on since he began seeing Cole. His wife is laying on the bed watching the video of their wedding. He hears his wife ask him why he left her. And then Crowe remembers Cole’s talking about the effects of a ghost’s unfinished business and realizes that Vincent had killed him and that with Cole’s help he has finally come to accept his failure to understand and help Vincent. Released of this burden Crowe is able to tell his wife she was never second, that he has always loved her and is able to move on.

The audience, I being one, is shocked by the reversal of perspective. As had Dr. Crowe we had all completely misunderstand the world of the story. M. Night Shyamalan’s Sixth Sense spins around Crowe’s misunderstanding of the critical moments of his life (Wikipedia). Crowe is not alone in misunderstanding, critical moments of life.

Today is the next to last Sunday in Lent. The Gospel story is about Jesus bringing Lazarus back from the dead. But I am no longer sure that Lazarus’ death is the point of the story, though it is an important element. The last four weeks the Gospel readings have had a central element of misunderstanding. In the wilderness, the Devil tries to trick Jesus into misunderstanding who he is. Nicodemus misunderstands Jesus saying “being born again” as literal and not the transformative “being born from above.” The woman at the well misunderstands Jesus offering “living water” as something that will deliver her from having to come to the village well to get water thus avoiding the scorn of her neighbors. Driven by confusion, fear, and attachment to tradition the neighbors, parents, and authorities of the man born blind’s life misunderstand the relationship between life’s hardships and sin and the deepest meaning of Sabbath. All of Lent is a misunderstanding. They continue this morning.

The disciples misunderstand Jesus saying Lazarus’ illness does not lead to death, but God’s glory; and later when he says Lazarus has fallen asleep, they miss its customary reference to death (Harrelson, O’Day). When Jesus arrives, Martha misunderstands Jesus’ reference to resurrection as the classic Pharisee reference, drawn from Daniel (12:2), to the end of time, and that keeps her from hearing Jesus revelation of himself (Ellingsen, Harrelson, O’Day). When Mary hears of Jesus arrival, she goes to meet him, and so do all the mourners from Jerusalem. When they meet, Jesus is moved by her weeping and that of her friends. The misunderstanding here is at least as old as the King James’ Bible in which we first read “Jesus wept” (11:35). The original words express anger or indignation and agitated or troubled; they are not any way an expression of sentiment which we typically draw from ‘wept.’ (Harrelson, O’Day). The friends misunderstand Jesus’ tears leading them to wonder Could he who opened the eyes of the blind have kept this man from dying (John 11:37)? Martha’s misunderstanding of Jesus continues when she objects to removing the stone that seals Lazarus’ tomb because of her fear of obnoxious odors, and the tradition that after 3 days the soul has left for good, and there is no longer any hope of revival (O’Day).

Our own encounters with death, in all its manifestations, lead to confusion. When we die, we do not go to heaven to be angels. According to the bible, angles are their namesakes – messengers of God. When we die, there is a time of waiting, which is not revealed scripture, and when we face Jesus as the prosecutor, and Judge and oh, by the way, the defense attorney we face judgment. And by grace life in God’s presence is our future. Death, like barrenness, blindness, or any another illness or misfortune is not a consequence of sin; it is just life.

Any other popular conception of death is like attributing illness to sin; it is a misunderstanding. It seems if all the world is full of misunderstanding. Which leads on the wonder, what to do about all these misunderstandings?

One of the statements I think is more profound than first appears is

There are known knowns.
There are known unknowns.
There are also unknown unknowns (Donald Rumsfeld, Brainyquote).

When we hear the word ‘known,’ we generally associated that with knowledge. If you know something, it is a piece of information, maybe even a fact. But you can know somebody, and to know someone implies a relationship, and a relationship infers some sort of experience. So, Lent is not about knowing Jesus it is about knowing Jesus. All these stories reveal that it is not what information we know or what understanding we don’t know about Jesus that dispels misinformation. It is what we don’t know, that we have not experienced with Jesus that matters.

All the misunderstandings in these Lenten stories precede encounters with Jesus. With Nicodemus, the woman at the well, and the man born blind, misunderstandings are transformed by their experience with Jesus (Lewis). Lent 1 is not a vicarious wilderness experience with Jesus. It is an invitation to take a wilderness experience of our won, with the assurance Jesus will be with you. For the last four weeks, we’ve heard various wilderness experiences, and in all of them, some folks have an experience with Jesus that leads them or other people to believe in Jesus, even if it takes some time. We should also acknowledge that not everybody will venture into the wilderness, and not every encounter with Jesus leads to knowing Jesus because things like tradition, existing belief or some other rules can get in our way.

As for each you, I believe each of you: knows your life with Jesus and knows your lack of life with Jesus; it is what you don’t know of your lack of life with Jesus that is the Lenten challenge.

Dr. Crowe faces misunderstandings around his death and is able to move on. Martha, Mary and a few of their friends face misunderstandings, around Lazarus’ death, and share in Jesus’ experiences that bring them to belief in him.

The question this morning is what misunderstanding, born of some shrouded death, will lead you to share in Jesus’ experiences that brings you to belief and life in him?

 

References

Brainyquote. “donaldrums.” n.d. http://www.brainyquote.com. 2 4 2017. <https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/d/donaldrums148142.html&gt;.

Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scripture Notes. 2 4 2017. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 2 4 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Lewis, Karoline. Resurrection Now. 2 4 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4706 1/3>.

Liggett, James. “In Trust and Hope, Lent 5(A).” 2 4 2017. Sermons that Work.

Lose, David. Lent 5A: Heartache, Miracle, Invitation. 2 4 2017.

O’Day, Dail R. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of John. Vol. VIII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. App Olivetree.

Vena, Osvaldo. Commentary on John 11:145. 2 4 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

Wikipedia. “The_Sixth_Sense.” n.d. wikipedia.org. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sixth_Sense&gt;.

 

 

 

Living in the Kingdom of God right here right now.

A Sermon for Proper 21; Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15, Psalm 91:16, 14-16, 1 Timothy 6:6-19, Luke 16:19-31

 

In seminary class was asked to participate in an undergraduate sociology study. Everyone was given a date, time and place. I was running late, which was not unusual, even then. As I rushed down stairs, I heard, and half saw a student sitting there coughing. I noticed him, but he didn’t seem to be in any distress, didn’t seem to need any help, so off I went. I took the survey, which seemed kind of pointless; my undergrad degree is in sociology, and I still had some vague memory of how to do a survey. I later learn that the coughing student was the point of the study. The study was to see how many people would stop and help. It turns out that not many did, and fewer seminarians stopped than college students stopped.

One place Angie and I tend to act differently is folks stopped on the roadside with signs looking for help. Angie often stops to help. I rarely stop to help. She tends to take the signs at face value. I am rather jaded and wonder what the scam is. And I have to admit, her ability to see the child of God in anyone is a trait I admire.

Lazarus is the only character in a parable that has a name (Lose) (Hoezee, Luke). His only companions are the dogs that lick his wounds, and unlike today, dogs are held in contempt, just like Lazarus is held in contempt (Clavier). We don’t know how long the unnamed rich man, completely ignores Lazarus. We do know they couldn’t be more different; the rich man is covered in fine purple, and Lazarus is covered in open sores (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner). The only time they are equal is that they both die. I expect even their funerals were different. The rich man’s funeral being a grand affair. Lazarus is thrown into a pauper’s grave, perhaps like the scene from the Beatles song Eleanor Rigby

who “died in the church
And was buried along with her name Nobody came” (Hoezee, Luke).

Then comes the great reversal.

The rich man is in Hades, that dark and dismal place in the very depths of the earth; the abode of the wicked (Gaventa and Petersen) being tormented by flames. Lazarus is taken by angels to be with Abraham. The ancient text reads “to be in Abraham’s bosom” and is most likely a reference to the intimacy between Abraham and Lazarus; it is a deep relationship (Lewis). The rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to bring him some water. If you read closely the rich man calls Lazarus by name, he knows this dude. But even now the rich man treats Lazarus as a lowly servant; he refuses to see him as a brother in Abraham. Also, note how Abraham calls the rich man ‘child’ even as he refuses his request; raising the possibility that there is some equality between the rich man and Lazarus we don’t yet glean.

It is tempting to stay here and reflect on the evils of money, which in itself is a complex, simple topic. But that is not where Jesus leads the Pharisees (whom Luke refers to as lovers of money in verse 14). The story ends with Abraham saying that if the rich man’s brothers will not listen to Moses or the prophets, they will not listen to one who rises from the dead. It has an ominous sound particularly when spoken by the one who does rise from the dead. And remember, Luke’s audience knows Jesus has risen from the dead, just as we know Jesus has risen from the dead. So maybe we should start paying attention because Jesus’ story just may be targeted at Luke’s audience, which includes us.

I mentioned earlier that the rich man does not see Lazarus as a child of Abraham. Even though he knows his name, the rich man does not see Lazarus at all. He does not want to see Lazarus. Before you can have compassion for people, you have to see them, (Epperly). When we really see people, when we allow ourselves to learn their names, their stories, their history; when we see their faces, we risk feeling like Jesus so often has; compassion, that gut-wrenching impulse to act.

But we know this. We’ve known it for a long time, and in that time, for all sorts of reasons, we have gotten pretty good at censoring out all those events that create such impulses. The trouble is, even when this censoring is church defined, and it often is, censorship draws us away from who and what God is calling us to be and to do; and after the world passes us by, we discover that we have denied ourselves the opportunity to witness the resurrection moments, to be a part of resurrection opportunities (Lewis).

In fact, we deny ourselves the chance to learn the fullness of our identity. We are who we are through all the those who are around us. I am who I am, because of you. You are who you are, because of Lazarus, who by many other names, is in your life, our life, and when we censor them, we deny ourselves (Epperly).

As I was studying and writing, I continued to have vision after vision of folks whose plight I have censored. Yes, I have helped some folks over the years; but I have censored many as I followed the rich man out into the world. Knowing I have done so it is easy to fall into concern; perhaps even great concern, because as much as I like a fire I don’t want to be in a fire, so what are we to do.

Well if scripture creates, nope I created the mess, scripture just helps me see it, in any case, scripture can guide us, to a new light. In fact, that is what happens in the story from Jeremiah. For years he has been warning that if they did not quit, well, to be honest, quit acting like the rich man in Luke’s story, there would be serious consequences for Judah. They didn’t listen. They didn’t change their ways. And sure enough, there are consequences. The army of Babylon is at the gates, if not rushing the place walls. And suddenly, Jeremiah has the strangest vision, about buying a piece of land.

Sure enough, the next day his cousin shows up to offer him with an offer to sell the family land in Anathoth, which is less than ten miles northeast of Jerusalem (Epperly). Land sales in Jeremiah’s day is not a free market exercise; it is the exercise of family rights and responsibilities of succession to ensure that land stays within the family (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner). And Jeremiah has no reason at all to buy this land; he is old; he has no children to pass it on to; Jerusalem has fallen; and everyone who is anyone is bound to be exiled. So what would you expect him to do? Certainly wouldn’t expect him to buy the land, which is what he does. He even orders his secretary to take extraordinary precautions to protect the deeds (Wines).

For Jeremiah Buying the land is a proclamation of hope, that there is a future. Buying the land is an act of faith, he believes God’s word revealed in his visions. Buying the land is an exercise of ministry, when you often do what you do even when you don’t see, because as Paul says “we walk by faith, not by sight.” 2 Corinthians 5:7 (Wines). In short, there is hope, because God is with us right here, and right now.

God wants us to hear and learn from Moses, the prophets and Jesus. God wants us to express confidence for the future, even though at the moment it is unknown (Hoezee, Jeremiah). God wants us to experience the abundance that comes from the community of the un-seeable, the disenfranchised, the hungry, the naked, and those who are in any way oppressed, who are all around us. God wants us to trust in the continuing power of resurrection; not just Jesus’ resurrection, but the resurrection of everyone and everything.

So where do we go from here? I really think in part we keep doing what we have been doing. I think we consider venturing into the neighborhood that surrounds us, one block, one neighbor at a time, inviting people to come share food, a flick, and fellowship on a Friday night. I think we pay attention to the moments we hesitate, and refrain from self-censorship, and reach out. I think we continue as best we can to follow Jeremiah by living in the Kingdom of God right here right now.


References

Clavier, Anthony. “What Separates Us From Each Other and From God?” 25 9 2016. Sermons that Work.

Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scripture Notes. 25 9 2016. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 25 9 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. Proper 21C | Jeremiah. 25 9 2016.

—. Proper 21C| Luke. 25 9 2016. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel&gt;.

Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 6 9 2015.

Lewis, Karoline. The Bosom Of Abraham. 25 9 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.

Lose, David. Pentecost 19 C: Eternal Life Now. 16 9 2016.

Rossing, Barbara. Commentary on Luke 16:19-31. 25 9 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Wines, Alphonetta. Commentary on Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15. 25 9 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

 

 

 

Participate

A sermon  for Lent 5

Ezekiel 37:1-14, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45, Psalm 130

The place is his, close cropped bleached perfect blond hair, brilliant contact blue eyes stream malice and hate for anyone not to his standards. The elderly black-woman behind the counter smiles at him, a beautiful smile you can’t help but notice. I’m trying to hate black people, and here’s this black woman smiling at me; I can’t really hate her when she’s smiling like that. [i]

Everyone is at the cave, the rock covering the entrance is still in place. Jesus and Martha are talking, it might sound like anger, if you had been here, Lazarus would not have died; it is true, and to say so is a part of  Jewish piety. [ii] Jesus says take away the stone. Some might remember him telling Martha Lazarus will rise again; her retort about the last day, and Jesus’ proclamation that he is the resurrection and the life. Martha doesn’t seem to remember, she objects: This is going to stink. True enough, Jews do not embalm bodies, some perfume, some wrappings and bodies are laid away. After four days, the power of the perfume gone; the stench reveals the finality of death. [iii] Jesus answers Martha Believe and see the glory of God. Someone does, the stone is removed, and after a prayer of thanks Jesus calls to Lazarus: Come out. He does, Face, hands and feet still shrouded, wrapped in clouth. You wonder how Lazarus walks. Jesus turns to the people: Unbind him, and let him go. The people  ~  are to be a part of God’s work. [iv]

John wrote legō autos – said to them. David Lose writes: Jesus turns and issues a command to the waiting crowd[v] ‘Command’ is a strong word, when so often we’ve heard Jesus invite folks to come and see. Lose is arguing that we expect to little out of our selves. He notes:

Opportunities to unbind and let go abound, but we need to look for them so that we might hear Jesus calling us by name to make a difference to those around us….  In ways little and big, God is inviting us to make a difference.

When we go back to Jesus’ I am the resurrection and the life  recalling it is in response to Martha’s correct answer to his query about resurrection, the full force of the present tense of I am burst into life. Resurrection is not a promise way off in the future, it is a promise for the present. [vi] It is a divine work, in which we have a part right here, right now.

The idea that we have a role in God’s work is not new. In some ways it’s characteristic of prophets. Ezekiel is spirited away, maybe home, certainly to a valley full of dry bones. He is commanded to prophecy. It is clear he knows it is God’s power at work, nonetheless Ezekiel must participate in God’s work, Ezekiel must speak. It’s a powerful vision of a future promise. Except,  ~  it’s not.

Remember the Jews are in exile in Babylon, as a result of their rebellion against Nebuchadnezzar. They are cut off,     Jerusalem is destroyed, the Temple is razed, family and friends are dead, it’s the end of the world, they are without hope they are living dead [vii] Zombies. Imagine how we’d feel if Canterbury was gone, the National Cathedral reduced to rubble, Trinity burned to ash, everything gone, no more Eucharist, no access to God’s presence. It’s a zero – point a crisis when all seems lost, really lost.

It all would be lost, except the valley of dry bones is not far off, it’s Babylon and those who are cut off are the survivors in exile. [viii] It’s Ezekiel’s task to pluck the strings of their imagination with possibilities beyond what they can attain on their own … [ix] knowledge that breathing is a measure divine presence, that God is as near to them as their own breath. [x] The valley of dry bones becomes a powerful vision of a current their reality: we are in God’s presence, these bones can … we can live, we are alive.It is God’s work that transforms the hearts of the Jews in exile. Ezekiel participates through obedience to God’s will in sharing the vision of the valley of dry bones. 

God expects no more, nor no less from us. Lose dares to ask, do we expect to little of our selves. 

Time and again, blond hair blue eye menace walks in the door, every time greeted by beautiful smile. One day she asks about his swastika tattoo. He replies It’s noth’n. She smiles: I know that’s not who you are. You’re a better person than that. 

Michaelis later writes: 

I spent seven years trying to forget that that ever happened, but I couldn’t,”… Because when she said ‘I know you’re a better person than that,’ she planted a seed in my heart that remained there and rooted and blossomed despite my best efforts to dig it out and suffocate it. That seed grew until there was no longer room in my heart for the kind of hatred it takes to hurt people. 

It was in part because of her kindness that I made the right decision in 1994 to change my life and leave hate groups….  An act of kindness on your part, especially to someone who doesn’t seem to deserve it could change the course of their life. [xi]

Arno Michaelis spoke last Wednesday at a Nonviolence Youth Summit that attracted hundreds of junior and senior high school students from across Arkansas. The one-day conference was sponsored by the Arkansas Martin Luther King Jr. Commission, with the assistance of the Arkansas Department of Human Services. [xii]

The conference is a possible example of participating in God’s transforming work. The consistent beautiful smile of an elderly McDonald’s counter clerk is an example of participating in God’s transforming work. 

We are not in exile though some may fear we are cut off, all but dead. Ezekiel reminds us to breathe what was doesn’t matter, God is in our very breath. Some mourn the death of what was, John reminds us Lazarus did die, and that we have a role to play in setting free all those bound by: fear, injustice, oppression, even death; including ourselves. There are all sorts of ways to participate in God’s works, some large, some small, sometimes as simple as a smile. Opportunities abound, it’s your choice.

I cannot tell you what St. Stephen’s future will be. I do know that God is present here. I do know God invites you, commands you, to participate in sharing the story. As for the rest, well ~ believe and see the glory of God.

 


[i]  Bill Bowden,  Hate’s end began with smile, writer tells youth session , http://m.arkansaso nline.co m/news/2014/apr/03/hates-end-began-smile-     writer-tells-youth–20140403/
[ii] GAIL R. O’DAY, New Interpreter’s Bible  THE GOSPEL OF JOHN INTRODUCTION, COMMENTARY, AND REFLECTIONS
[iii] ibid
[iv] David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, Present-tense Salvation Wednesday, April 02, 2014 10:56 AM http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=3135
[v] ibid
[vi] ibid
      O’Day, ibid
[vii] Scott Hoezee,  http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php This Week at the Center for Excellence in Preaching Next Sunday is April 06, 2014 (Ordinary Time) Old Testament Lectionary Text is: Ezekiel 37:1-14
[viii] Margaret Odell, Ez ekiel 37:1-14 Commentary by Margaret Odell – Working Preacher – Preaching This Week (RCL) http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2070 ½ RCL|Narrative|Evangelio|Index,  Commentary on Ezekiel 37:1-14
[ix] Hoezee, ibid
[x] Odell, ibid.
[xi] Bowden, ibid
[xii] ibid