I AM and you will be

sermon on John 11:6-8, 14-27, 32-50

 

Life and death, death vs. life. It’s the defining struggle. And this is a crucial moment.

The narrative of Jesus’ life obviously is accentuated as we get to Holy Week—from Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, to Good Friday and on into Easter—and we live in realtime through the final week of Jesus’ life. Today’s story happens not long before that, maybe just a few weeks before the end.

Yet it’s halfway through the Gospel of John. That interesting note is not unusual to John, that half of the story of Jesus is this stuff right at the end. He lived for somewhere over three decades, but most of what we relate to are these final moments of his life.

John tells today’s story as a crucial moment, a turning point, causing the lead-up to the end. This is the final major sign of Jesus, and is the final of the I AM statements we hear in our series, and it all points toward his death. But also, then, to life. Those two ends challenge each other intensely.

Let’s start at the beginning and find our way forward, from death into life. The story started while Lazarus was ill but alive, with the detail that Jesus waited to go to him, two more days. He then arrived four days after Lazarus had already died.

In the story, this emphasizes that Jesus isn’t working mere bits of resuscitation, putting a bandage on or a small cure. His healing is for wholeness. God’s work is best made known, Jesus indicates, by him not being there in this case.

There’s no reason to take that detail as more broadly applicable. It isn’t that Jesus doesn’t care about wellness in smaller ways. It’s not that God refuses to help until things have gotten to be so bad that only a miracle would matter. It’s not that Jesus ignores everybody in need, failing to show up for a few days. No, that’s not God’s normal practice or standard operating procedure, but just a revealing detail here to highlight the larger truth.

So Lazarus is dead.

Thomas rightly observes that going with Jesus back to Jerusalem will mean more death. By the end of today, it’s clearer than ever that that’s what’s in store for Jesus. But he goes anyway, goes to the sisters of the dead man (as Lazarus is called in the story, to reinforce the difficult fact).

With one sister, Jesus talks theology. They have a mini-Bible study to help her faith. She is able to look past the dreadful present circumstances toward something more, toward hope.

The other sister, not so much. She only weeps. Jesus doesn’t try to lecture her or offer explanation, to whitewash over it and say everything will be okay. Instead, he weeps with her.

That’s the kind of Jesus many of us first need in such moments, not a distracting from our grief but dwelling in it with us, in empathy. I try to practice that myself when I’m met with tears, not to explain away, but to reside in the sorrow with the person. It’s not about right answers and certainly not just to cheer them up. It’s recognizing the validity of sorrow, and sharing it.

Of course it can’t end there, though. A Jesus who only was compassionate could be consoling but wouldn’t offer anything to end the sadness. We need more from him, especially in the face of death.

So he continues to the tomb of the dead man and calls him out. The unbinding and letting him go isn’t only about unhitching the fasteners on Lazarus’ coffin, but is about freeing him for life, taking away the deadly confines so he may be released back to live fully and abundantly, as it’s supposed to be.

In that way, the next time Lazarus appears in the story is at the family supper table, restored to his place with his sisters, to companionship and camaraderie, to the nourishing of life, to support each other.

If this were a fairy tale, we could arrive at that conclusion and say “they all lived happily ever after.” The good guy faced overwhelming odds, but somehow saved the day. Death was vanquished. Loving relationships were restored.

But this is not a fairy tale. This is the reality of our world. Life was endangered. But death was not the end. But life will not yet be the end, either. Lazarus is raised, brought back to life. And yet death will not give up so quickly. No sooner is Lazarus out of the grave than the authorities confirm their resolve to put Jesus into a grave. They argue it’s better to have one man die. The logic of scapegoating abounds, but is never so finely tuned as it claims to be. Within a few verses, they’ll have discovered that Lazarus is a popular attraction, so they’ll also want to get rid of him, too. The cycle of violence can never be satisfied with one death, but keeps churning through more victims, and fails anyway to add authentic life for those who are caught up in it and perpetuate it. It’s a vicious rhythm that needs to be broken.

So it stands that Jesus meets death with life while the world responds over and over by obstructing life with death.

Looking for other models around us of this perpetual pattern, I’d suggest not to presume to look outside as spring emerges. The back and forth of seasons can mischaracterize summer as life and winter as death. Since it’s God’s good creation, we should better see winter also as part of God’s work for life, not a separation from it. Always in creation, God is striving to bring life from death, newness from where there was nothing.

We may look elsewhere for the meeting of life and death, where our creative God is bringing life from death, even while the world tries to counter with more deadliness and destruction.

In these weeks, probably a clearest portrait is in school classrooms, places of life, of learning, of growth. We should recognize God’s work there, because caring and sharing of knowledge, discovering our place in the world, nurturing talents, assisting the little ones—this work of teachers and students is the work of God giving life.

We’ve witnessed again as that was countered with death, as a school for fostering life was met with bullets and all classrooms became filled with fear. Death trying to take the place of life.

But the students stood up on the side of life. We heard from our own young people last Sunday that this has gone on too long, that enough is enough, that it needs to change. Students paused Wednesday to grieve 17 deaths, and then walked out to demand that their lives be valued and supported. That is godly striving for life over death.

We’ll see whether that specific struggle for life can be sustained, or whether it is squelched and death again tries to prevail as authorities ignore young people and discourage them, indirectly and directly harming their liveliness.

We notice the pattern in other places, that roads are for fostering our connections and vocations, but news of a bridge collapse brings death, and so godly striving would lead to improved infrastructure spending and well-studied engineers and safer streets.

Or that weather patterns provide for life on this globe, but hurricanes enflamed by climate change bring devastation, but God responds for life through noisy offerings for relief efforts and striving to mitigate the worst of global warming’s disastrous effects.

Or I reflect on how 15 years ago I was an intern preaching against invading Iraq, that the “shock and awe” of our God isn’t about violence against enemies but persistently and quietly and even now is for life and freedom.

Or this is also in gradual gains against nuclear threats; in the hope of North Korea talks, God works life over death.

Or God’s work as protecting life-giving water sources and wetlands against perils from pollution or short-term profit.

Or in hard family conversations to talk through difficulties: that is God working through death for life.

We notice God’s work for life over death even within our own bodies, of God’s constant renewal in healing your injuries, in expanding your possibilities, continuing to create you anew within each cell and with every breath. It may seem as you age and feel decrepit and wearing out and await a looming funeral that death will have the final word, but then especially we look to God’s promise of life.

See, we may notice this struggle everywhere and always. But it’s not in the individual cases of whether life can conquer death. We are all Lazarus and Jesus is always Jesus. So we trust the outcome, even though we somehow wind up acting like we don’t know the end of the story. We pretend like there’s still a question of whether godly life will finally be able to overcome death. Or we dismally forget and declare with news stories and our sad days that life has lost.

And this time of year in church may even tempt us that way further, to doubt by pretending we don’t know the end. As the authorities threaten Jesus, we figure again the nastiest powers and biggest bullies will always get their way. Bittersweet Palm Sunday cheers a king who will be killed, executed before the week is out. Good Friday feels like the most emotional day of the church year. At Easter two weeks from now, we feign surprise at resurrection, (if it even matters,) as if we didn’t expect Jesus to rise from the grave and thought death does rule and life might not win, that God had been beaten, that the victory was not for us.

But we know the end of this story. Like a favorite movie, we may still be moved as it continues on, still be swept up in the action. We know the struggle is real. We still take time to grieve together. We weep at death. But we also laugh in its face, because we know the end. We know Alleluias are waiting to burst forth. We know tears will be wiped away. We know it is not just Lazarus who will be restored, but all our relationships, all our fractured pains healed, all creation renewed.

I AM the resurrection and the life”—yes, we know this, Jesus. You are always and fully life for us.

We trust it.

We remember it.

We celebrate it.

We already live, alive, freed from what would bind us, freed from what confines us, freed to live abundantly, ceaselessly, boldly with love.

We are called out from death.

And we keep living into it, now and forever.

 

Hymn: The Word of God is Source and Seed (ELW 506)

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on the moral imperative to care for the earth

for an interfaith rally for human rights at the Wis. state capitol

We begin with an important distinction too often missed in these days: we are people of faith, but our religious perspective does not confine us to the narrow either/or of a confidence in God versus a confidence in science. Such a perspective is no broader than saying you can use your eyes or you can use your hands but you can’t use and trust both ways of encountering our world.

So as faithful people who are reasonable and committed to the truth of values and truth of knowledge, we are concerned about our impact on this planet and what it means for future generations of our children, for the poor, for the sick, for other creatures, and—really—for our own wellbeing in this place. Approaching the spring equinox with the balance of light and change of seasons, we are again reminded we cannot control nature’s patterns, but are called to live within them.

We know the overwhelming consensus of scientific data shows carbon dioxide impacts our atmosphere. Climate change is real. Fossil fuel companies are worsening it. It’s already causing a severe crisis globally and right here. So we reject extreme foolishness and ignorance

And we reject the bondage to those wealthy companies that would roll back regulations. These protections are already benefiting our health and our economy and are being adapted and adopted by the automotive industry and energy providers. So we reject the muzzling of wise and carrying voices and whole government departments.

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And we refuse to be quiet. To echo to the top of this capitol dome and beyond, we exclaim “no” in the face of voices that claim lives are expendable (no!), that endangered species are out of luck (no!), that we must put up with pollution (no!), put up with wanton waste (no!), put up with un-natural disasters (no!), that we can live without beauty (no!), or live without forests (no!), that we can do whatever we want (no!), that only short term profit matters (no!), that our brains don’t matter (no!), that our lungs don’t matter (no!), that our children don’t matter (no!), that our hearts don’t matter (no!), that the earth doesn’t matter (no!).

We say yes we care. There is a better way. Yes. There is a way forward. Yes. Life is worth it. Yes! We say it so it echoes today: yes. And reverberates tomorrow when leaders are here for work: yes. And resonates on into a better future: yes!

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Inauguration Vigil for Climate Change

Reflection for Vigil of First 100 Hours of a New Presidency on Climate Change

A lot depends on perspective in these days, and so depending on your perspective, you might find it either a fitting coincidence or grotesquely ironic that this week ending in inauguration began with the observance of Martin Luther King day.

Whether good or ill, I’ve been considering the Rev. King’s words and example amid this moment. There are, again, things both more and less helpful.

Less helpful to me feels that grand reassurance oft repeated by Rev. King, that the arc of the moral universe is long but that it bends toward justice. Overall, I have that hope in God’s blessing and promise. Yet we’re gathered in vigils around the country in these days particularly recognizing that we don’t have time for a long arc. We can’t wait for eventuality. The fate of so much wellbeing on our planet—on lives already as well as generations to come and the very shape of creation’s community as we know it—direly is demanding our concern.

On that note, Rev. King also impatiently resisted those who asked him to wait for more favorable conditions. He witnessed such revolutionary times where people all over the globe “are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression.” Almost 50 years ago he gave a famous speech explaining the challenge that resisting racism connected to resisting war. Or—in others of his famous phrases—that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere and that we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.

We see today a similar expanse of overlapping categories and the calling to a common cause. Climate change is about saving polar bears from extinction, but climate change is also about native communities in Alaska melting through the permafrost. And climate change is about refugees and low-lying cities that are already facing expensive emergencies, and climate change is about women’s rights as villagers have to walk farther and farther for water, and climate change is about rural lives, as agriculture in Wisconsin will be battling more and more pests, and climate change is about health care facing pandemics for the poor and elderly, and climate change is about recreation and tourism, and avoidably about the Department of Natural Resources and the Public Service Commission (and their websites) and climate change is about politics and is about the economy, both tied together in the shameless greed of fossil fuel companies trying to profit in the face of impending disaster. Climate change is about the fullness of who we are, which also means climate change is about religion, is about God, about the faith we practice, about our sin and our hope, is about the deepest of our beliefs and corest of our commitments.

I’ll conclude with words Rev. King delivered those 50 years ago which speak for us here, now, and invite our ongoing devotion:  We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. [he said]… Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons [and daughters] of God, and our brothers [and sisters] wait eagerly for our response. … [W]hatever the cost … and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must [act] in this crucial moment of human [and non-human!] history.

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Reflections on People’s Climate March for Wisconsin Interfaith Power & Light webinar

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Thank you.

I’m really excited for this chance to share with you, partly for the effort of trying to take you on sort of a virtual trip to the streets of New York for the People’s Climate March, but also it’s a great chance for me to re-live it.

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You know how getting to tell stories after you’ve been on a trip takes your memory back to that locale and in some way makes your body actually feel like you’re back there…well, that’s how this feels for me now.

And it’s a great thing to re-live, to have the happenings of that exciting weekend freshened and reinvigorated in my mind.

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That’s sort of our point of this webinar, to inspire you or to reinvigorate you, and to have that be motivation for our ever-ongoing work. We’re people who need occasional good news and refreshment and re-creation, so I’ll see what I can do.

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If I’m trying to put you in my shoes and take you to the streets of New York, it’s only fair first to load you on the bus with me.  Sierra Club helped fund buses all over the country, and for us in the Madison area, that meant three Van Galder coaches. My wife Acacia and I loaded up on Saturday afternoon with about 150 others and hit the road. We stopped late in the evening in Indiana to brush our teeth, at a rest area in Pennsylvania in the middle of the night with the season’s first glimpse of Orion, and then arrived in the morning in New York. Overall, we were gone less than 48 hours, and all but 8 of those hours were on the bus. Yipe.

Yet all that sitting and trying to sleep on the bus wasn’t the hardest part for me. What was most difficult was getting through the Lincoln Tunnel that morning and into lower Manhattan and trying to get to our dropoff point.

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It felt like it was taking forever, the city was so crowded. There were a bunch of good faith gatherings and worship services that morning, and I’d hoped to be part of that stuff, but traffic was just too thick and progress too slow. That would become a mark for the day, as we would discover.

Our dropoff, see, was at the back of the staging area. The plan was that it would go by bloc, or by shared interests or involvement. Many from our buses were connected to the Madison 350.org efforts against the Enbridge tar sands oil pipeline that is scheduled to ramp up through Wisconsin. (This slide shows the hovering pipeline octopus from our bus.)

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By now we’ve all heard the number 400,000, but originally we had no idea to expect anything like that. The organizers were sort of talking around 100,000, maybe hoping 150. There were more than 1500 organizations, though, connected and involved (including some other groups, I’m sure, that you each participate in), so with that spread, there was no real way to survey everybody and get good estimates on who was going to be there.

I just want to show you a little bit of the planned map.

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The whole length along Central Park West was just to get people ready.

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That’s a mile-and-a-half of staging, and Acacia and I started trying to make our way forward through it, since the interfaith groups were all gathering together way up at the front of the march, up at 59th Street by Columbus Circle.

Well, I’ll tell you now that we never made it. It took us almost two hours to make it that far, the crowds were so thick.

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So I’d intended to represent Wisconsin Interfaith Power & Light along with the other states’ IPL groups, and the Lutheran advocacy group, and so on. But instead I got to represent Wisconsin IPL amid the vegans and socialists and students and wind energy advocates and people for indigenous human rights and Citizens Climate Lobby and brass bands and bicyclists and Seattle Raging Grannies and those calling for military reform and health advocates and clever signs and amazing art and kids and on and on and on.

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That diversity was the most surprising and really the most exciting thing. I would’ve loved to have been among the religious sect and our focus of shared passion, but instead it was so amazingly hopeful to have the broad perspective. I mean, we interfaith folks have our own access point for this work, and it is probably among the most intimate and heartfelt of connections, to find this as a spiritual imperative and a connection to creatures and our shared Creator, with the vast communities of our congregations in prayer and inspiring each other.

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But seeing all the ways others were also already addressing climate change was amazing. Instead of the meager and infrequent actions that our government musters, and even though we were there in New York to bolster the work of the United Nations as they were preparing to meet and have another round of conversations on international agreements, that has for too long failed to make much progress, really even with Obama’s China announcement today. But out on the streets were thousands and thousands of people who were excited about this work, who shared a pause of silence that day and shared cheering, who learned from each other and gave hope to each other, who were ready to make a difference and were already making a difference.

Picture19Which seems like almost a perfect segue into the next part of this webinar, except that I also want to tell you about the conclusion—or the non-conclusion—of the march. Along the way, it seemed appropriate to go past Trump Tower and get to show off how wrong and foolish deniers like him are. It also seemed meaningful to march past the memorial to Teddy Roosevelt at the Museum of Natural History with an inscription to “a great leader…in love and conservation of nature and of the best in life and in [humankind].”

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But besides what we marched past was also what we didn’t get to march to. Altogether, from that far-back starting point to the destination would’ve been just under 4 miles. Not counting that distance of the staging area, the official route for the march was about 2.5 miles. Well, we only made it about half that distance.

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One of my last photos shows a view just before entering Times Square. And at that point we were stuck. My phone buzzed with a text message from the march organizers, saying that the police were asking us to disperse. They had no place left to put us. The front of the march had reached the end, and there were so many of us we couldn’t even fit through the streets of New York. There was nowhere left for us to go.

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That seems like a good metaphor and also a beautiful vision for our work together. We haven’t reached our destination, we’re still on our way, and have a long way ahead of us in taking care of this earth and mitigating the worst of climate change. That’s the metaphor. The vision and my last words of hope and inspiration is in the idea that there are so many of us connected and abundantly engaged that we entirely overwhelm the system.

Thank you.

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What Do You Believe In?

(A newsletter article on “believing in” climate change)

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Acacia and I traveled to New York City for the People’s Climate March. Since returning from the whirlwind bus ride, I’ve heard numerous conversations about whether people “believe in” climate change. So I’ve been pondering our “beliefs” and how we use that term, a reasonable task during this Reformation month.

Often the frame is “beliefs against facts.” In this way, if 97% of scientists agree that human use of fossil fuels is adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and causing our planet to warm, then that is “factual” and disproves any other “beliefs.”

I’m not so sure about that. For starters, I don’t like that divide. A book I’m reading by Marcelo Gleiser agrees that both science and art involve “a process of self-discovery, as we try to capture the essence of ourselves and understand our place in the Universe.” Our culture, our worldviews, and the very being of our lives should not be so sharply split or bifurcated. Pitting science against arts, head versus heart, tangible over nebulous is bad for our educational systems and our overall wellbeing. Would we claim that Jim Reichling’s trumpet is more important in his teaching physics than when he’s making music?

Yet conversations about religion also get diverted into this compartmentalizing. Opposed to the answers of science, belief has meant “unanswered or unproven.” For the origins of our cosmos, the mystery of God as Creator allegedly gets replaced by the answer of the Big Bang. Sickness, believed to have been the haunt of demons, now is attributed to germs or viruses. This process led to a “God of the gaps,” that God was only an answer when there wasn’t a “better” rational answer. The place of God’s mysterious, unanswered territory diminished as we discovered more, leaving fewer gaps in our knowledge or understanding. Studies still try to prove whether our beliefs are “true.” It may be biology of healing with prayers, or archaeology and history of the Holy Land. Some even claim there’s nothing left to believe in, since science has proven our old beliefs to be false.

But what is true isn’t only about facts. For example, how could you prove true love? It can’t be quantified in the number of roses you give or how firm a hug is or how long your patience lasts. Love can’t be tallied or dissected. It is true because you count on it, day in and day out.

So a better category for us in this reflection would be trust, confidence. Scholar Marcus Borg describes our beliefs that way (though some of his ideas fall back into the other category of proof, as well). In his book The Heart of Christianity (available in our church library), he writes about the word “creed,” like Apostles’ Creed. From the Latin credo, we translate it as we say, “I believe…” The creed isn’t for agreeing to a set of doctrinal details, he says, but is better felt as “I give my loyalty and allegiance to this God.” It is about commitment, trust, love. Indeed, “believe” is related to the word “belove.”

We gather in worship to be reminded again of the God who so loved us and our world, enabling us to know this God as beloved, as trustworthy, deserving our loyalty. We identify this God’s character best in Jesus, and are committed to God by following him. Again, calling God “Creator” isn’t contrasting the book of Genesis with the Hubble telescope, but understands that God delighted to make, still cherishes, and desires the best for us and this world. If we believe and trust this God, that asks how we should loyally behave to belove this creation also.

Which comes back to the original question: Do you believe in climate change? Or, more to the point, do you believe in responses to climate change?

To me, that question is vital, with enormous consequences. The potential impacts threaten extinction for species on a scale not seen since the dinosaurs. More severe harmful weather can be expected to cause hunger, water shortages, and displacement for the poorest of our human neighbors, perhaps leading toward oppression and war. If we believe God loves God’s creatures and would drive out those demons that harm all health, then we are called to strive against this suffering. That is what our loyalty and commitment mean for believing in our God.

On the other hand, believing we don’t need to respond—not believing in climate change—seems to signal that our ultimate commitment and allegiance is to the profits of corporations and to selfish consumer lifestyles. Finally, I would say it’s incompatible to believe that that’s an acceptable way to act and still believe in the God of Jesus.

+ nick

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