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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Lord of Flies, Lord of Life

sermon on Matthew10:24-39; Romans6:1b-11
Having returned from the Boundary Waters, I can quickly admit we are not always at our most presentable. After a week of not showering, scraggly facial hair and using my only comb once, bug bites all over and mud smears on my clothes, that’s not how I generally (for example) try to show up on Sunday mornings.

But from that wild unkempt sense, I also want to start with “Lord of the Flies,” especially since the name “Beelzebul” in our Gospel reading gets converted to mean “Lord of the Flies.” (It sometimes is also referenced as “Master of Dung.”)

Anyway, I toyed with the notion of bringing “Lord of the Flies” along to read to my Boundary Waters group, but I decided that a story about a group of young people off in the wilderness who turned to the worst possible outcomes of being murderous maybe wasn’t the most sensible reading choice.

Yet now, returned from the wilderness, I’m nevertheless confronted by the same situation in this difficult Gospel reading, as it’s not only about the least presentable Bible reading we’d like to have, but it seems to embody some of our worst tendencies or outcomes. Maybe that it makes us uncomfortable is a good sign, at least.

So for those who don’t know the story, “The Lord of the Flies” is a book about a group of boys stranded on an island. They begin organizing themselves with systems to establish order—for who takes care of shelter and fire and food and cooperating on decisions. But they then veer toward laziness and fear and brutal aggression. We might tend to label the boys’ decline as returning to primal instincts from civilized behavior. We’re apt to describe society as good and the wild as bad. We also get diverted to believe our flesh and bodies and daily existence in this world are sinful and that we’re trying to escape to a more religious and spiritual and heavenly existence. But we can’t quite agree with those labels. The boys in the book had been scared of a beast, but it isn’t separate from them or part of nature. The island isn’t to blame; we get the much more terrifying insight that the Lord of the Flies is inescapably among and within them, dehumanizing themselves.

Against that, let’s consider what it means to be truly human, to be seen as good creatures of God, made in the image of God, to live with the life God intends for us. That is really what’s at stake here in the diabolical confrontation of what controls our lives.

To understand that, we can start to dive into this hard Gospel reading with one of the most important biblical distinctions for what it means to be human. Brace yourselves, because this may be uncomfortable. If you have a sense that someplace inside of you is a soul, that there’s a divine little spark, waiting to rejoin God even though the rest of you will decompose (and has already begun to decompose and rot and wear out as you age), if you think that flesh is corrupt, but there’s an ideal truer inner self, then you are not on track for how the Bible sees your humanity. In the Bible, there is no separate soul. Your soul does not go to heaven. You don’t have an invisible spirit that flies away when you die. That isn’t how the Bible talks about this. That is Greek philosophy. That is Plato and is a perversion of the Bible’s sense of God’s good creation.

That’s why it’s so important to understand, because that dualism incorrectly labels life here as bad, as ungodly. That directly contradicts God who says this is good, who says this is so good and loved this world so much that God wanted to be part of it, to come and share our existence, to be incarnate in Jesus. This is also why we talk about the resurrection of the body, because you’re all you. There isn’t a piece that can be separated out. If something of you will exist after death, it needs to be—and God wants it to be—the whole you.

Now, if you’re not only uncomfortable with that but are also the argumentative type, you may point out that the Gospel reading mentions your “soul,” as “fear the one who can destroy both body and soul in hell.”

Well, that shows an infected translation. The original word there is “psyche.” It’s a word we know as part of “psychology” (which we obviously don’t define as the study of souls). It may be helpful to know that psyche is also in the last verse translated as “life,” (“those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it”). Life is a better sense of what psyche means in the Bible. It’s about truly living, about the life God intends, about being who and how we’re meant to be.

One example* I read this week illustrated it by saying that the loss of life during World War 2 isn’t only measured by the body count of soldiers, but also by Germans following Hitler and being corrupted by Nazi ideals in a way that truly defaced humanity, chasing after power and seeking to exterminate their siblings instead of loving and helping them in their time of need. (We do use the term “soul” in this sense, too, for when a nation is so misguided it has collectively “lost its soul.”) And in that sort of instance, we could pretty readily say that that’s not the sort of life that God intends. In a very honest way, life was being destroyed, thrown out to trash heap of burning refuse.

World War 2 was also a stark instance of the division that these tensions create. For Jesus’ notion of bringing a sword to strike against those who would abandon the goodness of life, some might take even so much as the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in that light. That may be too stark, though, as I’d wonder about the cure being as bad as the disease. Still, it leads us to the sense of divisiveness Jesus describes. If we are standing on the side of life, it must mean we are opposed to what would steal it away or destroy it. In the early Christian community, some of that difficult sense was likely even present in families, so the divisions Jesus names weren’t prescriptive but descriptive for those who were having to face the hard realities of life not going as it should.

This soul-threatening destruction is also the sense in the book “Lord of the Flies.” Those young people on the jungle island turned from supporting each other and caring for each other instead toward Beelzebub and that corrupting influence. Even while they still lived, they lost what the point of life was. They didn’t need to bow down to idols to lose track of the goodness God intends in their lives. The way of death came to hold dominion or dominance in their existence instead of the way of life.

That brings us directly to the reading from Romans. Alongside the divisive Gospel reading, this may feel quite pleasant. But I also want us to pause with it to continue hearing some shock. As it talks about baptism, and as we are preparing to turn toward the font for Rakesh Allen in just a minute, I’ve been feeling this passage this week not only with our standard Lutheran ears but also with Rakesh’s mother’s ears, with non-Christian Hindu ears. As we said to begin, this may not present ourselves with our best foot forward, because it could be terrifying that the reading proclaims what we’re doing in these waters is putting her son to death, co-crucifying him with Jesus, killing his old self. For this nine-month old, we probably maintain a notion of innocence and original blessedness, of the goodness of God’s creation. For Rakesh, we’d likely be ready to argue against Plato who wanted to claim that this life is corrupt.

But if we don’t see babies as bad, why is Rakesh being put to death? Why do we claim he needs a new life?

For that, the importance of this sacrament is in its proclamation of dominion, of who or what is Lord, and who can control our existence. This precisely is a statement against the corrupt and defiling ways. In the baptismal service, we state it as a rejection of sin, of turning away from the forces of evil, the devil, and his empty promises. You’ll be invited to join in that rejection with a hearty and lively “I renounce them!” As much as they try to convert and spoil you, to subvert the goodness, to turn you toward fears and frustrations and feuds, baptism gives you the power to say “No!”

In a strange sense, our Christian theology proclaims that those powers of evil are defeated at the very moment they seemed to be victorious. Jesus can risk sharing with you that “those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose life will find it” because in the ultimate sense that’s exactly what happened to him. The death-dealing powers of oppressive might and greedy influence put Jesus to death. In that would be the clearest example that their dominion won, their lordship prevailed. But in the resurrection, we proclaim that their way of death was only a lordship of stink, the mastery of dung. Death had been undone by the Lord of life.

And what we proclaim in baptism for Rakesh and for you is that those deadly powers are now impotent. They have no control over you. The Lord of the Flies has lost, has been exterminated. Since you have died with Jesus to evil and sin and live now only to God’s ways. The only thing that can rule for you now is life. That is what finally has control. So even while the old ways continue to try to corrupt or cause consternation, you can retort that you have been baptized and can find encouragement and stand steadfast that God’s goodness will not be undone, that resurrection gives you confidence in the Lord of life. With that assurance, you are free to join in sharing the risk of the struggle for life, not just for yourself in the survival of the fittest, but on behalf of all of God’s good creation.

So let’s get ready for it, as it’s renewed in ourselves and as we witness Rakesh Allen is enlisted not only for the struggle, but celebrating that he is alive, now and forever.

 

* http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-a/proper_7a/

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a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Lela Josephine Kuehl (6 October 1913 + 3 September 2015)

Psalms 46 & 23; verses from Romans 12; Luke 17:5-10

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen

Okay, I have to make a confession right off, because I know that doesn’t feel like a very complimentary ending to that Gospel reading to say, “we’re just worthless slaves.” My confession is that two Bible verses always get mixed in my mind. There’s this one, about doing the tasks that need to be done, no grumbling or questions asked, but ending with the denigrating, worthless word. Then there’s another one where the commendation is, “well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt25:21, NIV). That is a nicer statement; unfortunately the rest of the passage is about doing work in order to be rewarded for it, which doesn’t seem as fitting for Lela.

I wanted us to be hearing the Gospel reading about one who does the work at hand, simply taking it as the right way to live. That fits with Lela. In her great new book, she says, “when I was quite young I already knew when I grew up I wanted to get married, be a good wife, be able to cook and bake, take care of my family.” All of that food preparation, her recipes, her care not to waste, she just expected to do it. So that goes with the verses about serving a household.

We may take a similar example with the resolution to move off the farm and down to Janesville, to be closer to son Jim as he attended the State School for the Visually Handicapped. It couldn’t have been an easy decision, leaving behind livelihood and a sense of home that still continued to draw her northward even long later, to the cabin on Tuttle Lake and even now the graveyard at Manchester as her final resting place. And yet, in spite of moving away from home and saying good-byes and changing life, it seems that Lela simply figured it was the right thing to do, as she did so much in caring for Jim and for the rest of you.

Again, thinking about another transition in life, we may mark the time when Lela had to go back to paid work to support herself and keep her home. It wasn’t just that she had to do it to earn some money; she also discovered those less tangible benefits of meeting people and helping them in their needs with the Coalition for the Aging. Such characteristics name a simple, dedicated work ethic, striving to do what was necessary, not for acclaim but just because it was right.

But that also brings us, for this moment, to that other Bible verse. If we say it that Lela just did what she was supposed to do, or had to do, that doesn’t speak very well of her life. Better, she should be celebrated! It’s not often we come to a funeral service like this, marking the end of nearly 102 years, and not just the expanse of time but years well-lived. There were struggles and illnesses and various hard times she had to overcome, and still she could continue to surprise us with her resiliency. And in the end, on her last day she ate breakfast, and died peacefully in her sleep. For this woman and a time such as this, our oldest congregation member, at the conclusion of this life, the other Bible verse better fits our emotions, to say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

So maybe it’s not just in my confused, mixed up mind. Maybe also in Lela’s life, we see reason to mix together these two Bible passages.

With a bit different perspective, we can also witness in her life details of the Bible reading from Romans. It seems to have good bits of Lela in it, as she lived out her faith and became an example for us. It calls for us not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought. It encourages compassion and cheerfulness and generosity, to love one another with mutual affection. It says to be patient in suffering. These are traits we’ve been given to recognize in Lela’s personality and presence among us.

Still, Lela was honest and didn’t sugarcoat things, so I’ll also acknowledge I heard her grumble and grouse a fair amount, about living situations and such. I expect there’s no reason not to tell the truth in this moment. Really, we don’t need to say that she embodied every virtue always or that she was a perfect saint. That isn’t where our confidence needs to rest. It isn’t in how fully we’ve met the duties entrusted to us or how exuberantly we say, “well done, good and faithful servant.”

More than all the details of 101 years, of great memories and more than any of us know or even that Lela could recall, there’s one verse in the middle of that Romans section that speaks for us now. It says that we in our various roles and functions are like different body parts, each doing our own part. But all together, we are connected to each other as one body.

That’s for us now because it explains the pain we feel. We don’t just say that Lela lived long enough and did enough, that she was our right hand that served well and now gets to rest. No. Rather, because we’re joined together and united with her, we know the pain of not having that right hand with us any more, as if it’s been severed from us. If we are members of the body, this is then quite literally a dis-member-ment we suffer without Lela.

Some of that is healed in sharing stories, again literally re-member-ing.

But the larger resolution is not just that we’re connected to each other, but that the body we’re joined into and united in is the body of Christ. This is a body that doesn’t stay dead, won’t be kept in a grave. It is a body of healing and wholeness. This is a body of life.

And so, as Lela did throughout her life, we continue to trust: we are joined together in Christ. God will raise us up to new life. No separations are forever. It is joy and peace and love that last. This faith sustained Lela for her life, in the many good times and through difficulties, in all of her hard work and in coming to rest, in days long gone and to the end. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble,” Psalm 46 declared and Lela’s life proclaimed, “The Lord is with us.”

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