Monday, November 30, 2009

Advent Now

This sermon refers to two of the readings for the First Sunday of Advent: Jeremiah 33:14-16 and Luke 21:25-36.

Don’t ask me how it got to be Advent already. I’m still cutting-back our perennial beds for the winter, and shuffling-along the mortal coils of the 2009 gardening season so we can fit the car in the garage. I’m about ready for fall, not winter; but there’s no mistaking the season, once it gets to be about 4:30 in the afternoon, not a bad time to consider the words of our collect about casting away the works of darkness and putting upon us the armor of light “now in the time of this mortal life,” the very place and time of our being visited by Jesus in great humility.

Already, 4:30 arrives and I’m startled by the darkness… and there’s another three weeks before the solstice trims our shortest day of the year. Much of Advent will be spent feeling time running through our fingers like sand, facing the temptation to see our hourglass half empty, not half full.

“Now in the time of this mortal life…”

“Now when these things begin to take place…" There’s that Advent word again, Now. The way St. Luke records it, Jesus teaches his disciples to read the signs of the times so they’ll be alert to all they mean, on guard so as not to be caught unexpectedly, as in a trap, ignorant and unknowing.

Our Lord’s parable of the fig tree seems not to fit now, our winterizing season, for he asks the twelve to imagine leaves sprouting on that fig tree. Last weekend in balmy Cambridge, not far from Harvard Yard, I saw bearded iris in full bloom, encircling one of those signs that threaten the unmitigated wrath of God upon anyone who might consider parking there. “Park here by permit only; all others shall be sent into outer darkness.” I wondered by whose permit that iris was daring to bloom.

The righteous branch of David mentioned today by the prophet Jeremiah had to be caused to spring up. It wasn’t expected in the natural order of things that God would send a Messiah capable of bestowing righteousness on earth, that is, making-right all the horrific injustices of the human race and making-whole all the damaged integrity of planet earth.

Such is the mission of the Messiah who speaks to us out of Luke’s Gospel this morning. He catalogues all the dismal signs of a deterioriating creation, a shaken heaven, a crumbling earth, a rising sea—all signs of distress causing the human race to “faint from fear and foreboding”.

But he himself causes courage. The natural order of things is for people to duck, when threatened by danger. “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” And within verses, again, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down,” don’t numb your senses with drugs and drink, don’t fill your mind with worries of this life. The only way to survive the inescapable with your souls still intact is to stand in the strength of prayer.

Politicians will govern badly and ineptly. Chronic tribal grudges will keep poisoning the well of human community. Our creaturely state will always be vulnerable to pandemics. Lack of compassion and imagination and courage will keep turning expendable people into casualties. Greed will consume the greatest of societies. Wisdom will inspire vision by morning light, but by 4:30 in the afternoon of the human race, fears will loom large and cowards win the night.

The evening news has always been sobering, troubling. No wonder the Church, in her bedtime prayers of Compline, prays, “Be our light in the darkness, O Lord, and in your great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night…” and “Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through the hours of this night, so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life may rest in your eternal changelessness…”

Our times are in the hands of God, every moment of now in the keeping of the Christ of God and in the shaping of the Spirit of God. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

Advent is the Church’s short season of preparing for wonder, preparing for birth, recognizing God causing the birth of a Messiah who bestows righteousness on earth, the special agent of God whose mission is making-right the horrific injustices of the human race and making-whole the damaged integrity of the planet.

Advent is the Church’s short season of preparing to receive the greatest of gifts. Remember, this Messiah bestows righteousness. What gift could exceed or even hold a candle to the grace of God in Jesus Christ that puts us in right relationship with God and with one another, through the working of the Holy Spirit?

Wednesday, I sat with a young family preparing for a baptism. Always, the curriculum for conversation in that setting is the Book of Common Prayer’s definition of grace: “Grace is God’s favor towards us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.” In Jesus our Messiah, God bestows righteousness.

Thursday, the two dozen of us gathered for eucharist here on Thanksgiving Day heard St. Matthew’s report of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, ending with his exhortation, “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the worldly ones who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

How do you strive for a righteousness that is given?

There is the Advent question, and it presents the work of Advent: to prepare to receive this gift above all gifts.

As we recognized in our collect, this gift, Jesus, comes to us in great humility. We could miss this gift, looking for something more spectacular, more satisfying to our taste buds or our flair for fashion.

The desire which this gift, Jesus, corresponds to is a passion for justice and healing and peace, for his mission is making-right the ancient wrongs of earth and making-whole the fabric and firmament of this fractured world.

This too is the work of Advent, to strive for these things. And, alongside them, take the measure of all else that we could spend our all on in the twenty-five days ahead, and find it all wanting, missing the reason for the season.

I’ll remind you, and then I hope you’ll keep reminding me, that Advent’s fullness will not be measured by the number of days left. It will be found in every now that is not missed in the rush to then.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Listening to the Voice of Jesus

Scripture appointed for the Last Sunday after Pentecost includes II Samuel 23:1-7, Revelation 1:4b-8, and John 18:33-37

“Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

On this Sunday, our readings invite us to consider Jesus Christ as King.

Is that a good idea?

I know that this Sunday has as its nickname, “Christ the King Sunday”… but is that a positive way to imagine your relationship with him?

Our Old Testament reading lets us listen in to the last words of another king, King David, Israel’s greatest king. He was so popular that Israel expected that when God would someday send a Messiah, God’s special agent, he would be much like David.

So these words are a long epitaph summing up David’s success as a king: “One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.”

Those are high approval ratings, aren’t they? That’s what a good king is like.

Then both our collect that we prayed together and our reading from the Book of Revelation speak of Jesus as not just a king, but as the King of kings.

But the more crowns we put on his head, the surer we need to be what kind of king he is.

And to learn that, we must listen to his voice.

“I’m not a king in the same way that you’re a governor,” he explains to Pontius Pilate. You have many hundreds of troops at your command. I have 12 disciples—well, make that 11—and they’re not a fighting force, believe me.

“But you insist you’re a king?” asks Pilate.

“You’re saying that,” replies Jesus, making me wonder how good an idea it is that we keep on calling him a king.

“For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to tell the world the truth about who God is and what God does and what God wants. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

That’s what I want to talk to you about today: listening to the voice of Jesus.

You have it on higher authority than mine that this is what Jesus wants us to do. Otherwise, we don’t understand what his kind of power is, or his kind of love, or his kind of justice.

There’s nothing more important for us to do here in this place than listen to the voice of Jesus. It’s why we prepare for worship when we first arrive in the pew. It’s why we stand for the Gospel, when his words and his story speak fresh things to us. It’s why we keep silence together after all the readings are finished. It’s why we have a sermon. And why we listen so carefully to what we and others sing. And it’s what’s going on in holy communion. These are all special moments when our intention is to listen to his voice.

We don’t do it just here. Here is where our listening skills are trained and encouraged. Every day, every person we meet and every place we go, we try to seek and serve Christ in all people. We promise that in our baptismal covenant.

And it’s not only in other people that Jesus Christ lives and moves. He lives and moves in you, in me, and our listening to his voice there—within—is like learning to use the global positioning system God has given us in our baptism. You must plug it in.

So I want to ask you today to consider the listening you do in church.

I can tell you that from my usual perch as preacher, you are really good listeners. And what a reward that is to a preacher, a choir, a reader, and anyone else who gets up to speak in church. You know how valuable it is to listen well. For example,

· To keep your eyes on the one you’re listening to, so you take it all in

· But sometimes to close your eyes for the very same reason, perhaps at moments when you especially don’t want to be distracted by anyone or anything

· And to not be afraid to show that you’re listening: heads nodding for that reason are a gift. Smiles—and frowns, and quizzical looks, whatever honest response you’re feeling—also become part of the chemistry in good listening. And while we’d probably have to go into training with Pentecostals and Evangelicals to get good at it, I’ve got to say it spikes my adrenalin when I occasionally hear an uninhibited soul break out with “Yes” or “uh-huh” or whatever personal exclamation might, in one of those other traditions, be “Amen!”

To really talk about listening, we’ve got to talk about distractions. But in a positive way.

I believe that good listening starts right at each doorway to this room.

Do you remember the signs that used to be placed at railroad crossings? Do you recall the three words on that sign?


It’s good manners, when entering a place like this that is set apart for listening to the voice of Jesus, it’s good manners to catch yourself at the doorway and Stop, Look, and Listen.

Are you hearing the still small voice of quiet? Then that’s how you should enter the room. Join that quiet. Contribute to it, don’t take away from it.

And if you know the worship service is underway, it’s even more important to Stop, Look, and Listen— so that you help the listening that other people are doing.

Again, from my perch in the pulpit, it’s quite amazing what happens when a person arrives late, or gets up to leave the room, or comes back from having left the room earlier. It’s like a Wave in a sports stadium: heads turn, eyes shift, it’s a message from the primitive brain stem, like when a dog sees a squirrel.

Does that help the community to listen? I don’t think so.

So I put it this way: Stop, Look, and Listen.

· As you’re about to enter this room, are you hearing a single voice speaking? Then maybe it’s a good idea to wait. Or at least to enter quietly and sit down in the nearest available spot—then wait to return to your own seat at a kinder moment. This example would hold true also if you hear the choir singing their anthem.

· On the other hand, when you’re standing in the doorway and you’re hearing the whole community speaking together, singing together, passing the peace together, come full steam ahead.

· And if you’re not sure what you’re hearing, use the third verb: step in far enough to look around, then you’ll know how to enter and join the listening community.

To expect all this of children is a lot, isn’t it? But from what I’m hearing from some parents, it’s the right thing to expect. It really needs to fall on adults to practice and model this thoughtfulness to Stop, Look, and Listen. Parents and other adults who love our kids are the best teachers of children to join them in developing this skill. Make it positive, keep it positive.

Never before have we been blessed with as many babies and toddlers as we have now. The wondrous range of sounds that babies make is music to my ears. It’s the sound of our future.

It isn’t easy keeping a little one happy in church. Especially if a parent is doing that single-handedly on a particular Sunday. Are we going to make that harder? Not on my watch.

But parents need to know that we’re committed with them to making sure they have their place in the community that listens to the voice of Jesus.

We offer a safe and appealing nursery for babies, toddlers, and pre-schoolers every Sunday, headed by a capable and popular early-childhood professional.

And the upper room, just through the porch, is available when a little respite is needed. The audio dimension of our service is piped-in there, there are sofas and carpets and, usually, something to eat and drink. It’s an oasis when a break is needed.

Each family has to judge how best to make church a positive experience for the child, for the parents, and for the community.

We are a community called to listen to the voice of Jesus. It’s the most basic and important thing we do together under this roof. It’s the call of God to all our generations.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Birth Pangs and Addictions

Scripture appointed for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost includes I Samuel 1:4-20; Hebrews 10:11-25; and Mark 13:1-8

I’m noticing a theme of affliction weaving through two of our readings today. Hannah has long been afflicted by what is primitively called a closed womb, her inability to conceive and bear a child. And Jesus speaks of terrible things happening on the world stage, and in the nation, a forecast of global affliction.

Last weekend, I was afflicted. Have you had a case of the flu this season? What kind of flu it was doesn’t seem to matter, does it? However precise the warnings may be about a particular strain, when symptoms hit, you’ve simply got “it” And “it”, more accurately, has you. An alien force, microbially tiny in origin, moves in and takes over. The host body reacts, over-reacts, under-reacts. All systems are not go. Some systems are no-go. Others are go-go. Much that one takes for granted is, for a time, afflicted.

Humbled. That’s a word often on my lips, this past week. By Saturday morning, I could tell I would need a Plan B for Sunday. John Denaro was in town; he could celebrate, I would preach and then retreat to the back bench. By Saturday evening, that began to feel like a reach. Laurie Glover and Jeanne Blake were to make mission presentations: if they came also at 8:00, I could preach just at 10:00? By Sunday morning, I couldn’t have cared who did what, as long as it wasn’t me doing it.

Truly, it wasn’t for me to do. It was for me to be. Be sick. Be in my jammies on a Sunday morning for a full taste of Sabbath rest, thanking God for the freedom to do so, for the relative ease with which, by early morning light, I could recognize that I didn’t have to do anything. I just had to acknowledge that I was powerless, in the face of this affliction, to manage on my own. I had to know and show that I believe that a power greater than my own will carry the day. And I had to make a decision to turn my will over to the care of God as I understand God.

If you recognize those as the first three of the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, you will catch my point that for me the humbling I’ve known during this bout of flu has required me to consider how addicted I am to my daily and weekly rounds. Humbling, indeed.

“Do you see these great things that claim our attention, these monuments to permanence, these institutions we take for granted as essential to our status quo? Not one will be left here; all will be thrown down.” With this, Jesus made that disciple wish he’d kept to himself his awestruck comments on architecture.

And with this crashing prediction of systemic change, Jesus does what he does so perfectly well: he pulls us off our addictions, one by one, freeing us to imagine what matters to God, to envision, in the face of changes we cannot control, what God is doing and how God is calling us to be in Christ and to do by Spirit.

As disciples of Jesus Christ we bring to him our impressions of what matters so much to us. We tell him all about the reality we see. And then we are humbled when the Word made flesh causes us to be still and listen, hear, mark, learn, and inwardly get a different take on the deeper reality of who God is and what God is doing.

This is Mark’s Gospel we’re hearing, these days, and for Mark that deeper reality of what God is doing is announced in the very first words Jesus speaks in chapter one. Right in the thick of the troubles, fears, and anxieties that spread through Galilee when King Herod arrested John the Baptist, right then Jesus began to proclaim good news of God, saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

By the time Mark set those words to parchment, the great temple in Jerusalem had in fact been brought down by imperial forces, the capital city itself in clampdown to defeat the insurgents whose hope to free their homeland would not be realized. The emperor ruled with iron fist. That was reality. The people of God live their lives in the crossfire of clashing cultures and warring nations, not to mention earthquakes, famines, and let’s not forget pandemics.

“This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”

Catch what he does there. In the face of horrific forces of destruction, Jesus insists that God is giving birth to a new creation. Jesus will himself in his own body be the testing ground of that truth. He will make for all time and all people a single offering by which he perfects those who receive his gift, writing on our hearts the laws of his Spirit. He makes of us all who claim him petrie dishes growing the culture of his kingdom of justice and peace, mercy and love. He makes of us agents to infect the world with his way.

This continual birthing is the Church’s apostolic business. Openness to the transforming Spirit of God is the apostolic state of readiness for ministry anywhere we go. The Spirit we have received in baptism calls us to be open at all times, in all places, to all people. Nothing can close the door to that Spirit or break the reach of that ministry, not affliction, not death.

Which makes of the closed womb of Hannah a crucial place of encounter. How is the Church to understand her ancient story? Within the historical claims of Israel, hers is one more tale of one more brave woman giving birth to one more patriarchal hero—in this case Samuel, the last of Israel’s pioneer judges who ruled the young nation in its Wild West days, not as settled kings or queens with armies and treasuries, but as circuit-riding prophets armed with only the law of God. According to this patriarchal record, Hannah’s fame lay in her birthing of Samuel, whom she dedicated to God.

But the matriarchal record may give us more Spirit to go by. Consider her in her afflicted state. So early in Israel’s prehistory that a man might still take two women as wives, this story shows Hannah so loved by her husband that he gave her a double portion of everything. But nothing could take away the sting of her rival, Peninnah, who was able to stand in judgment of Hannah and, using a convenient theology of blame, provoke her by announcing loudly in the family compound, “The Lord has closed her womb.”

But Hannah’s story is of her own opening of her whole being to God. We might say she becomes her own champion, storming the gates of heaven and attempting to bargain with God, not hiding her anguish from public view, converting the priest Eli from scorn to empathy. She emerges from her wrestling with God a changed person. In due time she will conceive and bear Samuel, gotten, says her story, by asking him of the Lord. Not just asking: putting everything on the line, utter dedication, full investment—characteristics many of us have marveled at in the stories of women and men today doing what it takes to open the prospect of birth, when the customary way won’t get them there.

Hannah’s story is not just about what it takes on her part. Hers is a story of encountering grace, the free gift of God that opens the way to new life.

Hear her story, and recognize how the whole purpose of the Church, our essence and mission, is the opening of metaphorical wombs-- minds and hearts and imaginations, friendships and agendas and communities-- by the grace of God, for the will of God to be done on earth as in heaven.

Theology (how we believe), liturgy (how we worship), stewardship (how we live), and ministry (how we love) all are called to serve God’s birthing of a new creation. Ours is not the message that God closes wombs, blocks the way, closes borders, refuses the heart, or shuts the door on anyone.

Ours is the message that God speaks the freeing word to nation and culture and religion addicted to intolerance, violence, or greed. God meets us well on our side of half-way when we’re ready to lay down false security and take up freedom and responsibility.

It may be in our afflictions that we discover where that new creation shows itself. In our own experience as persons, when our own strength fails at one level, grace moves at a deeper place and invites us to recognize new ways to trust and hope and open ourselves to truth and love.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Taught by Two Widows

Scripture for this day includes Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

We hear about two widows in our Bible readings today. In a patriarchal society like that of ancient Israel women were considered, by and large, their husbands’ property, and with the death of her husband a widow’s primary security was gone. It’s worth remembering that one of the hallmarks of the early Christian Church, mentioned often in the New Testament, is the care provided to widows within the community of the followers of Jesus.

The significance of that care could be lost on us, living in a society which takes for granted the presence of certain security nets—though it would take a Rip Van Winkle to have lived through the past year still taking security nets for granted.

But it was revolutionary, that insistence by our 1st-century forebears that the at-risk members of their society should be honored with care, to the extent that a distinct order of ministry, deacons, was appointed to oversee that care. “See how these Christians love one another!” is an exclamation seldom heard these days; when it was said in that first-century world, it was often because citizens of a brutal world order looked with longing at what seemed to them a radical and lovely reordering of priorities.

That there was much to notice was because the message of Jesus had taken hold: To follow me, you must be willing to sacrifice your own desires, take up your own burdens and the burdens of others around you (who may or may not belong to you already by blood) and learn what it means to serve whoever needs you.

If we want an example of folks who had no use for that message, Jesus draws our attention to some very religious-looking men who enjoy living high on the hog, and don’t mind if that’s at the expense of the widows in town. Let the poor widows feel obligated to maintaining high standards here at the temple, they say to one another; it will do them good to feel as if they belong… but not to our club, of course. Our education entitles us to all the perks of membership here; we’re the guardians of culture and the interpreters of law…without us, who would these widows have to look up to?

And with that lofty attitude went a certain kind of stewardship: coughing up a respectable donation to help perpetuate a way of life with which these men were quite content. From their excess, their pocket money, the scribes place annual dues in the temple treasury—some of them, rather hefty donations that doubtless led to their being honored as Archangels, Angels, Patriarchs, or whatever names they used in their annual report to recognize the big hitters. History remembers them only as Scribes and Pharisees.

Against them, Jesus contrasts the giving of a poor widow who puts on the counter two small copper coins, “everything she had, all she had to live on,” says Jesus. No category for her level of giving, in the annual report. No… but her name is in the book of life.

What is it about her giving that Jesus find commendable? Is Jesus really pleased by her sacrificing her own wellbeing for the good of a religious establishment which has little interest in his kind of justice and mercy, little interest in the likes of her?

It doesn’t say that he held her up as an example of what all poor widows should do, does it? Given how he assails those scribes for devouring widows’ houses, he’s not likely to be urging poor widows to make the temple their top priority.

No… he contrasts her whole-hearted giving, her utter dedication, over-against the easy affording of the scribes. He teaches his disciples to appreciate her situation, to learn from her, to view her with that recognition that the scribes long for, respect.

But what is it about her giving that Jesus finds commendable? The commentary tells us that two kinds of transaction took place at the temple treasury. One was the paying of the temple tax expected each year from each Jew twenty years or older. That’s not what the widow is doing, for that tax was a good deal more than she could afford. She was making a freewill offering, the second kind of transaction, a sheer gift which in her eyes might have been for the good of the nation or for the honoring of God. However you imagine it, what moved her to give her two coppers mattered more to her than her daily bread.

This is a good moment to return to the other widow we meet today, Naomi, one of the central characters in the Book of Ruth. Her name means “my joy, my pleasant one, my lovely one.” We can imagine her having heard such sweet pillow-talk from Elimelech, her husband, a man from Bethlehem. During a famine, Elimelech and Naomi and their two sons found refuge in the country of Moab (one of Israel’s chronic enemies), and there the sons married. And there Elimelech died, and their two sons after him. Naomi’s sad story follows somewhat in the vein of Job’s sufferings.

Left alone in a strange land, Naomi wanted to return to Bethlehem in Judah, so she urged her two Moabite daughters-in-law to return to their Moabite families. One, Orpah, agreed and did. The other, Ruth, persisted in her loyalty to her late husband’s mother and refused to leave Naomi’s side. Her famous words, rather mis-applied when read at weddings, are these:

“Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge;
Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried.” (Ruth 1:16)

So today’s portion shows Naomi’s loyalty to Ruth taking the shape of clever strategic planning. She has noticed that when Ruth goes out to glean in the fields, Boaz, owner of those fields, admires her. The gleaning she’s doing is around the edges of the field, the portion decreed by Jewish law to be kept available for the poor. She does her best to be inconspicuous out there at the margins, but Boaz is impressed and Ruth notices. Ruth also knows that Boaz is related to her late husband, Elimelech, and she decides to play matchmaker.

What stands in the way is social standing, which Boaz has and Ruth has not. But, coaching her to stay near him, Naomi counts on Boaz’s compassion to be kindled. Perhaps it is also his passion that she hopes will be kindled. Whatever the mix, Boaz pays a price of redemption to free Ruth from whatever stigma has attached to her station in that ancient society, and he weds her. Their son, Obed, will become the grandfather of Israel’s greatest king, David.

And there, you might say, is one more patriarchal story, one more instance where a woman’s worth is based on her bearing a son. But on this Sunday when widows appear from scripture, let’s recognize Naomi and her action with respect similar to what our Lord asks for the widow in his Gospel.

Like that later widow, Naomi exhibits the dedication that will become the core message of Jesus: that, to be faithful, you must be willing to sacrifice your own desires, take up your own burdens and those of others around you (who may or may not belong to you already by blood) and learn what it means to serve whoever needs you.

Like the widow at the temple treasury, Naomi makes a freewill offering. It isn’t two copper coins that she sacrifices, but her freedom to follow her own instinct and return to familiar Bethlehem. Does her freewill offering to remain in Moab for the sake of her daughter-in-law save Naomi from a pointless return to her past? Does her sacrifice free her for a useful and creative future?

Without her willingness to sacrifice her own desire, there would have been no King David for Israel, no house and lineage of David from which, generations later, a certain baby could be born in Bethlehem of Judah.

His is the message our widows reveal: the love that makes the world go ‘round is a sacrificial love that learns to serve, even when it has barely anything to give but its presence.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Raising Lazarus: The Baptismal Call

Scripture appointed for All Saints Day include Wisdom 3:1-9, Revelation 21:1-6a, and John 11:32-44.

What a Gospel to hear on a day of baptism! Let’s not be hasty judging how good a fit it is; let’s suspend judgment, and consider.

It is said that there was no more dangerous man, in the eyes of Jesus’s adversaries, than Lazarus. He was a walking advertisement of the power of God that is in Jesus Christ. Legend has it that he was later assassinated by the same defenders of the status quo who arranged the death of Jesus. A happier outcome is claimed by the Eastern Orthodox, who say that Lazarus traveled to Cyprus and became a bishop there, where you can visit his tomb. His second tomb.

And in the Eastern church, Lazarus has a remarkable place of honor in that each year the day before Palm Sunday is known as Lazarus Saturday. Scripture and hymns on that day focus on the resurrection of Lazarus as a foreshadowing of the resurrection of Christ and a promise of the general resurrection. It may be just hours away from the start of Holy Week’s solemnities, but on Lazarus Saturday the church sings hymns of resurrection.

The Church of England remembers the raising of Lazarus each year on July 29th. On that same day the American church observes the feast day of his sisters, Mary and Martha of Bethany, but not Lazarus. Go figure.

What is the value of his story? What do you make of it? Why the early Christians kept telling his story is clear, as the Eastern church tells us: his resurrection is one of the earliest signs of the breaking-in of the kingdom of God, the reordering of creation to better express the mind of the Creator, the making-new of all things, the turning of the status quo onto its head, the first installment of all that is to come.

But if your rational mind struggles with the bottom line of this story, let the other side of your brain appreciate two things that are going on here.

One is how, within a story of only a dozen verses, the full humanity of Jesus and the unfiltered power of God reside in the one person of Jesus like yin and yan, proclaiming the whole story of who Jesus is: in anguish over his friend Lazarus, Jesus weeps, and, the tears still dropping, he demonstrates pure faith, claims the Creator’s indwelling to fill the void, orders the stone to be moved, and calls Lazarus into new life. Consider how this story is graphic theology, declaring who Jesus Christ is, very God and very human, no resurrection without those tears.

And consider how this graveside story announces good news. No one stands by the grave of someone beloved without experiencing an upheaval within, a reversal of those controllings we practice to live our lives. Lazarus’s story is trying to tell us that if we stand in Christ, nothing, not even death, can silence the call of God, or stand in the way of our answering that call.

When exposed to the power of God that is in Jesus Christ, nothing in this life can long separate us from God or from becoming the people God gives us to be. Neither anxiety nor alienation, not a fear of death nor a fear of life, puts us beyond the reach of God’s call to us, or beyond the freedom to respond.

As Paul sings in one of his letters, nothing shall separate us from the love of God that we find, and that finds us, in Jesus Christ our Lord. It’s essential to remember that such words of faith did not come from times of armchair preaching and easy listening. They came out of the cauldron of wrenching change and the upheaval of the old order. Times of reversal, hard times, send us into premature tombs where we get all wrapped up in our burial shrouds, and right there on the thresholds of our tombs, the Christ calls us out, each by name.

The Shona people of Zimbabwe have many names for God. One is Chipindikure, “the One who turns things upside down.” It comes from the word kupinduka, “to be uprooted.” God is present in and above the unwanted and unplanned changes that happen to us throughout our lives, calls us to come out into new life, calls us to be open to what is truly happening in us, and to cooperate with the constant grace that God is giving us in Jesus Christ.

A good Gospel for a day of baptism. A day when the church celebrates all the saints, all the Lazaruses and Marys and Marthas who through their own struggles, in their own experience, have come to know and love and serve God in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit.

The greatest of our windows, the rose window, the background for every baptism here, attempts to show the communion of saints. In eight radiating petals, 24 of the innumerable just men and women made complete are shown. St. Elizabeth of Hungary is there, St. Benedict of Nursia, St. Joan of Arc…can you imagine serving on the committee that decided who’d be in that window? And we know who 23 of them are, but not who the 24th is.

Is it Saint Sebastian? Saint Julia? Saint Constance?

How can I not end with their stories?

Constance, Mother Superior of the Sisters of St. Mary in Memphis, Tennessee, led her sisters in organizing relief during the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1878. Thirty thousand residents fled the city in terror, leaving twenty thousand to face the illness. From Boston came Sister Clare of St. Margaret’s House, from Hoboken New Jersey came a parish priest, both volunteers to work with Constance and a second parish priest (this one from Grace and St. Lazarus Church, Memphis) and three physicians and several volunteer nurses from New York, turning the Episcopal cathedral into a makeshift hospital. Most of that team, including Constance, would be among the victims. The collect for her day, September 9, says that she and her companions “loved not their own lives, even unto death…”

Julia Chester Emery, missionary, remembered in the church’s calendar on January 9, was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts, in 1852. At the age of 24, she took charge of the Episcopal Church’s national Woman’s Auxiliary of the Board of Missions, and served her entire 40-year career in that role, helping the church recognize its call to proclaim the Gospel both at home and overseas. Visiting every diocese and missionary district within the United States and traveling around the world, even to remote areas of China, Japan, and the Philippines, she developed networks of women sharing a vision and commitment to mission, education, and leadership. Creation of the United Thank Offering is among Julia’s legacy to the 20th and 21st centuries.

Sebastian, 3rd-century Roman soldier from what is now Provence, appointed as a captain of the Praetorian Guard under the emperor Diocletian, who had an infamous appetite for persecuting Christians. Discovering he had one in his own Praetorian Guard, Diocletian ordered Sebastian to be tied to a stake and shot with arrows. I guess it didn’t help his case that the imperial jailer, whom Sebastian had introduced to Jesus Christ, released all his prisoners when he accepted the Lordship of Christ. You can’t run an empire that way—but, given the likely injustices inside imperial jails, that was a perfect way for the Kingdom of God to break in.

And the legend says that though he was left for dead, the saint’s body was claimed by a Christian widow named Irene, whose husband had been brought to faith through Sebastian. She found that the arrows had not killed him. She is said to have nursed him back to life. Rather than go underground and keep a low profile, Sebastian, when he heard that Diocletian was to pass by in the street, went to the doorstep and, in a valedictory last hurrah, loudly berated the emperor when he passed by. That story has a rather tough ending, giving Sebastian the distinction of having been martyred twice.

All the saints followed one whom they and we call the Prince of Peace, but the peace they knew was the tensile strength and precious integrity of gold tried in the furnace of life. They were tested, and they shone forth, their courage and compassion running like sparks through stubble, creating a brilliant path.

While we want for our Constance and Julia and Sebastian the brilliance without the brutality, we go deeper and want for them the Christ who will always know just when and how to call them out into new life, who will save them from self-preoccupation and free them to answer the call of God to become precisely the people God gives them to be.