Jesus Turns Death into Life

A sermon on John 11:32-44 for All Saints Sunday

Let us pray.  Help us, oh God, to become comfortable with mystery, accompany us as we wrestle with stories that are beyond our ability to comprehend. Meet us in our belief and in our questioning, in our hope and in our despair. Share in our grief and show us the new life that is around us always so that we too may say, Come and See the new life, the light of the world, and the glory of God. Amen.

Grace and peace to you friends in Christ, from God our Father.

Death. It interrupts life as we know it and changes everything – for good.

It is the elephant in the sanctuary this morning as we gather to celebrate the saints in our lives – all the saints – those who have died and those who have yet to die.

It is as Isaiah writes, the shroud cast over all people – from our very first breath. 

What do we do with death? What do we do with something that is so prevalent in our lives of late, that we fight against from the moment of our birth, and yet know that no matter what, death is certain. What do we do with that? 

I’ll be honest with you. I was daunted by today’s Gospel story. As I sat with the readings for this morning, I even asked Pastor Pete if the alternate gospel reading from the Gospel of Mark was an option…. Because, how could I offer you the good news of the raising of Lazarus when I myself recoiled at the story in the face of death?

You see, this was the gospel story that my pastor in Billings suggested for my Dad’s memorial service almost one year to the day after my mother’s. It was an awful time of death in our lives as a family and the grief and disillusionment my brother and I felt was immense.  All I could think of at the time was “yeah Jesus, where have you been? If only you had been here, Lord.” 

Fast forward to my final LPA (Lay Pastoral Associate) training retreat the October after my father’s death and something our leader Pastor Jason said as we went through the section on ministering to the dying, death, grief and the services that follow. He reminded us that the funeral or memorial service is for the living – not the person who has died – for they are beyond the joy and honor any service could bring – they are with God! It is those of us left behind that have to learn how to live with death and go on in the aftermath.

As I sat pondering what I could possibly bring to you today, those words came back to me and I began to see why my pastor had suggested this particular story to my brother and me. It wasn’t because he was super busy and was pulling things out of a pile of proper funeral readings, it was because he knew how broken my brother and I were.  He wanted to help us through our “if only’s” so we could go on with life after death. He wanted us to see our story through the heart of God. 

As a writer and lover of words, the Gospel of John has always been my favorite gospel –  I love how John reveals Jesus Christ as the Word through which all things were made.  That God chose Jesus as his messenger to tell us about himself. Jesus is God and the revealer of God the Father. Creation is God’s general revelation and Jesus Christ is God’s personal message to us. 

Today’s gospel reveals something for every human being who has ever lived – including the saints. Today’s gospel highlights the reality of the loss, grief, and sorrow experienced with all forms of death – not just the loss of a loved one:  the loss of a dream, the loss of a marriage, the loss of direction, the loss of meaning and significance, the loss of a job, the loss of health, the loss of one’s identity, and sometimes the loss of hope and faith. But it does something more – it reveals to us the nature of God in Christ Jesus.

I think there is a part of each of us in the characters who experience the power of Jesus outside Lazarus’s tomb. There is Mary – whose heart, wrenched by grief, gives voice to our anguished lament, perhaps even our accusation: “Lord, if you had been here…”  Could Mary represent all those who come to church today heavy in heart, the grief of their loss still fresh to the point of being overwhelming?  Because grief has no timeline nor concept of the right time. 

Could Martha be each of us still coming to church after all we have been through?  Martha whose faith seems so incredibly resilient in the face of great challenge and who confessed moments earlier in the verses preceding today’s text that her brother Lazarus would “rise again in the resurrection on the last day “ and then continued her confession in the one who promised her life here and now yet  tarried while her brother died exclaiming: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world!”

And at times we are Lazarus – at least I know I am –  stuck in the tomb of grief,  surrounded by the stench of death, and unable to break free and escape from the ravages of the dying parts of life until he, like we, literally embody the promise of Jesus and the central message of our faith – God turns death into life.

In each of these characters, we see the ultimate miracle at work. God is in the business of turning death into life. And we learn a little bit more about just what the glory of God is all about. It is to be fully alive, to be abundant with life. Jesus said it himself: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

We see that God is more powerful than what scares us the most. 

We see the deep sorrow of grief transformed into a most relieved and elated joy. 

We see abiding friendship and deep love.

We see that even when we think we have lost everything –  that there is nothing to live for – it is never too late for a new life with God. 

We know all this by faith and by faith we know that God is love, we know God forgives all our sin, and we know that God turns death into life, and yet…

And yet, we are left with that unspoken uncomfortable feeling of doubt – as we wonder where Jesus  – the one we know works miracles – where is Jesus in the face of our tragedies, in the relentless death march of this pandemic, in the lives of our young people who are so broken by life they chose death? Where was Jesus and his miracle of life for all those we are remembering today? Where is Jesus in this very broken world of ours?

In our questioning, we see that what we most wish for, plead for, long for, pray for so often doesn’t come true. We see that death is still here and death is certain. And we wonder about God’s arbitrary mercy for us.  What do we do with that?

What does the story of Lazarus have to do with the very reality of death in our life? 

Lazarus is not a story about avoiding pain or denying death. Jesus didn’t go about his travels holding walk-in clinics banishing illness, hunger, and general malaise. Jesus didn’t go to Golgotha and cut people down from their crosses of death – nor did he avoid his own. The death rate in our community is the same as it was at the time of Jesus and for Jesus – 1 per person – 100%  of the time. 

Jesus healed, helped, taught, and Jesus loved. And he shows us by raising Lazarus that death doesn’t have as much power as we think it does. 

In the theology of John’s Gospel also known as the story of signs, Lazarus is the seventh and final sign pointing us to who Jesus is,  and through Jesus,  who God is.  

Jesus turns the water into wine and we see that in Jesus we have abundance. Jesus heals and we see that in Jesus we are not captive to our limitations or illnesses. Jesus feeds 1000’s with nothing but scraps and belief and we see that when we give generously to others anything is possible including new sparks of life. Jesus gives sight and we see there is insight and vision to be found in a life with God. 

Lazarus reveals that life in God is more powerful than death. God helps us to go on even when it doesn’t seem possible. When we are in our worst moment, God moves us forward.  Times that should destroy us instead truly do make us stronger. All of us here today attest to this great mystery and promise of our faith in Jesus. We can be broken and whole at the same time.

Even at the grave, life goes on. Yes, we know it does. We cannot escape death nor can we escape God’s promise of life abundant and the power of life over death. Theologian Karoline Lewis writes that resurrection is not just our future but our present reality. Martin Luther reminds us that in our Baptism we with all our sins and evil desires must die daily and that we should daily rise as a new person to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.

Resurrection can only come through death. It is in the dyings of life when our full humanity comes to life. In truth, life is born through death. We experience these dyings more often than we – at least on the surface – realize. Ideas, plans, and philosophies die back to engender new ones. When we graduate high school and college that season of life dies as we enter the next stage of life in adulthood. When relationships begin and end, when we marry, when we have children, when we leave a job or a neighborhood, when we begin a new endeavor or pursue a different direction, a part of us dies. Must die. Must end. These dyings are passages to something new, something wider, something deeper. With each of these dyings, we are given the opportunity for new life; they allow us to let go and lead us to discover new directions, new purposes. With every ending, we are given a passageway to something more. 

Episcopal priest  Father Michael Marsh writes:

Mary, Martha, and Lazarus stand before us today as saints. Through their lives, they bear witness to our own experience of sorrow and loss. Through their lives, they bear witness to the Christ who called them out into a new place. And they now join him in calling us out into a new place. That is what saints do. Through the power and love of Christ, they call us out of our grief and loss wherever that may have taken us. They guide us to the one who is resurrection and life, to see the glory of God and the light of a new day. (1)

As living saints, we are strengthened by Christ to call those around us who are bound by grief and darkness to new life – with a love inspired by Christ. 

I have grown to love this story. It reflects the truth I know in my own life. Life after death does go on and through it, I have come to know more fully the joy of God. I do not deny the darkness, but I choose not to live in it. I know that the light that shines in the darkness can be trusted more than the darkness itself and that a little bit of light can dispel a lot of darkness. That is good news. Jesus turns death into life.

Thanks be to God!

Amen. 

Let Your Light So Shine!

  1. https://interruptingthesilence.com/2009/11/01/a-sermon-for-the-feast-of-all-saints/

Miles Apart

It can be a long drive to my “other life.” When the weather is favorable for windshield time, I actually relish the time behind the wheel as the mountains of NW Montana give way to the big wide open of Eastern Montana. When the weather doesn’t cooperate with my travel plans (which is at least 75% of the time) it can be the longest butt toning session ever undertaken! I had both experiences for my Easter trip home this year.

Armed with road snacks, MT’s own John Denver aka Mike Eldred and Phil Aaberg CD’s (yes I am old school) ready to rock me across the Divide, a plethora of podcasts loaded for my intellectual advancement, and 3 seasons worth of clothing (this is Springtime in MT) for 4 days of travel, I departed the Flathead on a very fine Good Friday.

It was a wonderful day for a road trip! Especially on the backroads that I love. Blue skies and dry roads were abundant. As I crested the Continental Divide and saw nothing but flat land and open sky before me, the deep freeing sigh that occurs every single time escaped my being. The open road ahead of me is not only the way home but an invitation to what I lovingly call my prairie wondering. It takes me awhile to get to this place of thinking deep thoughts. The stresses of packing and repacking, dropping the talkative dog off for his staycation at the ranch, and navigating the traffic to get out of the Flathead take a while to loosen their grip.

The Big Wide Open

As I delighted in the multitude of calves finding their bearings in this great big, sometimes cold and harsh world, I couldn’t help but say a little prayer that all would be well, that all matters of being would be well – for them and for us, and yes, for me. For life has been uncertain of late – not unlike the lives of those darling mooers frolicking about in the warm sun – within moments a predator or sudden spring storm could snuff out all that was to be.

But while one could dwell in that particularly unsavory side to the cycle of life – which has been easy to do during this yearlong global pandemic (another cyclical event)  – it is all part of the eternal pattern of change and transformation. Franciscan contemplative, Richard Rohr, says that for change and transformation to happen, we must move from Order (those warm times of carefree frolicking in the sun) to “a period—or even many periods— of Disorder.” Often that means loss and disappointment. “There will be a death, a disease, a disruption to our normal way of thinking or being in the world.” The ways of being and doing are disrupted and our notions of control and certainty are displaced by a sense of restlessness, an unease with our very nature and place.

I know I have grown increasingly unsettled – despite being pretty much homebound for the last year. With the busy trappings of my pre-pandemic busy life stripped away, I have had to come to terms with the core foundation of my life – the bare essence of who I am without external forces laying claim to my identity. I haven’t always liked what I have uncovered. And I wonder if others have found themselves in the same state of dismay.  Rohr says this “is necessary if any real growth is to occur.”

The Disorder stage is all about letting go of control and stepping “out of the driver’s seat for a while,” Rohr says. (The Wisdom Pattern: Order, Disorder, Reorder [Franciscan Media, 2020].) Then we can open ourselves to Reorder, where we radically “let go and let God.” Which is why the template for “Order, Disorder, Reorder” is Jesus, who surrendered to God’s will, was crucified and was resurrected.

“Letting go and letting God” is easy to do when you’re driving across a landscape uncluttered by the demands of modern life and mirrors that dare you to compare your lot in life to those around you, not to mention bathe in the murky waters of your failures and regrets. It’s easy to hide behind the guise that while our world is plagued by righteous hate, sadness, power, fear, and judgement -thinking that I am somehow not a  part of that – until I realize that I most certainly am!  I sometimes feel I am stuck in a never ending state of the Christian observance of Good Friday – that darkest of days when all of humanity’s sin and ugliness were foisted upon a divine savior, Jesus, and hung on a cross to die a bloody death.

It’s times like that which inspire thoughts of putting the pedal to the metal and driving off into the sunset in search of an escape from it all – from me, from the world, from life – a place to start over – to start fresh.

Thankfully on this particular Good Friday, I had a rendezvous with Easter and family awaiting my arrival, which got me to thinking about which side of the cross I tend to live on on a daily basis – because Easter is not just a single spring Sunday once a year, nor is Good Friday a single dark day preceding the celebration of resurrection and new life.

Have I ever truly opened myself to the Reordering of life that God offers us – all of us – freely  – freely if I surrender all my sins, failure and regret from my inherent need to control them – have I ever paid more than lip-service to surrendering them all to Him?

As the miles (and there are a lot of them on this particular journey) rolled on, I realized just how far apart the life I am allowing myself to live is from the life God wants for me. In my heart, I felt alienated from myself. In that moment, I knew that I knew little or nothing of my own heart. I have kept my distance out of some disabling fear of what I might find. 

Henri Nouwen wrote: “Where we are most ourselves, we are often strangers to ourselves. That is the painful part of our being human. We fail to know our hidden center; and so we live and die often without knowing who we really are. If we ask ourselves why we think, feel, and act in such and such a way, we often have no answer, thus proving to be strangers in our own house.” [You Are the Beloved: Daily Meditations for Spiritual Living, by Henri J. M. Nouwen]

Jesus didn’t go to the cross for me or you to remain wallowing in fearful despair, regret, or sin. Nail those gifts from Satan to the cross, right now!  Jesus longs to make his love known to us in the seclusion of our hearts, to free us from our fears, and to make our own deepest self known to us – even the parts we would like to hide. Only through Jesus can we come to know and love ourselves so that we might love as Jesus loved. Only then can we help others know and love themselves – free of their failures, regrets and the righteous hate, sadness, power, fear, and judgement that pervades our world.

That is the side of the cross I want to live on. It’s not far away at all – it is within me and you. The journey however won’t be easy. Jesus knows that well.

Just like those calves tasting life for the first time, amid the harsh landscape of their vulnerable reality, we need a savior to tend us. Jesus knows what seeks to destroy us from within and without and He will seek you out, yes, even you wandering wretchedly in the wilderness. Jesus will bring you safely home. Jesus gladly gives you His life to fend off the wolves and promises you a reordered, resurrected life – every single day you walk with Him.

More calves than cars.

That’s a promise that will stay with you for the rest of your journey down the highways and back roads of life. You won’t always frolic in the warm sun like those Easter calves, but you will always have Jesus shortening the miles between the life you live and the life God wants for you – life on Easter’s side of the cross.

Oh, and here’s one more for the road – a timeless guitar melody that will take you places fast! Don’t Look Back Turn it up and let it all go! 

“Look at this: look!  Who got picked by God! He listens the split second I call to him. Why is everyone hungry for more? “More, more,” they say. “More, more.” I have God’s more-than-enough. More joy in one ordinary day, than they get in all their shopping sprees. At day’s end I’m ready for sound sleep, for you, God, have put my life back together.” – Psalm 4: 3, 6-8

The Message

Let your light so shine!

Looking down on home. Shining bright in God’s freeing light!

An Easter Life

Easter morning in eastern Montana

Easter is my most favorite holy day. It has a special, complex meaning for me, having been so near death myself only to be brought back and given the chance at new life and then to experience the death of my mother on Palm Sunday, bury her on Good Friday, and celebrate her new life on Easter…

Yes, this most holy of all holy days speaks to me. I never forget that only through the grace, love and hands of God do I walk this earth today, and never do I lose sight that I live each day for Him. While this new life that I now know is only temporal, it is so worth living each and every day – even the cloudy, pitiful ones. The days where I ask Him what do I matter, what purpose does my existence serve?

And then I think back to Easter – each and every Easter morning that dawned no matter how dark the times have been – knowing the crosses I have borne serve a far greater purpose than my own present preoccupied discomfort. To shine the love, the truth, and the light of our Lord as bright as I can into the lives of others even when mine is flickering, that is my desire when my feet hit the ground each morning.

Come alive again with me on this blessed day in the blood of Jesus, washed clean and free of the broken past. Find your soul restored for the journey and the work He has called us to, even when you are not certain what that is. May you find renewal, passion, redemption, forgiveness, humility, love and calling for life on this day of Resurrection. As Christ is risen today, may He arise in you!

Happy Easter!!!

“What a God we have! And how fortunate we are to have him, this Father of our Master Jesus! Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we’ve been given a brand-new life and have everything to live for, including a future in heaven—and the future starts now! God is keeping careful watch over us and the future. The Day is coming when you’ll have it all—life healed and whole.” – 1 Peter 1:3-5

The Message

Let your Light so shine!