Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

This past Sunday I had the joy and privilege of joining in worship with the people of Old First Presbyterian in downtown San Francisco.  The following sermon belongs to our ongoing series, Jesus Epithets:  All the Names Jesus Gets Called in Scripture, and takes as its inspiration John 11:17-27 and Isaiah 65:17-25.

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother.When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’” – John 11:17-27

Lazarus has already been dead now for four days. His sisters, Mary and Martha, have been going through all the customary motions of grief. The burial on the day of death. The long procession to the tomb. An even longer procession of empty-sounding words- all those well-meaning expressions of sympathy that can ring a bit hollow in the immediate clutches of great loss:

I’m so sorry for your loss.
 Let us know if there’s anything we can do.
 He’s no longer in pain.
 He knew the Lord, so he’s in a better place now.

Imagine with me for a moment that you’re Martha. Can you picture the scene? Tearful hugs and empty Kleenex boxes. Flowers and more flowers on the kitchen table. Hordes of family you haven’t seen in ages, including crazy, old Aunt Ethel. The last time you saw her she was stockpiling her purse with a second, embarrassingly large portion of meatloaf and corn muffins in the buffet line at Golden Corral. (Note to self: avoid cafeteria restaurants…)

But, oh no!, that reminds you- because when you’re Martha you’re always thinking of what needs to be done- there is still the reception for the memorial service to worry about and the caterer to call and the menu to review. Mini pigs in a blanket? Probably not. Artichoke and goat cheese crudité or tomato bruschetta? Maybe…

But, I don’t know. Do I have a choice?, you wonder?  What else is on offer?

What about a world in which loved ones don’t get sick and die? What about a world in which God actually lives up to God’s side of the bargain? What about a world in which a dear friend like Jesus who is supposed to be the Messiah, the very Son of God, shows up when it matters- when something could still have been done, when healing and recovery weren’t so out-of-this-world impossible?

Martha would rather have ordered that instead. In fact she’s already tried. Four days ago when Lazarus was in a bad way but still alive, Martha had dialed the 1-800-HELP number for God; she had pressed “send” in her g-mail account; she was sure God had gotten the message.

But God hadn’t come. God hadn’t even replied to say God had other, bigger, more pressing things to attend to, like putting out wars or rescuing the oppressed. The promise of a new heaven and a new earth in which weeping is no longer, in which the labor of our hands is not in vain, in which bad things don’t happen to good people? All this was supposed to be on the menu, or so Martha had thought, because God loved her, because she and God had been extra chummy, because God in Jesus was doing a new thing for this broken world full of broken people.

But now Martha is choosing finger foods instead for the memorial service reception; and if truth be told, Martha would still take a second chance for Lazarus over artichoke and goat cheese crudité any day.

“If only God had shown up in time,” she’s saying, like everybody else who knew and loved Lazarus.

Because when Jesus finally does show up on the scene, when he comes to Martha and says, “Your brother will rise again,” Jesus’ arrival seems too little, too late. And, maybe we can forgive Martha for dismissing Jesus’ words to her as yet another empty expression of sympathy, much in the same category as “your brother’s in a better place now.” Because Martha, like most Jews in her time, is accustomed to believing in some distant future resurrection. She knows by heart all the religious code language. If she were here today, she’d be used to reciting the Apostles’ Creed each week. “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord…I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.”

The resurrection of the body and life everlasting. It is in there after all. We mouth the words every week. And Martha knows the drill. She knows all the religiously clad niceties and to nod in agreement at them. She knows not to question polite expressions that “all will be well” someday even when inside she’s going to pieces. Martha can appreciate the utility of placating others with their own assurance that “this too shall pass,” even if there seems no immediate end in sight to the pain and the tears.

If the resurrection of the dead is some far-off reality that Martha can’t really see or touch or imagine, if it does little to comfort her now, Martha will at least lip sync her faith like most everyone else. She’ll at least stand in the receiving line for Communion. She’ll at least pretend that she really buys all the code language.

I suspect that those of us who have spent any period of time in the traditionally more churched and church-going South can identify with Martha. Some of you may be familiar with the joke about the difference between a Northern fairytale and a Southern fairytale? A Northern fairytale begins, “Once upon a time.” A Southern fairytale? “Y’all ain’t gonna believe this shit!”

But if expressive melodrama is the stuff of Southern fairytale, I venture to guess that most of us in the church, regardless of where we come from, are a little more tight-lipped and refined when it comes to airing our deepest, real-life doubts and griefs. At least in “holy” places like this one.

Resurrection of the dead? When you’ve settled into your grief for a while, when you’ve learned to accept life’s disappointments with a kind of sad but pragmatic resignation, when you’ve come to see that so much of life is learning over time to let go in the face of loss of one sort or another, “resurrection” can sound a bit concocted or artificial. Maybe even like just another retail gimmick.

The other day I happened by the Macy’s Estee Lauder cosmetics counter. The sales lady, in addition to insisting that I sit for a full make-over, was all the while singing the praises of the latest in Estee Lauder skin products. Estee Lauder’s nightly repair serum had done wonders for her skin and would for mine. Those under-eye wrinkles? Those stress lines? Those sun spots? They didn’t have to be the final story. With Estee Lauder’s nightly repair serum, I would be resurrected to a more youthful looking version of myself. (And if you have to know, she convinced me.) “Resurrection” was standing right in front of me in the shape of a very expensive, fancy-looking, one-ounce bottle, and I believed it.

But when “resurrection” is standing right in front of you in the form of a person, a person who says, “I am the Resurrection and the Life,” a person who has healed all sorts of strangers but then failed to show up for his own friends- you and your brother, Lazarus- you might not be such a sucker. You might not be eagerly grabbing for your wallet to learn that the price is simply believing.

Because we, like Martha, can catch on pretty quickly that life manages to go on in the face of death. Often mind-numbingly so. Often without rhyme or reason. If it’s not the loss of a dear friend or family member, there are all those “mini” deaths to contend with. The child we once thought had a bright future struck down by a life-threatening addiction. The relationship we once believed to be a storybook romance now in pieces. The mass lay-off at work in the job we thought we were to retire in. The untimely diagnosis of cancer. We all have our often hidden griefs to bear- those things that over time we have learned to hold quietly to ourselves. It’s hard to imagine resurrection in these places where we find ourselves saying with Martha, “if only, God.”

But many of us also know the end of this story. If Martha has reason to doubt that Jesus signifies new life in the immediate moment, the kind of spiritual rebirth that defies even death itself and will one day be embodied in a new, perfected, physical body for ourselves and for all creation, then in just a little while Martha will be obliged to change her mind. First she’ll watch Jesus become so greatly troubled- “angered” the original Greek implies- by a world in which people have to die. Then she’ll watch as Jesus in the presence of many onlookers commands Lazarus to come out of his tomb. And then the most mind-blowing, earth-shattering thing of all will happen: she’ll watch as Lazarus obeys Jesus and does in fact stumble out, as if waking from a long sleep and rubbing his eyes while accustoming himself to the light, his burial garments still clinging to his skin like a dummy come back to life.

And then and there Martha will see that there really is reason to believe that in Jesus are fulfilled all the promises of old of the prophet Isaiah. Promises of a new heaven and a new earth. Promises of a dwelling place in which weeping and suffering and death are no more, where all is put right with our broken world.

And then Martha won’t have to mouth her belief in just some theory about some distant resurrection of the dead, because then and there her theory will come to life. Like those old, dry bones the prophet Ezekiel speaks of: all those lessons she learned in Sunday school will become a living, breathing, flesh-and-bone reality.

Because when Jesus says He is the Resurrection and the Life, He is saying that God’s very nature is one of second chances. That God is as dependable as the dawning of each new day when it comes to offering us newness of life in each and every moment. And, these little spiritual rebirths are but a foretaste of a day when in God’s perfect timing the dead shall rise, when all of our paths shall be made straight, and when God’s seal of grace and truth and unending life will finally and decisively set itself upon our wayward hearts, like a lover with a long-awaited beloved.

Belief in this context is little more than surrendering. Surrendering to God’s economy of grace. Accepting that, as the poet T.S. Eliot puts it, “in my end is my beginning.”

Belief here means letting go of one’s expectations for how God should work, because resurrection never happens apart from God’s timing and on God’s own terms. And God’s timing and God’s terms, as Martha will soon discover, don’t abide by our “I-must-have-it-now” culture of instant gratification.

Frank Partnoy, a professor of law and finance at the University of San Diego School of Law, has written a book titled, Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, in which Partnoy makes the case that learning how to manage delay, or what some of us would call “procrastination,” is one of the most important lessons in life. People who can learn to wait for good things will be happier and more fulfilled, and will make better decisions, Partnoy believes.

I suspect many of us have wondered like Martha why God procrastinates so much when it comes to our own agendas. But I’m guessing this is also because God is simply a whole lot better than we are at managing delay. Maybe we, like Martha, must discover why God’s delayed ways are so far superior to our own hasty ones.

Because if resurrection is central to the very character of God, it is also entirely an act of God to which we can only surrender at any given moment.

A friend of mine who worked twelve years as a correction officer in a juvenile rehabilitation center in Kansas City, Missouri was sharing some of her stories with me the other day. I asked her what it was that kept her going in what would seem like a depressing job in one of our nation’s most depressed regions. (Kansas City apparently boasts one of the highest rates of black-on-black, inner-city violence in this country).

By way of example my friend shared her story of one boy who by the age of fourteen had spent years on the street as a hardened gang member. One day this boy, who according to my friend was not a small boy, became belligerent. My friend, seeking to restrain the boy, had grabbed him in an iron-tight bear hold. In those few, tense moments, as she stood there holding a kid who had seen far more of his fair share of death and violence in his young life, who by common parlance in my friend’s line of work was a useless “throwaway” to his parents and a ward of the state…in those moments as she held this kid who had probably not been hugged in a very long time, my friend’s heart opened and her grip on the boy relaxed. There they stood, locked in a great, big bear hug, my friend and this rough and tough kid who began to sob like a scared, little baby who just wanted for once to be held and told everything would be alright.

Resurrection. Resurrection for Martha. Resurrection for a no-nonsense correction officer and a hardened, under-age criminal. Resurrection for you and for me, too, whatever your circumstances. On God’s terms. At God’s time.

What that resurrection will look like from one person to another will vary as wildly as our circumstances this morning. Imagine with me today just one of the many possible scenarios.

Maybe you’re alone, and the old siren call is stronger than it has been in a long while. It’s telling you that you’ll never amount to anything, that you’re doomed to past mistakes and bad habits that have told you who you are for so long, that a drink or two will solve all that. The first of two remaining beers in the fridge goes down so quickly and so smoothly. And then the second. The siren call is now sounding stronger, so you’re grabbing your keys to head to the liquor store, but then the doorbell rings. You wonder momentarily whether to answer it, but then you do, and a friendly man greets you with a smile and a firm handshake. He has some materials about a charity for handicapped children.

“Could you make a donation?,” he’s asking. “Even $20 will do.”

And so you do. You write a check and you thank him for coming, and then you shut the door, and you say to yourself, “I don’t need a drink after all.”

Something in this exchange with another human being, in the simple act of showing love and in the gratitude of the recipient, awakens you once more to the serendipitous possibilities for new life that God in Jesus is holding out to you. At any given moment. New life that tastes and satisfies so much better than that can of beer in the fridge. New life that descends on your head like flames of fire, burning away all your residual griefs and what if’s and wooden pronouncements about a distant, happily ever-after, fairytale ending; summoning you instead into the presence and promise of a new heaven and a new earth in which each new day- each new moment even- can be an encounter with the One who is Himself the Resurrection and the Life.

Benediction: And now as you leave this place, may you go as a people who believe in resurrection and live like it, because of the One who gave Himself for us so that we might have life and have it abundantly. Amen.

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