The Disciple Abides

Sermon on John 15:9-17 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, PA. Audio for this sermon may be found here.

In 1998, Joel and Ethan Coen introduced us to the Dude, the main character in a movie called The Big Lebowski. I won’t summarize the whole movie for you (it’s really worth watching), but I will tell you that it follows the Dude as he gets caught up in an escalating series of predicaments in imageswhich he is used by various powerful people for their nefarious purposes. It is an homage to the film noir genre, but unlike those films, in which the protagonist tends to get so caught up in the spiral of events that he ends up in a ditch somewhere, the Dude is unperturbed and ultimately unaffected by the drama that surrounds him. Indeed, the Dude seems to practice the Zen art of detachment; nothing seems to bother him all that much. This works out well for him; by the end of the movie, in spite of everything that happens to him, the Dude is back where he started. He summarizes his resilience with a memorable phrase: “the Dude abides.”

“Abide” is one of those words that tends to show up only in very specific contexts. Even though it just means “stay” or “remain,” we tend not to use it in everyday conversation. It shows up in hymnody all the time: “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide,” “O come with us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.” And as a result of its frequent appearance in hymns, “abide” has become something of an explicitly religious word. Perhaps this is why we don’t use “abide” regularly; it is reserved for loftier purposes. But I wonder if there is a deeper reason that abide is not part of the modern lexicon. “Abide” shares a root with “abode”; if we say that we abide somewhere, we imply that we are making that place our home. “Abide” implies permanence, contentment, a sense that we are not going anywhere for a while. Is there anything that is more at odds with our contemporary preoccupation with progress than a sense of permanence? Our culture insists that we shouldn’t stay in any one place for too long, that should move out of the starter home as soon as it’s financially feasible, that we should always be on the lookout for new job opportunities, that we should always be thinking about what comes next. This impatience for what comes next is motivated by a profound anxiety that there is much more to do, much more to strive for before we can achieve peace and contentment. In this anxious cultural context, the worst thing we can possibly do is abide.

This kind of anxiety is nothing new. When Jesus gathers with his friends prior to his crucifixion, the disciples are riddled with apprehension, uncertain about what will happen next. This morning’s gospel reading comes from a section of John in which everything the disciples say betrays their trepidation: “Are you going to wash my feet?”, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, how can we know the way?”, “Lord, just show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” It’s no wonder that the disciples are anxious. After all, Jesus has predicted his execution; the disciples know that it is only a matter of time before the authorities come to arrest him. It is in the midst of this swirling anxiety that Jesus offers these startlingly simple words of assurance: “As the Father has loved me, so I love you; abide in my love.” These words are surprising because they do very little to alleviate the anxiety of the disciples; indeed, Jesus doesn’t even address their concern about what will happen next. Rather than engaging their concerns about the future, Jesus challenges the disciples to embrace the present.

This would have been countercultural for the disciples even if they weren’t worried about Jesus’ impending Passion. Much of the first century Jewish experience was about waiting for what comes next. There are two pivotal stories from the Hebrew Bible that gave shape to the way the Jewish people understood the world. One was the Exodus, the story of how God liberated God’s people from slavery and led them to the Promised Land. imagesThe other was the exile, the fact that God’s people were removed from the place God promised and forced to live in a strange land. The centrality of the exile meant that the Jewish worldview was one of yearning and expectation. This continued into the first century because even though the Jewish people lived in the land promised to them by God, they did not posses it; it was a territory of the Roman Empire. The centrality of both Exodus and exile meant much of the first-century Jewish experience was about looking to the future: the future when God would expel the foreign occupiers from the promised land, the future when the Messiah would rule with justice and equity, the future when God’s people would be free to live in peace.

So when Jesus tells his disciples to abide in his love, he challenges this worldview. And by telling his disciples to abide, Jesus taps into another deep tradition from the Hebrew Bible, one affirmed by the psalmist when he calls us to make “the Lord our refuge and the Most High our habitation.” Jesus taps into God’s promise that we will abide with God regardless of what happens to us. The story told in the Bible is the story of a God who abides with his people even when they have been cut off from everything they know. The Exodus, therefore, is not a story about a circuitous journey to the Promised Land; it is a story about a God who remains with his people as they fail and falter their way through the desert. The exile is not a story of mere deportation, it is the story of how God’s faithfulness endured even though God’s people had been removed from the promised land. Moreover, the incarnation is the embodiment of the reality that God abides among us, and the resurrection the affirmation that not even death can disrupt God’s abiding presence. Jesus challenges the disciples to recognize that God is with them even in the midst of their anxiety and uncertainty. Jesus challenges the disciples to abide in the knowledge that God’s love endures even the most difficult circumstances of their lives. Jesus challenges the disciples and challenges all of us to get out of the endless cycle of striving, to buck the culture of “what’s next,” and recognize that we have a home in God.

For many of us, the very idea of abiding is frightening. We think that if we stay in one place, the world will pass us by. We assume that in order to abide, we have to adopt the the Dude’s perspective, detached and disengaged from the world. But Jesus does not tell his disciples to abide in blissful ignorance; he tells them to abide in his love. Abiding is not just about remaining in one place oblivious to the realities of life; it is about being in a mutual, dynamic relationship with the one who created and redeemed us. We enter this relationship through worship, through the practice of sabbath. The practice of sabbath, the discipline of staying put, allows us to understand that God sustains creation even when we take a break. The discipline of sabbath allows us to understand that the time we have is a gift from God. At its best, our worship is about providing a space in which we can put away anxiety and abide in God’s love.

 

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Good is not the same as Gentle

Sermon on John 10:11-18 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Last week I had the enviable opportunity to spend time with our fourth and fifth grade Sunday school class. As is often the case whenever I talk to the youth of this parish, I was struck by their intelligence, sensitivity, and passion for the faith. Moreover, I was deeply impressed with the constructive criticism the students offered, including some carefully considered suggestions about how to improve the sermons here at The Redeemer. In fact, they had a three point plan that they suggested I bring to the next clergy meeting: 1) make sermons shorter, 2) add more humor to the presentation, and 3) be more emotional. On one level, these are the same shopworn suggestions that kids have been making to preachers since time immemorial. Conversations like these are an important part of what it means to be pastor. On a deeper level, however, these suggestions belie one of the fundamental assumptions about our culture: that everything ought to be catered to our individual desires and expectations. This consumerist assumption tends to inform everything that we do: our buying habits, our political participation, even our experience of the divine.

imagesThis morning, we are presented with one of the most well-worn symbols of our faith: Jesus as the Good Shepherd. A favorite of stained glass artists and children’s book illustrators, this image from John’s gospel is ubiquitous in our culture. As a matter of fact, when it is conflated with Luke’s parable of the lost sheep, as it often is, the tenth chapter of John gives us one of the most recognizable pictures of Jesus there is: a meek and mild savior carrying a lamb across his shoulders. For many of us, calling Jesus the Good Shepherd is a way of making him the calming presence in our lives. Even when we feel overwhelmed with the stresses and challenges of the world, we can return to the Good Shepherd, who will lovingly embrace us in his strong and gentle arms. The problem with this popular picture of Jesus the Good Shepherd is that it does not accurately depict the passage we read this morning or the vocation of a shepherd. Indeed, very little about the role of shepherds, good or otherwise, can be considered gentle at all.

In some ways, it’s no surprise that we mishear the shepherd imagery in Scripture. After all, the twenty-third psalm, the ultimate biblical job description for a shepherd, has been a source of great comfort to people of faith for thousands of years. But I think it is helpful to examine the nature of that comfort. The psalmist acknowledges that there will be times when he walks through the valley of the shadow of death, when he will suffer all that flesh is heir too. Yet even in the midst of that, he trusts in the abiding presence of his shepherding Lord. Moreover, the psalmist affirms that he is comforted by God’s rod and staff. In the ancient world, a shepherd carried both small, clublike stick (a rod) for warding off predators and a long, slender staff for directing the sheep away from danger. Occasionally, the staff would be used to yank a sheep from the edge of a cliff or shove her out of the way of an oncoming gullywasher. In other words, the shepherd’s rod and staff were not the gentlest of tools. Nevertheless, they were both designed to protect the sheep, to give them what they needed even when the animals weren’t sure what that was. I suspect that this is the source of the psalmist’s comfort: the recognition that God knows what we need even when we aren’t sure what that might be.

Francisco de Zurbarán_Agnello di Dio_c_ 1635-40_Olio su tela_cm 35,6 x 52,1_The San Diego Museum of Art
Agnus Dei (1640) by Francisco de Zubaran

This is why Jesus identifies himself as the Good Shepherd. Christ’s identity as the Good Shepherd is not an articulation of his gentleness; it is an affirmation that his mission is to give the world something that can only be given by God, something that defies the world’s expectations. Immediately after Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd,” he tells us that “the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” This statement is anything but gentle, but it is consistent with our understanding of who Jesus Christ is: the one who lays down his life in order to pick it up again, the one who gives himself to those who would betray and abandon him. The infidelity of the disciples partially stems from the fact that Jesus frustrated their expectations. The disciples and those who opposed Jesus expected him to overthrow the Roman occupiers, reestablish Israel’s glory days, and put himself at the head of a religious kingdom. As the Good Shepherd, however, Jesus eschews worldly power and becomes instead the Passover lamb, the one who is sacrificed on behalf of his people. As the Good Shepherd, Jesus gives the world not what it expects or desires, but rather what it needs.

Over the past several decades, the Church has found herself in a challenging position. The cultural primacy of the church has eroded as fewer and fewer people feel obligated to attend with any regularity. Some have suggested that reason for this decline that the Church has become irrelevant, that we are no longer in tune with the zeitgeist. Those who have made this diagnosis have a very simple prescription: we should make church participation and the Christian life as easily digestible as possible. We should cater to the tastes and interests of prospective members and “give the people what they want.” Invariably, people will frame this as the “pastoral” approach, with the understanding that “pastoral” means fading as much into the background as possible. But our text this morning reveals that the pastoral vocation, the vocation of a shepherd, is about something very different. If the gospel teaches us anything it is that God our shepherd does not necessarily give us what we want; God gives us what we need. What would it look like if the Church once again recognized that it had something the world needed, even if it didn’t know it yet? What would happen if we recognized that the true pastoral responsibility of every Christian is to recognize and proclaim that the gospel of Jesus Christ has the power to transform lives? The image of Jesus the Good Shepherd invites us to embrace these possibilities as it calls us to follow the one who defies our expectations in order to give us what we need.

Unbalanced

Sermon on John 3:14-21 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Audio for this sermon may be found here

Astrophysicists tell us that after the Big Bang, the universe was a primeval soup made of light.  From this soup emerged particles of matter, the substance of everything that exists.  Because of a physical law known as the law of conservation of charge, equal amounts of something called antimatter were also produced.  Antimatter is measurably the same as matter, except for one important distinction: it has an opposite charge.  As a result, when matter and antimatter come in contact with each other, they are annihilated.  Now, you can probably see how this is a problem.  If there is an equal number of matter particles and antimatter particles, then the universe cannot exist.  But here’s the astonishing thing that physicists can’t quite explain: for every billion particles of antimatter, there are a billion and one particles of matter.  This infinitesimal bias toward matter is the reason we are all here right now.  To put it another way, the universe as we know it would not exist without this fundamental imbalance.

452a93d93e5e881b45afb170badc4de3This morning, we heard what is almost certainly the most well-known passage of the New Testament. John 3:16 is virtually ubiquitous in our culture. It can be seen on signs at sporting events and on fast food packaging. Many Christians consider it “the gospel in a nutshell,” a shorthand for the saving work of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, the singular popularity of John 3:16 has caused us to forget that it comes from a much larger narrative.  And because this verse has been divorced from its context, it has also been robbed of its power.

Last week, we heard the story of Jesus turning over the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple and insisting that the house of God was not a marketplace. In this action, Jesus challenged one of the deeply held assumptions of the Jewish Law: the belief that the reconciliation of God to his people required the restoration of balance. The reason that there was a marketplace in the Temple was so that sinners could purchase the sacrificial animals and other materials necessary for them to pay the debts incurred by their sin and be blameless under the Law.  The entire Temple system was predicated on this specific understanding of judgment: the idea that sin upsets a delicate balance that must be restored through sacrifice and acts of contrition.  By disrupting the Temple economy, Jesus challenged this fundamental assumption about the nature of God.

In the passage we heard this morning, Jesus is speaking with someone who is thoroughly steeped in the worldview represented by the Temple system.  It’s no accident that the interaction between Jesus and Nicodemus the Pharisee appears where it does in John’s narrative.  Immediately after Jesus challenges the Temple economy of balance, one of the representatives of that system comes to Jesus in order to discern the nature of his mission.  What Jesus tells him is nothing short of astonishing: “God did not send the Son into the world in order to condemn the world.”  The word our version translates as “condemn” can more accurately be rendered “judge.”  In other words, Jesus affirms that God did not come into the world for the purpose of judgment.  While this statement may not seem radical to us, it represents an entirely new way of understanding the nature of God. Judgment was central to the Jewish Law, because the Law was all about maintaining the delicate balance between sin and righteousness. The Law was essentially about maintaining equilibrium; it prescribed specific acts of contrition for particular violations. Judgment was the underlying rationale for the Temple system, for the religious establishment, and for the way that people related to God. In this conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus rejects this understanding of God and insists that his mission is not about restoring balance or somehow providing an antidote to unrighteousness.  God’s purpose in the incarnation was not to restore the balance between sin and righteousness or good and evil; it was to transcend these categories altogether.

It is here that we can begin to grasp the true power of John 3:16.  According to this famous verse, Jesus Christ’s mission is to manifest the love of God.  Love transcends the very idea of balance.  Judgment assumes symmetry, that the scale will be level.  Love, however, is asymmetrical, wasteful, unconcerned with the idea of balance. There is no counterweight to love.  brsnake1This is part of why Jesus appropriates the story of Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness.  In the passage from Numbers, the instrument of punishment and the instrument of redemption are one and the same.  There is no “anti-serpent” that will restore balance by negating the effects of the poison.  John uses this example to articulate that the cross, an instrument of shameful death and punishment, will also become the means of redemption. Jesus does not try to bring balance by combating or providing a counterweight to the evil powers of this world. Rather, Jesus overwhelms and transcends these powers by willingly subjecting himself to death on the cross. The cross is the ultimate expression of God’s love because it is fundamentally unbalanced. This asymmetry invites us into a new way of being.

Most of the world’s religious and quasi religious traditions assume that the delicate balance of the universe has been upset and needs to be restored.  Good needs to be balanced by evil, righteousness needs to be balanced by sin, light needs to be balanced by dark.  All of these antitheses are a way of grappling with the great human dilemma: the harsh and unavoidable reality that life seems to balanced by death.  The problem with this balanced perspective is that it automatically leads us to think about the world in terms of categories.  We spend our time and energy discerning who or what is in or out, what side of the scale they represent.  The Christian witness, however, points to a very different understanding of the world. As Christians, we affirm that God’s asymmetrical love both transcends and encompasses all binary categories. There is no condition that is unaffected by God’s abundant and unbalanced love: not darkness, not sin, not even death.  This is the ultimate power of John 3:16: it is an everlasting pledge that there is nothing that can alienate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

This week, our community has grieved the tragic death of Cayman Naib.  In many ways, our response has been predictable: we have tried to figure out why Cayman took his own life and we have asked questions about the pressure we put on our children.  These responses have their place, but they are ultimately rooted in a worldview predicated on balance. These questions assume that if we do everything right, we can restore balance and prevent this from happening again.  As Christians, however, we are called to view Cayman’s death not as a problem to be solved but as a tragedy to be mourned. More importantly, we are called to entrust Cayman to the God whose love transcends both life and death. In our grief, we are called to reaffirm our trust in the words of our burial liturgy: “whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” We are called, in other words, to cling to the fundamental truth of the gospel, that there is nothing that has the power to separate us from God’s abundant and unbalanced love.

On Fruitcakes and the Incarnation

Sermon on John 1:1-18 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, PA. Audio for this sermon may be found here. To hear an abridged version of Truman Capote’s story read by the author, click here.

capote
Photograph of young Truman and his cousin taken by “the young Wistons.”

In 1956, Truman Capote published a short story about his childhood called A Christmas Memory.  It is a wonderfully evocative tale of how young Truman and his aging cousin, Miss Sook, celebrated Christmas in Depression-era rural Alabama.  The story centers around the pair’s Christmas preparations, the most important of which is the baking of thirty fruitcakes for “friends” across the country.  Capote describes how he and his cousin collect windfall pecans, purchase candied pineapple at the general store, and procure illegal whiskey from the unsmiling and terrifying Mr. Haha.  He also points out that the fruit of their considerable labor does not necessarily benefit their neighbors or relatives.  “Indeed,” he observes, “the larger share is intended for persons we’ve met maybe once, perhaps not at all. People who’ve struck our fancy. Like President Roosevelt. Like the Reverend and Mrs. J. C. Lucey, Baptist missionaries to Borneo who lectured here last winter…Or the young Wistons, a California couple whose car one afternoon broke down outside the house and who spent a pleasant hour chatting with us on the porch.”  At one point in the story, Miss Sook wonders if Mrs. Roosevelt will serve their cake at Christmas dinner.  Of course, we all know that there is no way that that could happen, that the vast majority of recipients probably didn’t know what to do with this fruitcake from these people they barely remember, and I suspect that Capote and Miss Sook understood this at some level.  Every year, however, Truman and his cousin would pool their meager savings, invest an incredible amount of time and effort, and send more than thirty fruitcakes around the country to people who might not even want them.  From a common sense perspective, this whole enterprise seems inefficient and pointless.  If Capote and his cousin were to do a cost benefit analysis, it would be very clear that that this particular Christmas ritual is a waste of time.  And yet, they embrace this task with such joy, with such enthusiasm, with such delight that everyone can see why the process of making and sending fruitcake continues to be part of their Christmas experience.

This morning, we heard the extraordinary prologue to John’s gospel.  This passage is foundational to the Christian faith, which is part of the reason that it is always read on the first Sunday after Christmas.  This text describes the fullness of God’s creative power and then proceeds to illustrate the astonishing surprise of the Incarnation.  This passage invites us to meditate on one of the central Christian mysteries: that God became one of us, that the author of all creation became part of that creation, that the Word became flesh and lived among us.  But even as John describes the incredible power of the Creator becoming part of creation, he acknowledges that not everyone recognized the Word made flesh, that not everyone embraced the reality of God with us.  John tells us that the Word, Jesus Christ, came to what was his own, but that his own people did not accept him.  It’s a peculiar reference, particularly in John’s gospel.  John’s personality is somewhat unique among the evangelists.  While Matthew, Mark, and Luke are perfectly content to depict the humanity of Jesus (all three have Jesus doubting, getting annoyed, and even getting hungry occasionally) John’s portrayal of Jesus is otherworldly and divine.  In John’s gospel, Jesus knows exactly what is going to happen to him; Jesus is initiates his own mission and he is in control of his own life and death.  So it is surprising, then, that in the sweeping introduction to his gospel, John would mention that people rejected Jesus.  The fact that people rejected the Word leads us to wonder about the purpose of the Incarnation.  The triumphal tone of John’s gospel seems to suggest the point of the Incarnation was to make Christians, to bring as many people into relationship with God through Jesus Christ as possible.  Why else would John make the distinction between those who do not receive Jesus and those who “believe in his name”?  Surely, the way to understand this distinction is that those who “believe in his name” are those who are part of the Church, whereas those who reject the Word are those outside the body of the faithful.  In this view, those who recognize the presence of God in Jesus Christ are “Incarnation success stories.”  But this leaves us wondering how it is possible for anyone to ignore the very presence of the living God among them.  If the Incarnation is all about persuading people to adopt a particular religious perspective, then the fact that some people rejected Jesus is problematic.  In fact, it means that the Incarnation was a failure, that God’s participation in history was for naught, that the Word becoming flesh was a waste of time.

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Many take great solace in the fact that Jesus knew how to throw a party.

This limited understanding of the Incarnation is only accurate from a human perspective.  John, however, makes it very clear that the Incarnation is about much more than getting people’s names on the rolls.  At the end of the prologue, John articulates the true fruit of the Incarnation: “from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”  The Incarnation is not a means of classification, it is the outpouring of God’s own self, the sharing of an unfathomable grace.  John affirms that God’s fullness is poured out abundantly, without regard for who receives it or what impact it may have or whether it will be rejected.  The Incarnation is not strategically targeted where it will be most effective; it is an extravagant, inefficient outpouring of everything that God is.  We see this illustrated in the miracle at Cana in the very next chapter of John’s gospel.  Jesus is told that the party has just run out of wine, and his response is not to make a per capita estimate based on consumption trends, but to produce more wine than anybody could possibly drink.  Like Miss Sook’s fruitcakes, the Incarnation is not about precise calculation; it is about the expression of joy and delight.  The Incarnation cannot be a failure because its only objective is to bring the fullness of God’s abundant grace into creation.

We live in a time when the message we proclaim during this Christmas season is not always well received.  If people are not hostile to our proclamation of “good news,” they are often indifferent.  For many people, the central figure of the Christmas season is not Jesus, but Santa Claus.  Our tendency is to respond to this situation either diagnostically or defensively.  Either we attempt to calculate exactly who we need to attract and how we can market the gospel to them or we angrily respond with “Merry Christmas” when people wish us a happy holiday.  Today, however, we are reminded that we are not called to diagnose or defend, but to live our lives with joy, to experience life aware of the abundant grace that God has extravagantly poured upon creation.  We are called to be beacons of this grace, and we are called to embrace this Christian vocation with such joy, with such enthusiasm, and with such delight that everyone can see how we have been shaped by the fullness of God’s grace.

Witnesses

imagesToday is the day that the Episcopal Church commemorates the martyrdom of Constance and her companions.  Constance was the Superior of the Sisters of St. Mary in Memphis, TN, an order founded in conjunction with that city’s Cathedral and a parochial girl’s school.  The Church, however, commemorates her life not for her academic or liturgical pursuits, but for her response to tragedy.

In 1878, Memphis was ravaged by Yellow Fever, the third such outbreak in ten years.  St. Mary’s Cathedral was located at the epicenter of the epidemic, and while tens of thousands of people fled the city to escape the disease, Constance and her companions remained behind to care for the sick and give comfort to the dying.  All but two of the workers succumbed to Yellow Fever and died.  They are now remembered as “the Martyrs of Memphis” and have memorials dedicated to them at Elmwood Cemetery and St. Mary’s Cathedral.

The gospel lesson appointed for the commemoration of Constance and her companions is John 12:24-28, a passage that is appointed for the feast days of several other martyrs.  The words of this passage are familiar: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”  When read in the context of martyrdom, the interpretation of this verse seems obvious: if you are faced with the possibility of dying for your faith, you should take it, because the reward will be eternal life.  This is, however, a rather simplistic and probably erroneous way to read the words of Jesus in John’s gospel.  For John, “eternal life” refers not primarily to “life in heaven” or even “life after death,” but rather to “the eternal kind of life,” a life shaped by an awareness of eternity.  Jesus is saying that if we cling to the notion that our life, that our happiness, that our comfort is the most important thing in the world, than we will lose our ability to focus on the larger realities of life.  If, on the other hand, we realize that we are called to give of ourselves, to “lose” our lives for others, then we can live a life that is shaped by an awareness of eternity.

fever-elmwood-marker_smallThe word “martyr” comes from the Greek word for “witness,” and it occurs to me that this is precisely what Constance and her companions did.  Even as a community was ravaged by disease, these martyrs stood by the beds of those who were suffering and bore witness to their humanity.  These martyrs stood in a makeshift hospital and bore witness to the fact that God was present in that place.  These martyrs stood by the beds of the dying and bore witness to the fact that they were loved.

And in this sense, we can all be martyrs.  As our brothers and sisters in poverty struggle to make ends meet, we can bear witness to their humanity.  As war and disease  ravage parts of this world, we can bear witness to the presence of God among us.  As we come face to face with those who have been rejected by society, we can bear witness to the fact that they are loved.  When we bear witness to the love of God made known in Jesus Christ, we are empowered to live an eternal kind of life as we lose ourselves in service to others.

Limitless

imgresOne of the most striking elements of the West Texas landscape is the almost boundless sense of space.  Driving north to Lubbock or west to Odessa, it is easy to be overwhelmed by how far one can see, by how little gets in the way of one’s vision.  Where I come from, the only place you can see any distance is near the ocean (there are too many trees or hills in the way elsewhere); but in West Texas, you can see for miles and miles wherever you turn.  Of course, the boundlessness of the landscape allows West Texans to experience a wide variety of natural phenomena that others have a hard time imagining: spectacularly terrifying thunderstorms that you can see coming long before they arrive, towering dust storms that blot out the sun, and glorious sunrises and sunsets that seem to fill the entire world with uncreated light.  The landscape of West Texas is beautiful not because of what it features, but because it is not hemmed in by limits or boundaries.

There is a level at which the boundlessness of the landscape shapes the way that West Texans look at the world.  As a result of the fact that, in the words of one humorist, “West Texas is the world headquarters of nothing,” residents of this area are inclined to believe that you have to make your own way in this world, that no one is going to show you what steps you have to take to move forward.  And since the landscape of this region is not hemmed in by limits or boundaries, West Texans are inclined to believe that nearly anything is possible, that there are no limits on what we are capable of doing if we set our minds to it.  Both the landscape and ethos of West Texas are shaped by an abiding sense of limitlessness, a belief that the obstacles in front of us are temporary, a feeling that nearly anything is possible.

Over the past several weeks, we have heard stories from John’s gospel that involve Jesus encountering another person in a significant way.  At the beginning of Lent, Jesus had his nighttime conversation with Nicodemus.  The following week, Jesus met and had a flirtatious conversation with a Samaritan woman.  And last week, Jesus healed a blind man, who proceeded to have a protracted dispute with the religious authorities.  It occurs to me that the theme running through all of these stories (apart from being very long and making us stand for long periods of time) is that these encounters with Jesus lead people to reevaluate the limited way they look at the world.  Nicodemus wonders why Jesus and the Pharisees seem to interpret Scripture in such different ways; Jesus encourages Nicodemus to change the way he understands his relationship with God.  The Samaritan woman lives in light of the shameful identity given to her by her community; Jesus tells her that the only identity she should focus on is her status as a child of God.  The man born blind is told by the religious authorities that his condition means that he is sinful; by giving this man sight, Jesus affirms that categories like “righteous” and “sinful” are far too simple to characterize the abundant love of God.  In these encounters, Jesus moves his hearers from rigidity to openness, from shame to acceptance, from simplicity to complexity, from limits to possibility.

And the encounter described in today’s reading from John’s gospel is also meant to encourage us to reevaluate how we look at the world.  You know this story well, because it is easily one of the most dramatic in the New Testament.  It’s no wonder that this story is a favorite of those who have chronicled the life of Jesus on film.  In several movies, the raising of Lazarus is the climactic end of the second act, the moment that demonstrates how important and powerful this Jesus really is.  In many ways, the story of Lazarus is the pivotal moment in John’s gospel.  Beginning in chapter twelve, Jesus begins to prepare his disciples for his death.  He and his disciples are no longer out in public, but are in houses and upper rooms.  And though John tells us that the authorities have tried to stone Jesus a handful of times in the previous chapters, it is after the raising of Lazarus that the authorities actually begin planning to execute Jesus.  This leads us to ask: what is so important about the raising of Lazarus?  What is it that changes after Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb?  What is it about this event that makes the authorities decide that Jesus is too dangerous to live?

On one hand, the answers to these questions seem pretty obvious.  After all, Jesus raised someone from the dead and demonstrated how powerful he really is.  Perhaps a lot of people heard about Jesus’ ability to raise the dead and decided to become his followers.  The authorities, in other words, were afraid of Jesus just like they would be afraid of any charismatic leader who bucks the status quo.  On the other hand, this answer seems a little simplistic.  Roman authorities were pretty good at quashing popular movements that questioned their power.  The idea that they would have been particularly worried about a Jewish rabbi, even one who could magically raise the dead, is fairly unlikely. There is a deeper reason for the apprehension of the authorities, and it is tied to the transformation that Jesus effects among the mourners gathered around the tomb of Lazarus.

Caravaggio's "Raising of Lazarus"
Caravaggio’s “Raising of Lazarus”

There are three moments in this story that we should pay attention to.  First, even before Jesus arrives at Bethany, there is an interesting exchange between Jesus and his disciples.  The disciples remind their teacher that the last time he was in Judea, the people there tried to kill him.  The implication of the disciples is clear: “You probably shouldn’t go, because you might end up dead. Worse still, we might wind up dead!”  Nevertheless, Jesus ignores the disciples’ fears, ignores the prospect of death, and travels to Bethany to meet his friend.  The second moment we need to consider occurs when Jesus arrives.  John tells us that Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days; he is, in other words, good and dead.  The dead man’s sisters accost Jesus, telling him that if he had been there, their brother wouldn’t have died.  In the same way, the crowds say, “This guy opened the eyes of the blind; certainly he could have restored Lazarus back to health, but here we are, mourning his death.”  In response to all of this, John tells us that Jesus is greatly disturbed and begins to weep.  The crowds assume that he is weeping for his friend, but it is pretty clear that Jesus is weeping for the people around the tomb, the people who are completely paralyzed by the death of Lazarus.  Finally, notice that the climax of this story is not when Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb; rather, it is when Jesus tells the startled onlookers to “Unbind him, and let him go.”

These three moments in the story of Lazarus point to a meaning that goes beyond its surface. Sure, this is certainly a miraculous account of someone being raised from the dead, but there is far more to this story.  Throughout most of John’s account, the people surrounding Jesus are paralyzed by their fear of death: the disciples don’t want to go to Judea because they are afraid they might die, Mary and Martha tell Jesus that he could have prevented Lazarus from dying if he had just been there, and the crowds are lingering around the tomb even four days after Lazarus’ funeral.  For the most part, Jesus does not react to the fact that Lazarus has died; instead, he reacts to the fear of death exhibited by the people around him.  He goes to Bethany in spite of the disciples’ warning, he tells Martha to trust even in the face of uncertainty, and he weeps because the crowds are imprisoned by their fear of death.  And so, in the climactic moment of the story, Jesus tells the crowds around the tomb to unbind Lazarus, to free him from the prison of death, and by doing so he invites the people gathered around him to free themselves from fear, to let themselves be unbound from the specter of death.  In his encounter with Lazarus, Jesus moves those around him not from sorrow to happiness, not from despair to hope, not even from death to life, but from fear to fearlessness.

Ultimately, this is why the raising of Lazarus impels the authorities to execute Jesus.  As far as they’re concerned, the only unassailable power that tyrants have is the power to take people’s lives.  This is why the preferred method of execution in the Roman Empire was crucifixion: by executing dissidents in a public and humiliating way, the Roman occupiers instilled fear among those who might want to rebel.  But when Jesus comes along and liberates people from the fear of death, those in power are suddenly impotent; without the fear of death, tyrants have no power to control people.  By freeing people from their prisons of fear, Jesus instilled fear among the authorities of this world, demonstrating to them that their power is ultimately fleeting and is coming to an end.  By raising Lazarus from the dead and then going willingly to the cross, Jesus demonstrates to us that we have nothing to fear, that when we ground our lives in God, we are not enslaved to limits, but are empowered to embrace possibility.

There are many times in our lives that we are imprisoned by fear.  Sometimes, we are afraid to try new things because we’re worried that we might fail.  Sometimes, we are afraid to reach out to someone we’ve never met because we’re afraid we might be embarrassed.  Sometimes, we’re willing to arm ourselves behind locked doors because of some vague fear of the unknown.  But by raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus reveals to us that our lives are not shaped by success or failure.  By raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus invites us to risk ourselves and be in relationship with those who are different than we are.  By raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus shows us that we have nothing to fear.  In these final weeks of Lent, I encourage you to embrace this fearlessness, to turn away from perceived limits, and to acknowledge that anything is possible.

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If you were to do Gospel of John Mad Libs, you might end up with the passage we read in church this morning.  John 9 has a little bit of everything: the healing of a blind man, disputes with the Pharisees, controversies around the Sabbath, and the inability of two groups of people to understand what the other is saying.  The chapter is essentially a list of John the Evangelist’s greatest hits.  In spite of this implicit richness, there are many who are inclined to read this as a simple story of a miraculous healing: Jesus makes mud, spreads it on some guy’s eyes, and he is able to see, even though he was born blind.  This is understandable in some ways.  After all, the man’s story about what happened to him is pretty simple: “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.”  He repeats a version of this several times throughout the passage, always with the same dry rehearsal of the facts.

imgresI think the reason for the man’s repetition, however, is not that this is a simple story, but because the dry rehearsal of the facts exposes the tension between Jesus and the religious authorities.  Notice that at the beginning of this passage, the disciples wonder aloud who was responsible for the man’s blindness.  John includes this detail in part to illustrate how the religious authorities of the day viewed the world.  For them, physical capacity was automatically associated with how sinful or righteous you were.  If you were strong and healthy, the likelihood was that you were righteous.  If you were physically infirm, the likelihood was that you or someone close to you was sinful.  This distinction led the religious authorities to make determinations about who was “in” or “out” based on their understanding of people’s relative righteousness or sinfulness.  John also argues that this led the religious authorities to look at everyone in terms of these categories of “righteous” or “sinful,” in terms of whether they were “in” or “out.”

This is ultimately the source of the misunderstanding between the man born blind and the Pharisees.  The Pharisees looked at a man who had been blind from birth, a man firmly in the “sinful” category, and saw that he was no longer blind, that he could no longer easily be considered “sinful.”  Instead of reevaluating their categories, the Pharisees try to prove that there’s no way the man could have actually been healed from his blindness.  It’s almost hilarious: they assume that the guy is impersonating the real blind beggar, they ask his parents to explain what’s going on, they repeatedly tell the man that he was born in sin.  In the meantime, the man repeats over and over, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”  The Pharisees refuse to recognize that the man has been healed, because in their worldview, people born in sin do not change, and are certainly not changed by people who don’t observe the Sabbath.  The Pharisees refuse to change the way they look at the world.  They refuse to see beyond their limited categories of “sinful” and “righteous,” and so they fail to recognize the truth when it stares them directly in the face.

While the Pharisees are clearly in the wrong in this passage, I suspect that more than a few of us have shared a worldview with the religious authorities of John’s gospel at some point in our lives.  We like to put things in categories, to keep things organized.  When we are organizing our closets, this is not a bad thing.  But this is a dangerous habit to indulge when we are talking about other human beings.  When we look at a person and make a determination about who he is based on how he looks, we are falling into the same trap as the Pharisees.  When we think we know a person just because we know where she’s from, we are failing to recognize the truth.  God calls us to look beyond our limited worldviews and appreciate the people of this world for who they are and who they can be, instead of who we think they ought to be.