We have had several remarkable stories from the Gospel of John during this Lenten season: Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus talking with the Samaritan woman, Jesus healing the man born blind, and now Jesus bringing Lazarus back from the dead.
These last two are in a group categorized as “signs.” Sign stories include turning water into wine, healing the cripple in the pool, healing the man born blind, and feeding the five thousand. A sign story is a miraculous act of Jesus surrounded or followed by a theological discussion of its meaning. Sign stories usually show Jesus is acting in his own time and not according to external pressures. The primary function of a sign story is revelation, revealing some truth about God’s glory and presence in the world through Jesus’ ministry.
This particular story is a little more complicated because it is about Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, and at some level, we know Mary and Martha (if not Lazarus) more personally than the cripple in the pool, the man born blind and the multitudes who ate loaves and fishes.
From Luke’s account of Mary and Martha, we have already seen Jesus in their domestic setting. I’ve always felt a great deal of empathy with Martha, the sister who was “distracted with many things.” We tend to be a little judgmental towards her as she is portrayed in Luke’s Gospel, busily working in the kitchen while Jesus was teaching in their home, complaining to Jesus that her sister Mary wasn’t helping. However, keep in mind that Martha was also an active presence in that story and in today’s Gospel; she is the family member who goes out to meet Jesus in today’s story and who calls her sister to go to Jesus. Martha is also the first to correctly acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God.
And then there is Mary….
We tend to see her portrayed as the mystic, the dreamer, the one sitting passively at Jesus’ feet. However, bear in mind that in Luke’s account, Mary had adopted the form of a disciple at the feet of his rabbi, a role that would have been scandalous for a woman in her day. She is also the one who, in a few more short verses ahead in John’s Gospel, will enter a room full of men, let down her hair and anoint Jesus’ feet with costly ointment, wiping it away with her hair. I think we are too quick to discount how radical Mary’s actions really are.
And then, there’s Lazarus. Truth be told, we don’t know much about Lazarus but we do know that Jesus loved him and Mary and Martha, and at the beginning of this reading their little family is in crisis.
I think all of us here have experienced family crises before and know that they have some characteristics in common. For one thing, there is always an element of imminent danger. At the beginning of this story, we know that Lazarus is ill and in danger of dying. We may forget that Jesus is also in danger in this story. If he returns to Bethany, which is very near Jerusalem, he is likely to be in danger from the authorities. His disciples know this and warn him. We can certainly presume that Mary and Martha also know this, but despite this very real threat to their dear friend, they are desperate and know that they must reach out to him for help.
In crisis situations, there is usually the possibility of miscommunication with other people. Look at the conversations Jesus has with his disciples in this story! They seem unable to grasp the idea that Lazarus’s “sleep” is something other than a temporary nap! Jesus finally has to be blunt and say that Lazarus has indeed died and that he is going to Bethany to wake him.
Crisis situations can be emotional roller coasters. Mary and Martha both react to Jesus’ return with what might be construed as a rebuke (“If you had been here, this wouldn’t have happened”) followed by a statement of faith. Jesus likewise enters the scene in confidence but is overwhelmed by his own emotions when he sees the grief that surrounds Lazarus’ death. The words used to describe his grief also can be translated as describing strong emotion such as anger: is Jesus, the Lord of Life, perhaps overcome by anger at the grief and misery Death can cause?
So, a crisis can produce danger, miscommunication, high emotions. But a crisis can also be a turning point. That is what we see here. This is not just about one family’s crisis but the redemption of the world.
The puzzling question about this story seems to be: why did Jesus wait? Why did he hesitate when he received news of Lazarus’ illness? The answer goes back to the idea of “signs” which Jesus did in his own time and which reveal a truth of God’s presence in the world.
We remember Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding in Cana. Think about how his first response to his mother’s request seems almost brusque (“My hour has not yet come”)?
Jesus likewise responds to news of Lazarus’ illness by saying it will be “for the glory of God and the Son of God will be glorified by it.” To the disciples he says that it will be “so that you may believe.” He promises Martha that she will see the glory of God:
“I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.”
The raising of Lazarus is a definitely a turning point for Mary and Martha, returning their beloved brother to his place in the family. A journey from despair to hope, from sorrow to joy.
The raising of Lazarus is also a turning point in Jesus’ story. Next week we will celebrate Palm Sunday and begin Holy Week but the raising of Lazarus is really where the Passion narrative begins. For the high priests and Pharisees, this act is the final straw and they begin to plan how they might put Jesus to death. As Jesus says to roll away the stone from Lazarus’ tomb, he is facing his own impending death and the stone on his own tomb.
And this story is a turning point for all of us in the church. As Jesus calls Lazarus forth, he is calling all of us to life, promising that if we believe, though we die yet shall we live. Jesus tells us: “I am the resurrection and the life.” This story is not about the resolution of one family’s crisis but instead the redemption of the world. As Fred Caddock phrased it: “Faith is always first generation, with an immediacy about it that does not distinguish between our being there and his being here.”
Easter is coming!
If you have ever tried to row a boat, you know that to go forward you have to pull with both oars. If you only paddle on one side of the boat, you will end up just going around in circles! In fact, to say that someone “doesn’t have both oars in the water” means that they don’t know what they are doing and they are just being foolish.
James is talking about the two oars that pull us forward in Christian living: faith and works. You must have both or you will end up just running around in circles! Just talking about faith doesn’t mean you have it. For example, if you see an old friend dressed in rags and starving and you say “Jesus loves you! Have a great day!” but you don’t do anything to help them, your “faith” isn’t real.
James says: “I by my works will show you my faith.” Good works alone aren’t enough; we don’t “earn” our way into heaven by doing more good deeds than the other people around us. We certainly don’t do good deeds to make ourselves look important or to feel good. Instead, our good works are a response to the faith we have in God and a way we make that faith visible to everyone around us.
Faith and works are so closely tied together that they are like a physical body and the spirit of the person who lives in that body. If you take away the life spirit of that person, the body by itself would be dead. Faith without some sort of works is dead too. Take a moment today to think about how you respond to God’s love? What are your works of faith?
And try to keep both oars in the water!
Mark 10: 35-45
Today we remember the life of Eric Henry Liddell (1902-1945), a famous Scottish athlete and missionary. He was the winner of the Men’s 400 meter race at the 1924 Summer Olympics held in Paris. The story of that race has been portrayed in the movie Chariots of Fire. Liddell withdrew from the 100 meter race because he refused to run on a Sunday. He trained for the 400 meter race, not only winning it but breaking the existing world record of 47.6 seconds.
You may remember a famous quote from Eric Liddell: “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast! And when I run I feel his pleasure.”
Born into a missionary family in China, Liddell also returned there to serve as a missionary from 1925 until 1943 when he was sent to a Japanese concentration camp. He died there of a brain tumor in 1945.
In the Gospel reading today, the disciples are at it again. Once more, they have failed to understand Jesus’ message and mission. One commentator has said that, at least in Mark’s Gospel, the disciples should more likely be called the “duh-ciples.”
James and John, sons of Zebedee, come forward and ask Jesus to do for them “whatever we ask of you.” What they ask is to be seated at Jesus’ right and left hand–places of honor– when he comes in his glory. (In Matthew’s version of this story, James and John’s mother is the one who steps forward to ask this. Perhaps at their request?)
Jesus tries to explain to them how difficult these positions truly will be: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”
Undeterred, they respond: “We are able.”
When they hear this, the rest of the disciples “began to be indignant” at James and John.
After all, these are just the Zebedee boys, former fishermen, who have been traveling alongside the rest of the disciples all this time.
Just who do they think they are, anyway?
It’s easy for us to be pretty hard on the disciples, James, John, and the rest of the indignant ones. After all, we have the advantage of two thousand years of church history. We know Christ crucified and Christ risen.
Reading this story got me thinking about tough questions I have faced in my own discernment journey, ones that I’m sure everyone else here has had wrestled with. When I first felt I was discerning a call to the diaconate, I was asked:
Why do you want to be ordained?
What could you do as an ordained person that you couldn’t do as a lay person?
What could you do as a lay person that you couldn’t do as an ordained person?
And though no one else ever put it in so many words, the question I sometimes heard and the one I was sometimes asking myself was:
Just who do you think you are, anyway?
Early on, one person told me that if I was ordained, I would be “an icon of service.”
An “icon”? What does that mean? How could that be?
And yet, like the rest of you here, I continued to say: “Yes, I am able.”
Perhaps we should not fault James and John in their request. They had, after all, been with Jesus from the beginning. Along with Peter, they were included in experiences when the rest of the disciples were sometimes left behind. It’s true that their understanding of the coming Kingdom probably had more vestiges of a conquering Messiah than a Servant Leader, but perhaps they were doing what we would call “stepping up.” Showing initiative and just a little ambition.
Our society values initiative, drive, ambition, hard work. Those of us in this room are people who work hard, who get things done. We are “icons of service” in one sense because people know they can depend on us. We are “able,” like James and John.
But though we know more of Jesus’ story than they did during this episode, I’m not sure that we fully know what it will mean to drink the cup and be baptized with the baptism of Jesus. But we stand and we ask to serve, doing our best to balance this audacious request to be leaders on the one hand with humility and the commitment to follow Jesus in service on the other hand.
Just who do we think we are, anyway?
There is a great quote which is sometimes mistakenly attributed to Nelson Mandela but actually comes from the pen of Marianne Williamson:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be so brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightening about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just some of us; it is everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
Perhaps that is what it means to be an icon: manifesting the glory of God, letting our own light shine, our presence and example helping to liberate those around us to also manifest the glory of God. And in doing so, as Eric Liddell said, “to feel God’s pleasure.”
I used to live in southern Kentucky before we moved back to Florida. In Bowling Green, we definitely had four seasons and we usually had a cold winter; however, we didn’t typically get snow all through winter. Sometimes we would get a light “dusting” and sometimes we might get a few inches. Sometimes the weatherman predicted snow and school would be cancelled but no snow appeared. Even when we did get what we would consider to be a “big” snow, it only lasted a few days and then melted away.
However, whenever there was any mention of snow in the forecast, people just went crazy about stopping by the grocery and getting bread and milk! Everyone did it! If you didn’t get to Kroger quickly the shelves would just be bare. We even joked that the weatherman was working with the grocery stores to drive up their sales. But we all still worried. What will we do? We might run out of bread!
The disciples in today’s story do the same thing. They are in the boat with Jesus and they realize that they only brought one loaf of bread with them! What will they do? They might run out of bread!
Now, keep in mind that they had just seen Jesus feed five thousand people and then four thousand more with just a few loaves bread and a few small fish. Even having witnessed these miracles, they are still worried about where their next meal.
Jesus tells them to watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod. For us today yeast usually comes in little packets in the grocery store but yeast is very important because yeast is what makes bread rise and become loaves. The yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod, on the other hand, is not a good thing. It is those little doubts and worries that make us grow more and more worried and afraid instead of increasingly trusting and faithful.
In today’s reading, Jesus is reminding his disciples that God knows what they need and will provide for them every day. We too can remember that Jesus is our good shepherd. When we start wondering if our basic needs might not be met, we need to remember to allow God to supply real food and what is truly essential.
And there will always be, not just enough, but WAY more than we can begin to hope for or imagine!
Writing poetry by the age of 8, as a child she was zealous in memorizing the Bible, usually completing five chapters a week. She became a student in the New York Institute for the Blind, remaining there afterwards as a teacher. Though the principal at one point asked her to give up the “distraction” of writing poetry, others recognized her gifts. As a visiting phrenologist said:
“Here is a poetess. Give her every possible encouragement. Read the best books to her and teach her the finest that is in poetry. You will hear from this young lady some day.”
And they did! As a young woman, she was addressing Congress and, throughout her life, knew all the Presidents.
She was under contract to write three hymns a week for her publisher but she often wrote six or seven in a day. She knew how to play a variety of instruments and occasionally set her words to music but more often musicians brought music to her and she wrote the words.
William Doane dropped by her house one day on his way to catch a train to an upcoming Sunday School convention. He needed words for a tune he had composed for the convention but he only had 35 minutes before his train would be leaving. He played the tune once. Fanny scribbled out some words immediately and said: “Your music says ‘Safe in the Arms of Jesus.’ Read it on the train and hurry. You don’t want to be late!” It became one of her most famous hymns.
I am sorry to say that the 1982 Episcopal hymnal unfortunately includes none of Fanny Crosby’s hymns; however, those of us with Baptist roots (and Baptist grandmothers) have a great fondness for her writing.
It is particularly fitting that the selections today deal with sight and blindness. The Gospel reading is quite short but references a much longer story in the Gospel of John. The disciples had asked Jesus if a certain man, blind from birth, was born blind due to his sin or that of his parents? Confuting the commonly held notion that suffering is deserved because it comes from sin, Jesus replies that neither the blind man nor his parents have sinned causing the blindness.
And he heals the man.
What follows is a somewhat lengthy process of discovery for the formerly blind man. His neighbors question whether he is the man they knew as blind or just resembles that man. He tells them about his process of healing but admits that he doesn’t know who Jesus is or where he has gone.
The Pharisees question him since his healing has occurred on a Sabbath, breaking the Sabbath laws. They are divided in their response to the man’s testimony. How can this healer be a man of God if he doesn’t keep the Sabbath? But how could he accomplish this healing if he is not a man of God?
Unable to accept the witness of the formerly blind man, they call in the man’s parents for verification of his identity. The parents confirm the identity of the man but perhaps in fear say he is of age and can speak on his own behalf. What follows is a wonderful exchange of words and wits in which the Pharisees become increasingly more frustrated and the healed man more and more outspoken and also, a bit ironic.
Whether he is a sinner, I do not know; one thing I know, that though I was blind, now I see.
I have told you already and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you too want to become his disciples?
Why, this is a marvel! You do not know where he comes from and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if any one is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him. Never since the world began has it been heard that any one opened the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.
Lord, I believe….
I once was blind but now I see.
Three times the blind man humbly confesses his ignorance, knowing only the irrefutable fact that a miracle has occurred and he now has sight. Three times the Pharisees pass from awareness through a growing darkness, plunging into a spiritual blindness.
I wonder if that is not how we all come to know Jesus? We long for healing, we instinctively reach forward, to “touch the hem of his garment” as it were. Suddenly, from our blindness, we are blinking in bold daylight.
And, as tonight’s reading from 1st Peter says:
“Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”
Mark 7: 14-23
I am a vegetarian. (Mostly.)
Technically, I am a pescetarian, meaning I still eat fish but not meat. I made the jump a to a mostly plant-based diet few years ago, following the example of my daughter and other folks I knew who had given up eating meat. I did it for philosophical reasons, for ethical reasons, and generally speaking, because I was trying to live a more healthy life.
The true vegetarians I know truly never eat meat. Never ever. They just don’t. I can’t say that I am that disciplined. I can’t really bypass turkey at Thanksgiving. I usually will eat meat when visiting my mother. (Whatever she serves, I will eat.) If I am at a luncheon or banquet and there are no vegetarian main dish options offered, I’ll eat a lot of vegetables (but I’ll probably take a little meat too).
I feel a little guilty about it when I have meat. If you are going to choose a certain lifestyle and tell people that you follow that lifestyle, it seems hypocritical to back down from that for the sake of convenience.
I think: The true vegetarians I know must be better people than me, because they would be more careful about what they put in their stomachs.
Of course, if I’m living a relatively healthy life style, whether I eat meat now and then or not doesn’t really matter.
For example, as a vegetarian, do I have the right to criticize those of you who would have a Big Mac and fries for lunch? As a person who eats meat regularly, do you have the right to criticize my decision not to eat hamburger or chicken?
Jesus was talking to folks who thought whether or not you were following Jewish dietary laws determined whether you were righteous or not. Jesus tries to straighten out their thinking on this. No food is inherently “evil” and nothing you eat that passes through your stomach will defile you as a person.
Instead, it’s what comes out of your heart that can defile you. All kinds of evil intentions and unkind words can come out of our hearts and muddy our lives like pollution in a mountain stream.
Jesus says to stop blaming secondary things like food and drink for our lack of righteousness. It’s time to take responsibility for what we bring forth from inside ourselves and live our lives as disciples of the risen Lord. It’s time to live by the greater law of love which Jesus teaches us.
Mark 3:1-5 tells the story of Jesus healing a man with a withered hand. This miracle was overshadowed by the fact that Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath, breaking the religious laws of his time. I think we have a hard time understanding this, since not only are our hospitals open on Sunday but so too are restaurants, grocery stores, and pretty much any retail service we might want.
Many of the New Testament stories are very familiar to us, so familiar in fact that they tend to lose their ability to surprise us. It might help to imagine yourself as a character in this story. How would you feel? What would you think? How would you react?
What if you were the man with the withered hand? You go to the synagogue on the Sabbath. Your life has been changed by your withered hand: you can’t work and earn your living as you would like. You go to the synagogue but you aren’t really expecting things in your life to change. The doctors haven’t been able to help. You know the religious leaders can’t heal you on the Sabbath, if they could heal you at all.
But, yet, you go and this stranger calls you out. Suddenly you are in the spotlight and everyone is quiet and you don’t know why. And then the stranger speaks and your hand has become whole! What would you say to this man? How would your life be different?
What if, instead, you were one of the crowd watching Jesus? He asks if it is lawful to do good or do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or kill. Perhaps you didn’t know what to say. Everyone had gotten quiet. Will you be in trouble if you say the obvious, that we should save life even on the Sabbath?
And then this man is miraculously healed. Do you say something to Jesus? “Good job”, perhaps?
Perhaps you decide right then and there that you should follow this man, because he has shown that love is the greatest of all commandments.
Today we celebrate St Agnes, a Christian martyr who died in Rome around 304 during the last and fiercest round of persecutions of Christianity by Roman emperors. Agnes’ name means “pure” in Greek and “lamb” in Latin. She is thought to have been only about 12 or 13 at the time of her death. (Her remains are preserved in St Agnes’ Church in Rome and offer confirmation of this.) It is also thought that her death at so young an age shocked the Romans and helped bring an end to the persecutions. As one commentator has offered:
“Some said, ‘It is contrary to Roman law to put a virgin to death. Our leaders say that it is necessary to kill Christians in order to preserve the old Roman ways: but they are themselves scorning those ways in the process.’
Others said, ‘Do young girls constitute such a threat to Rome that it is necessary to kill them?’
Others said, ‘If this religion can enable a twelve-year-old girl to meet death without fear, it is worth checking out.’
Today’s Gospel reading is from Matthew 18. The disciples have asked a question which seems to always weigh heavily for them: Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? Jesus calls a child to stand in the midst of them and reminds them that unless they change and become like children, they will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
I wondered as I read this how we should understand what a child might represent in Jesus’ time?
On the one hand, Biblical times seem like a barbaric time to be a child. There are stories in the Old Testament that make us cringe. (Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac is one with which I always struggle.)
For us today, childhood has been expanded well beyond when young people were considered adults in Jesus’ time. It is a time of education and play, growth and development, under the sheltering protection of loving families.
Except when it is not.
There are too many children in our country and around the world who live in extreme poverty, where daily existence is a matter of fighting for survival. There are too many children right here in our neighborhood who live in abusive, violent environments and our laws often do not afford protection for them. Our society tends to ignore the needs of these most vulnerable members. And we even exploit some who may not be as visibly fragile, using them to market everything from breakfast cereal to cars and, in the entertainment industry, creating the Justin Biebers, Brittany Spears, and even Honey Boo-Boos of our time.
What does it mean to become a child and a part of the Kingdom?
Most of us see this scene with Jesus as we remember it from Sunday school representations. A golden-haired Jesus next to a fair-headed, angelic small child who is radiating light and peace. It is a sentimental, overly idealized picture and I wonder how useful such an image really is for us interpreting this passage. Jesus didn’t speak in platitudes or clichés. I wonder how he might have gotten the attention of his disciples and the rest of those present?
Maybe it wasn’t that a tiny blonde tyke that he placed in their midst. Maybe it was that scruffy looking kid whose face and hands were still sticky from breakfast. The one who had been teasing his sister and pulling the dog’s tail and generally making everyone present wish that his mother–and where was she, anyway?–would pack him up and take him home.
How might the disciples respond to that? Maybe they would be as shocked as Nicodemus was when Jesus told him he would have to be born again. I don’t understand. How could this be possible? How could I become a child again? Why would I want to?
Theologian Frederick Buechner has an interesting interpretation of this passage:
Jesus was not being sentimental. He was saying that the people who get into heaven are people who, like children, don’t worry about it too much. They are people who, like children, live with their hands open more than their fists clenched. They are people who, like children, are so relatively unburdened by preconceptions that if somebody says there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, they are perfectly willing to go take a look for themselves.
Children aren’t necessarily better than other people. Like the child in ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes,’ they are just apt to be better at telling the difference between a phony and the real thing.
Perhaps that’s the way we build faith that will last. Keep your hands and hearts open. Keep asking questions and growing. Find the real thing in Jesus. Become a child of God and live into the Kingdom.
At the beginning of today’s reading, John the Baptist has been arrested and thrown into jail. Jesus has started proclaiming the good news (which sounds a lot like the message John had been preaching).
The kingdom of God is NEAR!
Jesus passes along the Sea of Galilee and starts calling his disciples: Simon, Andrew, James and John.
We hear a lot today about making your resume “pop,” writing up your experience to get hired. I thought about the “credentials” of the men Jesus was calling. Are those really people you would want to hire if you were a CEO? What sort of questions would you ask these simple fishermen?
“So, tell me a little about your academic background? Where did you study and what degrees did you earn?”
Well….I’m a fisherman.
“What sort of public speaking experience have you had? You will need to talk to large crowds and persuade them to think about their beliefs.”
Hmmmm…….yep, well, I didn’t talk much to the fish.
“What about your medical background? Have you ever healed anyone? Raised someone from the dead?”
These fishermen don’t really seem to be qualified to do much for God’s kingdom. However, Jesus calls them and says “Follow me.”
And they do!
Immediately (Mark says)….
And if you look ahead to the Acts of the Apostles, you will see these simple fishermen doing amazing things! The important thing to remember is that Jesus didn’t select folks that were perhaps the most qualified. If he had been looking for the most learned, the most gifted people of his time, perhaps he could have been more picky. Perhaps he would have looked somewhere else, somewhere where there would be “important” people.
Instead, he called followers who were faithful. And they left everything–immediately–to do the work to which Jesus was calling them.
And he gave them what they would need to do the work he was giving them to do.
There’s an old saying that Jesus doesn’t call the equipped. He equips the called.
Sometimes we think that maybe we aren’t qualified to do the work Jesus would have us do. Maybe that is for other people who are smarter, stronger, more talented. It is important to remember the first disciples. They followed and were faithful.
May we likewise listen for Jesus’ call to us and be ready–immediately!–to drop everything and follow.