First Congregational Church
March 18, 2018
Fifth Sunday in Lent
“In the Presence of Resurrection”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
I know this story was used a few years back, but perhaps there are still a few who haven’t heard it. Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson went on a camping trip. After a good meal and a cut of tea, they lay down for the night, and went to sleep.
Some hours later, Holmes awoke and nudged his faithful friend. "Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see." Watson replied, "I see millions and millions of stars."
"What does that tell you?"
Watson pondered for a minute. "Astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three. Theologically, I can see that God is all powerful and that we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. What does it tell you?” Holmes was silent for a minute, then spoke. "Someone has stolen our tent."
Despite the fact that our Christian Bible contains the Old Testament, I would venture to guess that a good many of us know little about Hebrew culture and life - or death. So it helps our scripture passage this morning, knowing that in the Hebrew culture there was - perhaps still is - a belief that when a person dies, there is a possibility that a he or she will be resurrected during the first three days after death. On the fourth day, hope for resurrection is gone. It is probably not unlike the practice in our modern world, of when there is an accident, say flood or the bombing of a building, that after so many days, the search and rescue efforts turn to recovery. After x number of days, finding someone alive in the rubble is highly unlikely.
There was - or is - an understanding that there will be a resurrection of all people - at some point in the future.
The main characters in our passage this morning were probably well-acquainted with this “fact,”, because Bethany may have been a burrow for a Jewish sect known as Essenes, who were devoted to serving the poor and the sick. In fact, according to isrealbiblicalstudies.com, there is a thought that Lazarus may have been an Essene.
17 On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, 19 and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.
21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
Thank you, Bill. Some of you have seen the film Field of Dreams in which long dead baseball players somehow come back to life to play on a mysterious baseball field that Kevin Costner’s character, Ray, had built right in the middle of an Iowa cornfield.
When one player steps out onto the ball diamond, he says to Ray, “Is this heaven?” to which Ray replies, “No, it’s Iowa.” “Funny, it looked like heaven to me.” So also maybe Lazarus at first asked Jesus, “Is this heaven?” To which Jesus may have replied, “No, it’s Bethany.”
To bring you all up to speed, this is the last of the Lenten series on the “I AM” statements that are recorded only in the book of John. Matthew, Mark and Luke do the parables, John does the “I AMs,” which is a big deal because God gave God’s name to Moses as “I AM who I AM.” The association of the Jesus’ I Am is not lost on the Pharisee, Sadducees and Scribes, who see Jesus’ proclamation as heresy.
Just to make sure you’re all still with me, we know there are a multitude of individual answers to the philosophical question: Why did the Chicken Cross the Road? I didn’t have time to do a full Google check, but one would presume Bill Gates’ answer to be along the lines of “I have just released the new Chicken Office 2000, which will not only cross roads, but will lay eggs, file your important documents, and balance your checkbook. Emily Dickinson was probably much more succinct: The chicken crossed the road because it could not stop for death. The answer from Star Trek’s Captain James T. Kirk would have been far more predictable. The chicken crossed the road to boldly go where no chicken has gone before.
At various points, Jesus said, I am the Bread of Life, I am the Light of the world, I am the Gate and last week, I am the Good Shepherd. One way of interpreting those statements is Jesus saying that he is sustenance, truth, sacrifice and guidance. Maybe another interpretation might be food, air, shelter and family or relationship. It might be an interesting exercise, when you are struggling to go to sleep, to think about other ways of interpreting Jesus’ I Am sayings, aside from them being ways that Jesus reveals himself to us - in his divinity and his humanity - that we more fully appreciate his holiness and his familiarity.
Or if really want to set your brain up for some good thinking on a long drive, read the whole of John 11 before you start. The first sixteen verses of this scene can really get your blood boiling. Jesus knew Lazarus was sick, but he chose not to go see him for two days. How does that seem like a Good Shepherd? Such a stunt doesn’t do much for Jesus’ divinity or humanity. In fact, Jesus seems to boast that not only is Lazarus sick, but that he’s dead, and Jesus will use this sad event for his own benefit.
Except that it’s not really for Jesus’ benefit, but for ours - that we can see the power that Jesus has to literally raise someone from the dead. So, yeah, Jesus was divine, but he was also human, and that puts him into a category all by himself. Lazarus, tho, he’s one of us - human to the core, and it sure looks like Jesus is taking advantage of his friend’s situation.
I think we have great potential to take advantage of Jesus, too. In fact, Martha says it for us in verse 21. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”. We take death so personally. It’s sort of like thinking that death - or bad things - has a special mission focused on me.
They are in their usual places, Mary is attending to the guests while Martha is seeing to the details. And while she’s buzzing around, knowing full well that Mary is not far away, and that Jesus and Laz were such buds, Martha says that if Jesus would have come right away, “my brother would not have died.”
It’s so human to perceive death or malevolent incidents to be personal attacks against us. And granted, sometimes they are. But more often than not, death and harm is not really about us specifically, but the pain makes it feel like that. I know that it hurts when someone you love dies, don’t get me wrong. And I know it hurts when a relationship ends. I think most of us get that. But none of us become free from this life without dying, and accidents happen, as does life. And God doesn’t cause these things to happen to us to punish us or even to necessarily train us to do or be anything in particular. They do, however, give us great opportunities to develop our character and faith.
Jesus’ I AM in this morning’s passage is that he is the resurrection and the life. When all hope is gone - and the person under the bridge that fell over the Florida highway is four days dead, a marriage is four days dead, or a job is four days dead, or a loved one is four days dead, when whatever it is is dead - dead, Jesus comes along and says, I am the resurrection and the life. Maybe that pronouncement makes more sense to us, because we know that through the Holy Spirit, when death comes near, when relationships change, when people make unwise decisions, through all of that, God is with us.
So here’s the big question, the one that Jesus asked Martha. “Do you believe this?” Do you, in your heart of hearts, believe that Jesus is the resurrection and the life? (I’ll try not to look anyone in the eye, because you can then squirm at will.) I get that it’s a hard question. And every time I think about that question, I - probably like you - have to answer it again. But do we live as if Jesus is the resurrection and the life?
Robert Hoch, Pastor of First & Franklin Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD, gave an glimpse of what it means to answer that question. He said that during his stay with the Cherith Brook Catholic Worker in Kansas City, he helped as the community hosted showers and opened a clothes closet for people living on the street. He said, “Many entered the shower room waiting area looking beaten, tired, and as neglected as the urban cityscape itself. People avoided eye contact. Conversation was limited. But as each emerged out of the showers, clean and wearing a fresh set of clothes, a new life seemed to come into their eyes. They shone with the warmth of their humanity restored, shining with the luster of care and dignity. What I witnessed, I suppose, was a little resurrection, a resurrection of a person in community and a community in a person.”
I wonder how we might become hosts to such resurrections. We obviously don’t have a shower. But maybe we might consider - not saying that we will - but we might consider how we could be part of the folks trying to help the homeless in Benzie County next winter. I wonder how we might become hosts to resurrections in remembering our own creations - as human and divine children of God - when we remember that we are all capable - oh so very capable of making mistakes, making unwise decisions, making less than tactful comments, and offer towels of forgiveness to wipe off the humanity of error.
In fact, I challenge each of us to look for the resurrections and the life around us because they are happening all the time. So many are done with winter and the cold. But what if we focused less on the weather and more on the good that goes around us unnoticed?
What if, in the situations around us, where it seems that Jesus is absent, we realize that he is there - in each and every moment of that situation, just waiting for us to take notice? What if, instead of keeping people trapped in judgment and arms’ lengths, we start praying for those same individuals, essentially bringing them closer to the Bread of sustenance, the light of truth, the gate of sacrifice and guidance of the Good Shepherd? That’s when we are In the Presence of Resurrection, and the glimpse of what that will look like when Jesus returns. So let us get started.
Holy and Resurrection God, we thank you for life - for all of it - the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful, the life here and the life to come. Help each of us live in the presence of resurrection, the power and the possibility of that which is greater than death and evil. Help us in becoming transformed into the best of what you have envisioned for us - as individuals, as a church family and as your people. Forgive us when we have dissed such holy living, such important matters. Forgive us when we have dismissed or forgotten your presence in each and every “now” of our lives. Thank you for you, God, for the greatness and grandeur and largesse that is ours for the mere act of tapping into such reality. For all the blessings of this life - all of our life - all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.