Message 4-2-17: New Life

Before I share the message that I used in our service on Sunday, I need to explain that while I was posting and thinking about other things on Saturday, April Fool’s Day, in Arizona other members of my extended family were having a very different sort of day. Later that evening, we received word that my 67-year-old uncle passed away of an apparent heart attack. I guess there will be a medical examination to determine cause of death before this is all over. I had completed the message before we got the call, and so I did make a few minor adjustments as I was speaking. For the most part what is posted below is what they heard.

One thing I wish to add, the opening song was “Jesus I Come.” As we began singing, I saw the lyrics with fresh eyes. All I could think of was someone saying those words as they were passing from this life to the next. I had not looked at that song quite like that before, and perhaps won’t ever see it any other way.

Here is what I mean:

  1. “Out of my bondage, sorrow and night, Jesus I come…In to thy freedom, gladness and light, Jesus I come to thee. Out of my sickness into thy health, out of my need and into thy wealth. Out of my sin and into thyself, Jesus I come to thee.

The other lines that start with out of include: shameful failure and loss, earth’s sorrows, life’s storms, distress, unrest and arrogant pride, despair, the fear and dread of the tomb, the depths of ruin untold. The other into’s include: joy and light of thy home, peaceful sheltering fold and jubilant psalm among others. It was hard to sing and for a time I could not, but it gave me the courage to give the message with greater conviction. Hope it makes sense to you.

The title of the message was: “New Life.” the scriptures used were: Ezekiel 37:1-14 and John 11:1-45.

For a couple of weeks we have been watching the geese fly and waiting for the waters to open. As much as geese signal spring, the sure sign for me is the sound of the cranes. It seems that when the other birds come there is still a chance of snow here or there, and some people swear by the return of the robins, but I have seen snow many times after their arrival, for me the trick is seeing the cranes come back. And even though they fly really high and sometimes there is noise around, somehow their sound always comes through, that whirly, purring sort of sound that is different from other birds. I just love hearing them. Now if I could just get lucky enough to catch some of them with the camera that would be a highlight of my spring.

As for a not highlight of my spring, that was last week. Last week I was not so sure how long it was going to take for me to feel like I would survive. Friday, I started to feel sick, Saturday I was tired and miserable, but I found some old decongestant tablets and so I had a bit of relief. Sunday was not all that bad mostly because I had to get out of bed and get here to be with you, but the afternoon and evening were all downhill. Monday when I should have been able to sleep in and get some rest, I got up and told James I would start jotting down some plans for my funeral because I wasn’t sure how long I would still be breathing. (In light of the news we had Saturday, this remark seems rather inappropriate.)

I know that I shouldn’t joke about something like that, and of course there was no reasoning with me to go to the clinic. First off I realized that when you blow your nose and the stuff coming out does not have a color there is probably no bacteria and no way to treat it beyond over the counter drugs. I also started thinking about what Jessica was told when she went to the Dr. a few weeks back. They told her to wash her hands more and drink plenty of fluids. Wash your hands more is now the standard family joke. Monday afternoon, I purchased some decongestant and life got better. Hopefully this is the worst of the springtime illnesses at our house.

So, I might have been feeling better, but when I finally opened up the calendar and saw the lectionary scriptures for today, I cringed and nearly went back into sick mode. Three years ago this was the Sunday of my installation. So as the cycle goes, we have the same scripture lessons as that day, and I really don’t want to repeat that message. I initially had a hard time figuring out where to go that would be different. And as you can see the epistle lesson isn’t even in the bulletin, so that isn’t an option.

Of course the obvious answer would be to focus on the passage from Ezekiel instead of the story about how Lazarus was raised from the dead. I like that idea even less. I don’t like the Ezekiel scriptures and it is a silly reason, but it goes back to my college days. The man who was president of the college when I attended there was somewhat fixated on Ezekiel and used it often in his writings or speeches. For some reason his presentation turned me off at the time, and after he was asked to leave the post because of financial improprieties, I liked it even less. Maybe I will grow out of this down the line, but for now I am not there yet.

So here we are again with the story of the death of Lazarus and how his sisters Mary and Martha and their friends were grieving this tragic event. But today I don’t want to talk about the historical facts of that death and I especially don’t want to talk about the grief (yet ironically my family and I are grieving yet again this weekend) or even how amazing it was that Jesus was able to raise his friend who was in the grave for four whole days. Today I would rather look at this a new way. I would like to look at this in terms of what it means for us. If Jesus was able to raise Lazarus whose body should have smelled from decomposition, what can he do for us, who are still here very much alive in a physical sense?

Today I don’t want to think about all that stuff about Jesus talking to the sister and looking at the closed tomb and then actually grieving—crying real tears himself. No, today I want us to think about how Jesus looked at the tomb where he knew his friend was and instead of saying he was sorry not to get there sooner, Jesus raised his voice and he called for Lazarus to come out. That’s what he did, he stood there and called, “Lazarus, come out!” And if you want the substance of the message today, you hear those words with your name in that sentence. Jesus calls us each to come out of the tomb of our existence.

This is where we look at the scriptures differently than we looked at them in the past. Instead of seeing the grief stricken sisters and friends or even considering what Lazarus gave up by coming back, we see the new life that happened. Today we consider that the call of Jesus brought Lazarus to a new life. The simple call of Jesus brought Lazarus not just back to his old life to continue on, but to a new life, to a testimony of truth of the reality of Jesus, to the power of Jesus’ love, to the difference that the call from Christ can make in our lives.

This is the point of these scriptures for us today. It is the call of Jesus, the beckoning of our Christ that gives us new life. In reality this would probably have been a much more appropriate message for me to hear three years ago, but at that time I wasn’t anywhere near being able to imagine it let alone write it or speak it at that time.

New life is more than just the resurrection that we all hope to experience when this life that we now have is over. New life is about our personal survival of so many things. New life is about overcoming an illness, surviving a job change or the loss of a parent or a sibling or a spouse or even a child. I was reading one of the blogs that I follow last week. This blogger was not posting anything for a time, and it seems something has happened to cause the person pain, but they have not revealed details. I have been concerned that maybe something happened to another family member, but slowly the comments about others in the family are returning. I just know that something is different in this person’s life and I tried to leave a gentle encouraging remark on the last post as a way to connect and to let the blogger know I cared. I was relieved when I received a like for my comment.

New life is an adjustment. New things in our lives, whether they are new jobs—or retirement, different homes, new situations, a change in our health and mobility, new family members, or even the loss of someone close to us those are all adjustments we experience in life. Those are even things we grieve for a time, even when we are excited for the new, there are scary points just as much as when we experience loss. What we need to remember is that just like Lazarus heard Jesus call to him to come out of the tomb, Jesus calls to us to come out of our tombs of existence to experience the great love that he has for us. And more than that, Jesus calls us to come out and share that love with all those around us.

We might not know the details of what happened to Lazarus after Jesus called him from the tomb, and he came out alive and restored. But we can be sure that he didn’t hide out away from the world keeping this miracle to himself. Jesus called him to have a new life. Jesus restored Lazarus to life, just a few days before he himself would be betrayed and crucified and then rise from the dead. He didn’t make that call so it would be kept quiet. And Jesus doesn’t call us from our everyday lives in order to come here to worship then quietly slip out the door back to our homes to keep these beliefs and ideas to ourselves. Jesus calls us out of the tombs of our existence to share—to share what we know to be true with everyone around us.

The epistle lesson we didn’t read today comes from Romans 8:6-11 (read it) Paul tells us that when we give ourselves to Christ, we are given new life through the spirit of God. It is the spirit that lives in us that gives us the ability to answer Christ, to come out of our tombs and follow Jesus wherever that may be. Let us go this week with the strength of that conviction, answering that call as joyously as this magnificent spring day demands. Amen!

Lazarus Come Out!

I preached the following sermon the morning of my installation as a Pastor of St. Paul’s UCC in Eureka, SD. As of tonight it is all official. The scripture used was the common lectionary and is listed below. The subject matter was a variety of personal experiences and historical fact. This came pouring out on Friday when I knew this had to be finished. It needed to be said, and I needed an opportunity to say it. No one slept, most everyone cried. They all felt the emotions that I felt as the words poured out through my fingers on Friday. I kept repeating in middle of the message at random places, “I will get through this with a strong voice.” It slipped a few times, like when I looked up and saw the woman who had lost her mother about two months ago. The part about my mother was hard, but the hardest was the part about her tv, and it was a part I needed to keep. It was the piece that helped me connect. If you have ever lost someone you care about, get a tissue before you sit down to read. And God Bless you today and tomorrow and the weeks to come.

Scripture used was: John 11: 1-45, Ezekiel 37: 1-14, and Romans 8: 6-11. The title of the day was “What to Pray for.”

Perhaps we should keep it short this morning, what with another sermon and all of the other hoop dee doo this afternoon, we are in for a long time of sitting, and since it looks to be a nice day outside, it seems a bit unfair. Unfortunately, I didn’t look at the lectionary that we would have to deal with when the conference and Pastor Keith called to give us choices about which date to have this installation. I didn’t bother to look up what I would have to ponder and study for the service before this event on this day. I had no idea that we would be talking about dry bones and death and Lazarus and all the pain that is so obvious in that passage.

I also didn’t look at the family calendar when I agreed to this date. I sort of had an idea, but I didn’t stop to count it out or to think about it. It was today in 1989 that my father passed away. Since he wasn’t found until Saturday the 8th and there had been some decomposition, it was hard for the authorities to be exactly certain on the time of death, but from talking to others about when he had been out and about, it was determined that he died on Thursday, April 6th. Whether it was accidentally or on purpose, all we aren’t completely sure, but we do know that his own actions caused his death.

The funeral director advised that we as family not pressure him to show us the remains. He didn’t want us to have that sort of memory of our father. And so the last picture I have in my mind is the photo on the driver’s license that was in his billfold that they gave us as proof that it was him. The whole event was so surreal that for a time my siblings and I felt like we were in one of those soap operas, and at any time our father would come storming in the house slamming through the north door asking what was going on and why we were all sitting around with all that crazy company. But real life is not a laundry detergent drama. It is far more permanent, and the drama we face often feels much harsher than any of the pettiness you see on television.

Lazarus died and his sisters were distraught. I also know what it is like to be a sister, whose brother is taken away. It was 50 years ago last New Year’s Eve when the older of my two brothers fell into an open auger of a silo bunk. My father found him at the end. When he told my mother she screamed and wanted to call here to town to Dr. McIntosh. She was sure he could fix it. She was sure he could fix anything. No one could fix that. Mary and Martha felt the same about the death of Lazarus. They were sure that nothing could bring back their brother. He was gone for four days. In their day it was common knowledge that after three days, the soul leaves the body, and nothing can restore a body to life.

They were holding a funeral, perhaps not quite like our funerals that last a few hours, and then we go home to the empty house. I live beside my mother’s empty house. Some days when I go there to check on it, I look at her bed, the chair she often sat in, the television where we watched Holly on Survivor every Wednesday in that last year we were together, and I want to call her back to us. One day, shortly after she passed on, I even yelled at her that it wasn’t fair the way she left us.

How did Lazarus die? We aren’t told exactly what it was, only that there was time to send a message to Jesus to come because the sisters felt he could intervene, he could have prevented the death, perhaps called him back if he would have gotten there right away like he did for others that are listed elsewhere in the gospels. But Jesus doesn’t come. Lazarus dies, and they, these sisters are mourning, they are having a funeral. They are looking for closure.

Closure: funerals are supposed to give you closure. That term gives me a headache. Funerals give you a chance to grieve, to mourn publicly, to celebrate the life of the one you loved, but nothing takes away that hurt or that loss. Time eases the pain, but it doesn’t erase it. I certainly can attest to the fact that I don’t think of my brother or even my father as often as I do of my mother. And there might be a day or two that goes by when I don’t think of them, but certainly not a week or a month. Those who go on ahead are always in our minds, and that is ok. That is as it should be. It is part of the hope of going to also be with them.

As much as we see the compassion of Jesus in this passage that John shares with us, this story isn’t just about easing the suffering of Mary and Martha. And it certainly isn’t about helping out Lazarus. Think about this for a bit. If Jesus would have left Lazarus in the grave, he would have been with Jesus in the presence of God on Easter morning.

Bringing Lazarus back may have dried the tears of his sisters, Mary and Martha, for the time, but what about later on when he really dies? The pain they feel will happen all over again. And we don’t hear how the story ends. This is one of those points that just ends. We are never told what Lazarus goes on to do.

This story that is only found in the gospel of John isn’t about Lazarus or Mary or Martha. It is about Jesus, and what he was sent to accomplish. This raising of Lazarus was about how far Jesus was able to go to bring back a person from the dead. This was the last of the stories of Jesus raising anyone other than himself. This was the last of the miracles of Jesus before he is sent to the cross.

Lazarus was in the tomb with a stone in front of it for four days; everyone there knew that after three days not only is the body decomposing, Martha says so herself…there will be a stench, but the soul is gone too, there is no point to Jesus trying to raise this man. We read that Jesus is moved to tears, and we can also hear a sense of anger in him. According to the Tyndall commentaries on the gospel of John, Jesus was enraged, but not just at the death of his friend, a man who hosted Jesus and the disciples and followers on occasion.

Jesus is enraged at the power of evil that causes death in this world. In calling Lazarus to come out, Jesus is letting Death and the powers that have caused the initial death and sin of humankind know that it is over. Raising Lazarus is one last miracle before Jesus submits to the death on the cross so that he can fight the last battle with death and win the victory for all.

In his conversation with Martha when she says, if only you had been here to save him,” Jesus lets her know that he/Jesus is the resurrection, he is the Life. And by waiting to let Lazarus die, then raising him after four days, he shows us what is to come for all of us. His followers, his disciples, all of the people we have been talking about during this season of Lent, they all believed that Jesus was the Messiah, but they wanted a Messiah for themselves for their own time. That is not what Jesus was, most importantly that is not what Jesus IS. Jesus is for us as well as for them.

The Jews wanted a Messiah to end the conflict with Rome. Jesus was the Messiah to end the conflict with Death and the powers that cause it, the evil that fell from heaven when Satan revolted.

Today we know that as hard as it is to see our loved ones go on ahead of us, as hard as it is to carry on against some of the evil we see in the world around us, Jesus promises to be our light, our life our resurrection if we just believe. Just as Paul wrote to the early believers in Rome if we believe in Jesus, and we accept his spirit, we too will live with him. Let’s remember this as we finish up our season of Lent. We know that we can’t get to Easter without Good Friday, but it isn’t all about grief and sadness. It is about getting through it.

The title of our message is “What to Pray for” and though it might not seem that we have touched that at all, the point is this. If Mary and Martha had been granted their prayers that Jesus come and heals Lazarus, he wouldn’t have died and we would not have known that Jesus was able to raise him. Sometimes it seems our prayers aren’t answered, but maybe there is something more. As we leave here this morning for a few hours or a few days, let us remember that Jesus wants what is best for us, and if we take time for him, he will be there for us. Amen!

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