Monday, April 21, 2014

April 20 Sermon (Easter)

Matthew 28:1-10
28After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” 8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
“Do not be afraid.”
Whether it is told to shepherds upon Jesus’s birth, or to Joseph as he finds out that his fiancĂ©e is pregnant with another’s child but that he ought to marry her anyway, or to the women who arrive at the tomb, it’s among the most ridiculous lines in all of Christian scripture. Do not be afraid. The angel might as well tell them to sprout wings and fly.
I mean, picture this scene: Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go early Sunday morning to visit Jesus’s tomb, and as soon as they arrive, there’s a HUGE earthquake, and an actual honest-to-goodness bona-fide angel of the Lord descends from Heaven, rolls back the giant stone that has been sitting in front of the tomb since Jesus’s burial, sits on the stone, and has the appearance of lightening, whatever that means, with clothes as white as snow. And when this happens, the guards at Jesus’s tomb start to shake and then faint from fear.
But oh, this isn’t enough. Because the circus continues without giving the women time to adjust, and the angel says to them, Do not be afraid, for though Jesus was crucified, he is not here, for he has been raised from the dead.
It sounds so blessedly obvious to those of us who benefit from having heard this story for two thousand years. But what it must have been like! The earthquake, the lightening, the stone, the fear, the emptiness, the absence of Jesus.
It must have felt like the very opposite of “do not be afraid.” It must have felt as dark as the inside of that tomb.
It’s funny. I don’t think we talk enough in the church about being afraid, but it is the case that being afraid is one of the most powerful forces I know of. We’re all afraid of being afraid, all fearful of what lies around the corner, of what could happen if we miss just one paycheck, if we make one misstep, if we lose sight of the goal for one minute.  We are afraid of the dark.
I have been devouring a new book by the writer and Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor. The title is Learning to Walk in the Dark and her contention is that we live in such fear of the dark, in such fear of the kind of dark emptiness that filled the tomb, that we miss God’s presence within it. Darkness, she writes, is “shorthand for anything that scares me—that I want no part of—either because I am sure that I do not have the resources to survive it or because I do not want to find out. The absence of God is in there, along with the fear of dementia and the loss of those nearest and dearest to me. So is the melting of polar ice caps, the suffering of children, and the nagging question of what it will feel like to die. If I had my way, I would eliminate everything from chronic back pain to the fear of the devil from my life and the lives of those I love—if I could just find the right night-lights to leave on.”
We live constantly afraid, and yet the things we fear are no match for God. Barbara Brown Taylor talks about how she learned this lesson, while spending summers during her seminary career working at Dante’s Down the Hatch near underground Atlanta. Dante loved the idea of a seminary-trained cocktail waitress, and I sort of agree with him on this point, so she spent a number of years there, working the late shift. “What surprised me,” she says, “was how much energy coursed through that place in the middle of the night, as if all the ordinary sleeping people had relinquished their portions so that there was more left for the rest of us.”
I like this idea of reclaiming the dark, because it is a wonderful Easter message. The things that lurk in the night are not all bad, and the things that are bad are no match for the God who says to us, “Do not be afraid.” Resurrection does not eliminate bad things; it just means they don’t win in the end. It means that the worst thing is not the last thing.
Resurrection also doesn’t mean we’ll never be fearful, because the fear of God is not the same thing as being afraid. The women who ran from the tomb, who we hold up as heroes for being the first people to greet Jesus after the Resurrection, well, Matthew says they ran to find the disciples with great fear and great joy. It does not say that they ran away afraid and with joy, because being afraid is inconsistent with being joyful. It says they ran with fear and joy.
This is fear of God, which is completely different, for it is less about being afraid and more about acknowledging God’s power, that though death is a strong word, though heartache and pain and destruction and abuse are all strong words, though your past may be a strong, difficult word, none of these words are stronger than God. The fear of God is about recognizing that while a life lived following Jesus will not eliminate heartache, will not eliminate death, death is not the final word! This is what the Resurrection means. Death may be real, but I am reminded of the quote I have framed behind my desk from the theologian Frederick Buechner that says that the gift of the Resurrection is this: “what’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.”
This is why the angel tells the women “Do not be afraid.” If death has been defeated, what is there to be afraid of? And so they run, with fear and joy, which is just perfect because joy is the proper response to the Resurrection. It is the opposite of being afraid. You can’t be joyful when you are afraid. You might tell a joke and get a snicker, or you might crack a smile to loosen the tension, but I’ve never met anybody who was truly happy who spent their life running away from the thing that made them afraid.
It’s why governments are so good at intimidating people: if you are afraid, you do not have joy, and you are easier to control. It’s why the agents of division seek to pit us against one another, and let’s be clear that the church is not immune from this kind of thing. We put labels on people just as much as anybody else does, as if political beliefs or race or socioeconomic status or sexual orientation or gender were the only important thing about people, as if nothing else matters.
You know, Church, I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but when we do that, we’ve sided with death, for to turn someone into a label is to deny their full humanity, is to functionally kill them so that we may dismiss the changes in the church and society that makes us so afraid. If only there were something stronger than death in which we could trust, if only there were something bigger than our fears, bigger than those societal changes that make us so afraid . . . If only . . .
And so we arrive at the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Resurrection means that the agents of death and division are no match for the power of God. It means that dying is no longer the last thing. It means that even death can’t stop the love of God from reaching us, and you get why the angel could say, with a straight face, Do not be afraid. And you get why the women were so joyful. The strongest things on earth, death and division, are no match for God.
Joy is the proper response, and lest that sound childish, lest that sound like it’s not enough of a response to such an incredible thing, let me assure you that joy is powerful. It is liberating. Joy means that we refuse to run scared; instead, we will do God’s work even when everybody tells us that the darkness has already won, because we know that it has indeed already lost. It means that though the darkness has unknown dangers, we will not let them rule us. It’s why two women felt like they could run up the street while all the men cowered inside. Joy is liberating. It has power. It is why we see such spectacle in the green revolution in Iran, or in Pride parades; it is why so many protest songs have such happiness bound up within them. It is why some of the heartiest laughing I’ve ever done has been during the funeral of a life lived well.
And it’s the proper response to something so fantastic, so remarkable, that it seems to just break the world open, just split the powers that weigh us down, that keep us afraid, just split them right in two so that the kingdom of God can break forth, so that God’s light can shine through. It’s the proper response to this story, so seemingly outlandish, with its angels of lightening and earthquakes and rolling of stones and a dead man who shows up to his own funeral because he has an announcement to make. The only response is joy.
It’s what gave the disciples hope even as the government was killing them, one by one.
It’s what gave the early Christians hope as they fought to establish a church.
It’s what has given the church hope year after year, century after century, as it has sought to look after the least and the lost, in lean times and times of plenty, in challenging times and easy times, in changing times and in . . . . changing times.
And it is what gives us hope, now, in this place, in each of our lives, for Jesus did not just come back from the dead just to prove something. He rose from the dead in order to free us from being afraid, to defeat the fear the holds us hostage, to free us for joy, so that we may run with fear and joy into the future and share the good news of Jesus Christ with a world convinced that darkness has already won.

This is the message of Easter: that in spite of everything, in spite of the earthquakes and the lightening, and all the death that fills our days, we can go forward without being afraid.  Jesus has been raised from the dead, and death, which sometimes seems to rule the world, has been defeated. So do not be afraid. Go forward with great joy, for there is no treasure so priceless, no artifact so rare, no medicine so needed here on earth. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

April 13 Sermon (Palm Sunday)

(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)
Matthew 21:1-11
21When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 5“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
I find it funny that just as we have arrived at Palm Sunday, the day on which we celebrate Jesus’s royal entry into Jerusalem, many of my friends have caught a new-found case of royal fever. As I have said before, I was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, and it turns out that the Times of London is reporting that on May third, 2014 Prince William, Kate Middleton, and little Prince George will be in Memphis next month for the wedding of someone I don’t know very well, but many of my friends do. And so they are all busy freaking out about this wedding, this trip to Memphis which, of course, will involve a trip to Graceland so that the royal couple can pay tribute to The King.
And all of this royal talk has got me thinking about what it must have felt like for the crowds we heard about in the scripture lesson, the ones throwing their cloaks on the ground and waving palm branches and shouting Hosannah, what it must have felt like for them to welcome the savior, this king, this great hope. For as much as my friends are tittering about in advance of the royal visit to Memphis, how much more electric must the air have been as the people welcomed Jesus into town, because while Memphis is not exactly the least corrupt place on earth, at least there is no great subjugation of Memphians. There is no abusive control, no foreign dictator bent on killing those who step out of line, no constant threat of death.
This is what it was like to stand on the sidelines as Jesus rolled into town: an oppressive regime. Rampant, just rampant hunger. Poverty like you would not believe. Foreign control, intimidation, corruption. We clean all that up when we bring the story into the church, wave the palm branches like we’re welcoming any old parade, but the people who lined the streets as Jesus rode into town desperately wanted a messiah, desperately wanted someone to stand up to the oppressive powers that kept them hungry and in fear. We clean it up, but to be there, to watch this, it must have been something.
We miss the fact that what people were so desperate for was a political leader, a king to lead them into battle, into victory over their oppressors, and I mean, you really can’t blame them. In all honesty, that’s kind of what they needed. They needed somebody to pull them from under the thumb of their oppressors. They needed somebody to stop those who would kill just to keep peace.
But that’s not what they got. For as much as this is a story of celebration, it is fundamentally a story of disappointment. Jesus was not the king they were looking for. Some savior: he rides triumphal into town, and ends up being executed, hung on a cross to die so that everybody could see just how powerful he was, so powerful he couldn’t even save himself, let alone anybody else.
You sort of get the sense of what it must have felt like, to be so hopeful, and yet so frustrated. It helps you understand how somebody can parade up the street yelling “Hosanna” one day, and “Crucify Him” the next.
And it is easy to leave it there, I think, to sort of leave this frustrated search for a savior in the past, two thousand years ago and miles away, but we’re not immune from the search. There’s this great line in my favorite movie, O Brother Where Art Thou?, in which the main characters, these three escaped convicts during the Great Depression, are sitting around a campfire eating a gopher they’d just found and roasted, when a huge congregation of people wearing white robes and singing a hymn starts to walk past them, straight into the river to be baptized. And Everett, the main character, sort of smirks as he watches this happen and says, “I guess hard times flush the chumps. Everybody’s looking for answers.”
I don’t know what it is that you come to church, and I hope you understand that I’m including myself in this category, but maybe it really is true that hard times flush the chumps? Maybe it’s true that everybody’s looking for answers. Everybody’s looking for God.
I mean, this is what it means to be the Church: to search together. Religion isn’t about following rules, or about trying to screw up as little as possible so that we can get into Heaven, or even about helping people so that we can feel good about ourselves. Being a Christian, following Jesus is more like what one of my favorite theologians calls a sense and taste for the Infinite. We are journeying together for what which we long for, for that which is beyond the humdrum of our lives, for just a taste of the Infinite, for an experience of the risen God who defeats death and embodies love.
It is no surprise, then, that we are drawn to spectacle, to parade, to big, momentous things, to fireworks, to slick advertising, to huge churches with better looking pastors than the one you’ve got, to money and power and prestige. Here we are just sort of chewing on gopher, just going about the humdrum of our lives, waiting for the next responsibility, the next chore. But we are not robots who thrive on millions of little details, but blessed people made in the image of God, who share a sense and taste for the infinite! It is no surprise that we want something and someone to rescue us from the minutia of being human.
But what if, what if those millions of details and the search for God weren’t really opposites? What if, in the interest of getting beyond the humdrum, mundane aspects of our lives we’re actually standing on the side of the road, waving a branch, waiting for some sort of spectacle, when God has been right under our noses all along—and it turns out that we were just looking for the wrong thing? What if what we thought God was supposed to be was, in fact something else entirely?
I was cooking breakfast the other morning and needed something to distract Emmaline a little bit so that I could get some pancakes made without her, like, drooling in them, so I flipped to the movie, The Sword in the Stone. Do you know that movie? It is a retelling of the story the boyhood of King Arthur, the way in which Arthur came to be king.
And it is a silly movie, with a talking owl named Archimedes and the wizard Merlin and bumbling soldiers and all the rest, but young Arthur is really just a nobody, a kindhearted kid who serves as squire for his older, stronger brother, but who really can’t do anything but get in the way.
And the movie is centered around the death of Uther Pendragon in the sixth Century, and the fact that there was nobody to succeed him as King, so all of England descended into violence. And this monument of a sword stuck in an Anvil appears, with an inscription that says “Who so Pulleth Out This Sword of this Stone and Anvil, is Rightwise King Born of All England,” and for years people try and try, but nobody can get the sword out of the stone. So it is basically forgotten, just a monument that sits there, sort of taunting England for having no rightful king. And one day, young Arthur comes along, having forgotten the sword he was supposed to have with him, and without even reading the inscription sort of haphazardly pulls the sword from the stone, and everyone around bows at his feet and hails him as the new, rightful king. Here, they’d spent all this time looking for a warrior, but what they got was a King.
I mention this to you, because it is not such a farfetched story. We come to church, come to religion with so many needs, so many desires, so much that we expect from God: please let these be the winning numbers. Please let me get this promotion. Please save me from this God-awful meeting. Please don’t let my partner die.
We come to God looking for something of a genie to grant our wishes, or a King to free us from oppression, or as hired help to keep us from having to wash the dishes and change the diapers and keep the trains running on time. I don’t know what you heard in the scripture lesson this morning, but if that is the God you are looking for, you’re going to be looking for a long time.
We tend to turn God into something God is not, and so it is no wonder we spend so much time looking for God; the God we think we’re looking for doesn’t exist. I think about this a lot when I hear people who have made their mark as public atheists talk about how silly it is to believe in a God who causes car crashes and changes the weather and that sort of thing. When I hear these arguments, I want to say, “The God you say you don’t believe in is also a God I don’t believe in. I believe in a God who rides a donkey rather than a war horse, who became human rather than just come down to earth to wow everybody, who understands when I suffer, because he suffered, too.”
If you’re looking for a political leader, a King, somebody to give you a life of cupcakes and unicorns, you can lay your cloak down in the center aisle and wave the branch all you want, but don’t be surprised if you soon find yourself so frustrated that rather than shouts of hosanna, all you can muster is a whispered “crucify him.”
But if you are looking for God, if you are really looking for the real God, maybe you shouldn’t disregard those humdrum parts of life. Maybe you shouldn’t spend so much time trying to get to the new exciting thing, because if I have learned anything from being married, it’s that love is much less about the wedding reception than it is about the mundane, the everyday moments, the moments of playing with the kids on the dining room floor, the unexpected smile, the gift of the everyday.
Likewise, the message of Palm Sunday is that God’s power isn’t like traditional power. It doesn’t swordfight or rely upon opinion polls. It doesn’t grandstand; it’s not flashy. Rather, it is patient. It is kind. It becomes human, not so that it may impress you, but so that it can understand what it means to be human, so that it may be something you can embody and share with others. It suffers and dies upon a cross, and when it is taunted as too weak to come down from that place of death, it chooses to die as one last witness to the lengths God will go in order to reach God’s people.

It is a power that, in the final analysis, is so strong that it need not ride a horse, or defend itself with violence, or be afraid of death, for it is much stronger than death, and thank God for that. Amen.

Monday, April 7, 2014

April 6 Sermon

John 11:1-45
11Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. 7Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
17When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” 28When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” 38Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”40Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
45Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
(This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.)
Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. Wring those words out and you’ll see so much anger dripping from them, it will puddle on the floor. Mary and Martha know that Jesus has the power to heal Lazarus, a man he professes to love, and he just . . . doesn’t. God makes all these grand promises about loving us and providing for us and being enough for us, and when we felt like we needed God more than ever before . . . silence.
Does this story feel familiar to you? I don’t mean, have you heard it? I mean, have you felt it? Have you ever needed God only to find . . . silence?
I remember the week I moved to Atlanta to go to seminary. I drove my old pickup truck; it was huge and smelled bad, but I loved that thing.  I think my parents drove a U-Haul with my bed and tv and dresser and the like, and we came straight to Atlanta from Memphis. We pulled up to my first apartment and got everything unloaded the very first day—my mom was insistent that when we went to go get food, that she stay behind to set up my bookshelves. She wanted to get me set up before they went home, which they did the next morning.
And I came out of the apartment a couple of days later and realized I’d forgotten where I parked. I looked everywhere but I couldn’t find my truck. I thought, maybe I walked home last night? Or maybe I just didn’t see it? But of course, somebody had stolen it.
And it was the very next day, I’ll never forget this, it was the very next day that I got out of the shower to see that I’d missed a number of calls on my cell phone, all from my dad, and when I finally got ahold of him, he said, “Come home. Your mother has had an aneurysm. Her surgery is tomorrow. Hurry.”
And you start to ask questions when that kind of thing happens, you know, about what God is trying to tell you. Here I have uprooted myself to try and dedicate my life to you, O Lord, and if you had been here, my brother would not have died.
Mom had a successful surgery, eventually got better, and I bought another vehicle. Life goes on. That kind of visceral suffering doesn’t last forever. But it can feel that way, when the God who we worship and who promises us new life feels as far away as the farthest star.
There’s this story that came out in the months after the moon landing in 1969, that Buzz Aldrin had sort of hidden a little chalice, with a small little vial of wine and a Communion wafer that he’d had his pastor bless before the launch. And in the time between landing on the moon and getting out to go exploring, he took Communion on the surface of the moon, and while I am moved by that act of devotion, it mostly just reminds me of what can feel like on the journey of faith, like Jesus might as well be on the moon, like he’s so concerned with this little thimbleful of wine and this little Communion wafer than he is about my problems, my fears, the evils I see in the world: things like hunger, and war, and slavery. It makes me feel like God isn’t paying attention to me, to those of us down here on earth.
And you know when I feel the most that way? Maybe this will sound weird, but I can feel the most hopeless when I consider the state of the Christian church. Sometimes the people who act the worst are the people who profess to love God the most. I have a friend at a church conference this week who posted this quote on Twitter: the church is the only place where we let the unhealthy people scare off the healthy people. And you’ve heard me say that the church is a hospital for sinners, but a hospital is supposed to be a place that makes you well, not a place where you go for the sole purpose of spreading your disease.
Did you hear about the controversy at World Vision a couple of weeks ago? World Vision is this awesome organization that lets people sponsor children who then are better fed, do better in school, get fewer diseases, and end up being productive members of society. And the whole idea of World Vision is that this is what Jesus calls us to do, which of course it is. God calls us to help the most vulnerable among us, and while we may argue about the responsibility adults have to act right, surely we can agree on children. Surely we can agree that God calls us to help children who are hungry, children who are literally starving to death. And World Vision has taken up this mantle and done it with distinction, across the church, across all sorts of ideological lines, because at least we can agree that God wants us to care for children.
And a couple of weeks ago, World Vision decided that since they were involved with a number of Christian denominations with varying beliefs, they were going to change one small part of their hiring policies that said that they would not employ gay people. That was it. They didn’t change their statement of faith, which said scripture is divinely inspired and infallible. Richard Stearns, who is the World Vision CEO, made it a point to say that they weren’t endorsing same-gender marriage. They were just saying they’d be open to hiring gay people.
I want you to know that in the twenty-four hours after that announcement, World Vision’s donors were so angry that 10,000 of them dropped their sponsorships. Ten thousand children just left in the cold, without food, without clean water, without adequate shelter and schooling. Ten thousand children. It was such a significant number that within 48 hours, World Vision announced that they were changing their policy back. I would have done the same thing. Feeding children is far, far, far more important than the employment issue, though I’d argue that we ought not discriminate in any respect. A few folks called to reinstate their sponsorships, but the majority didn’t. And so I will be honest, when I see that ten thousand children lost sponsorships, because people who profess to follow Jesus decided that an employment policy that allowed for the employment of gay people was more important than feeding ten thousand children, I just wanted to cry. I just wanted to weep. What is wrong with us as humans, that this sort of thing could remotely be all right?
And this is the mood I was in when I came to the scripture this week, like we’ve put all this energy and time and money and love into the institution of the church, and all it takes is one silly HR policy change to undo all that work, to kick ten thousand children back into hunger, back into hopelessness. Lord, if you had been here . . .
Mary and Martha, friends of Jesus, got word to him that their brother, Lazarus, was near death. The only thing that would save him was a visit from Jesus, and of course Jesus would come. He loved Lazarus.
And yet . . . he didn’t. Jesus did not come. In their moment of need, of desperation, Mary and Martha called for Jesus, but he did not come, and Lazarus died.
After Lazarus’s death, Jesus made his way to Bethany, to the home of Mary and Martha, and when Mary heard he was near, she ran to him, weeping, and—I don’t know how you can read this in any tone other than seething anger—Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.
And Jesus saw her crying, and he was moved by her grief, and he did something pretty incredible, when you think about it. He cried. He wept. He was so disturbed by the pain she was experiencing that he, himself, felt that pain, and the very savior of the world wept.
It’s revolutionary, and we sometimes just pretend all it is is the shortest verse in the Bible, something to memorize when you have to memorize a Bible verse because it is so short, “Jesus wept.” And yet it’s a reminder to us that when all we can manage to do is to let our cries climb up our throats and out our mouths, when we feel like yelling “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” even then, God is with us. Just when we thought God was on the moon, it turns out Jesus has been sitting alongside us all along, crying with us. What a gift, to be loved that much.
I have a cousin who was crossing the street in college when he was hit by a car. He spent years in physical therapy, going through unbelievable pain towards recovery. And my grandfather used to go see him, used to spend time with him and entertain him, to try to keep his mind off the pain. And a few years later, when my grandfather passed away, my cousin said something so profound I feel like it belongs chiseled right above the cross, right here in church. Our grandfather, he said, was the only person he’d ever met who physically hurt when you hurt. He hurt when you hurt. That’s the message of this passage of scripture: that Jesus hurts when we hurt. It’s the message of the cross.
And lest it sound like all Jesus is good for is joining you for a cry, let me remind you that while we are on a journey towards the cross, the journey does not end there. Resurrection happens. Lazarus may have died. He may have lay in the tomb for days. But he did not stay there.
There may be days in which I am prone to despair at the circumstances of the world, or at the hypocrisy of the church, but then I remember that the worst thing is never the last thing, that Resurrection happens, and I am reminded that while ten thousand children may have lost funding because the church is a mess, I am also reminded that it is not like I was sponsoring a child through World Vision before this fiasco. I can complain all I want about the state of the church, but if I am going to practice Resurrection I’d better be willing to do my part. At least those who canceled their sponsorships had sponsored a child in the first place. So . . . I am repenting this week. I’ve gone to and Stacey and I are sponsoring a child, Diana, who was born the very same day as Emmaline. Do I like the fact that World Vision discriminates in its hiring practices? No. But hungry children deserve food. Jesus suffers with those who suffer. To feed a child is to make an offering to God. I would invite you to consider doing something like this as well, or some other act of Resurrection in the face of death. This is what we are called to, Church. To follow Jesus. To be Resurrection people in the face of a world that shouts “crucify him” to anyone who steps out of line. To be Resurrection people, even when God seems far away.
I’ll end with this. In a few minutes we will share God’s feast, as we celebrate Communion and experience this Holy Mystery. This meal does not belong to me, or to this church, or to the denomination. The meal belongs to God, and it is given as a gift, so that though we may sometimes feel as if God is as far away as the moon, we are given the chance to experience that grace here, in the sharing of the bread and the cup, here. No matter who you are or what you have done, you are invited.

This meal is God’s gift to us, for it shows us that God loves us, even in the midst of pain. And what a gift, to worship a God who understands our pain, who hurts when we hurt, and who, rather than leaving us there, points to the pain that holds us captive and says, take away the stone. Unbind her, unbind him, and let them go. In the name of the Creator, the Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.