((Isaiah 25:1-9; Philippians 4:1-9))
Holy God, you are refuge to the poor, and shelter for the needy. Use these gifts we offer you today to let your gentleness, through us, to be known throughout all the earth. Amen.
((Isaiah 25:1-9; Philippians 4:1-9))
Holy God, you are refuge to the poor, and shelter for the needy. Use these gifts we offer you today to let your gentleness, through us, to be known throughout all the earth. Amen.
Joseph said to the brothers who wronged him, ‘I myself will provide for you and your little ones.’ Holy God, we offer these gifts as freely as Joseph did. Let our gifts and our hearts go out to provide your love and mercy to all people without judgment. Amen.
Ever feel like telling the angels in Acts or the Gospels, DUH! Maybe giving them a dirty look to boot? I know I do.
The disciples are speaking with the Risen Jesus, and then before their very eyes Jesus rises up and goes into the clouds. Quite naturally, the disciples stand there gaping up at the sky.
I’ve never seen anyone levitate. Let alone rise up into heaven. I think standing there slack jawed is about the nicest way I’ll look if I ever seen such. I might just have wet pants too.
But these two angels appear and ask, “Why do you stand looking up towards heaven?”
This isn’t the first time the angels have been jerks, in my opinion. Remember when Mary is sobbing over Jesus’ empty tomb in John? Once again, two angels appear in white. And once again, they ask a question. “Woman, why are you weeping?”
Mary, bless her heart, actually answers: “Because they have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.”
In Luke’s version… just like in John… two angels appear to Mary at the tomb. And they, too, ask her a question. Only they ask her: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
… say it with me…
Jesus is dead. Jesus’ dead body was left here. Mary’s seeking a dead guy.
We don’t have to read these stories and think the disciples and Mary and the women are wrong or unenlightened. We don’t have to think the angels are perfect. These stories are meant to be relatable.
And relatable means, to me, hearing these angels being kinda jerkish and asking questions that sound condescending, insulting, when taken just as they are.
But you know, sometimes jerkish questions do us good.
It is no secret I was scared and AM scared to be a pastor. In my mind, there is a lot less on the line to be a writer and a scholar of religion than to actually be preaching and sharing lives with people. I was speaking to a spiritual counselor about this once. I told her how I was scared of saying something wrong to a parishioner or in a sermon and harming someone’s faith. The counselor asked me, “Are you more powerful than God?”
Duh. Of course not.
She continued, “Then why do you think you’re the most powerful voice in someone’s life? You’re not. You’re going to say things wrong. But you’re not God. It’s vain to think you’re going to make or break ANYONE’S faith. Faith is a journey between a person and God. A pastor just gets to walk alongside that journey for awhile. But the journey is way, way outside the pastor’s control.”
Sometimes, jerkish questions help us a whole lot.
At the tomb in Luke, the angels’ question of ‘why do you look for the living among the dead’ leads them on to remind the women that Jesus is Risen. He isn’t dead. He’s not going to be in a graveyard. The women realize this from the question, and they go back to the apostles with the news. They’re the very first witnesses and testifiers of Jesus’ resurrection. A jerkish question from the angels wakes them up, shows them new possibilities, and moves them to action.
Just like a pointed question did the same for me.
In John, at the tomb, both the angels AND Jesus get to ask Mary why she is weeping and whom she is seeking. Twice, she states she is seeking the body of Jesus and doesn’t know where to find Jesus. The questions let us see and understand, and eventually let Mary see and understand, that the dead body of Jesus isn’t what we really are seeking. And if we’re seeking Jesus only in the past, dead, buried… we’re not going to find him.
Our Lord is risen, ascended, and returning. Our Lord is not buried and gone. But are we still only seeking him among the dead and not among those living today?
That brings us to those angels standing near the disciples who are catching flies looking up to heaven some time after Jesus’ resurrection. “Why are you standing there looking up towards heaven?”
But their jerkish question has a point. Standing there and staring into heaven isn’t what Jesus commissioned us to do. They had just asked, ‘Is it now that Israel is going to be restored?’ And Jesus tells them no. And reminds them again that God’s message and restoration isn’t just for that ancient country, but for all counties — all people — everywhere. And again, Jesus charges them to carry this message of love everywhere.
Yes, he told us to keep watch. Yes, he told us to stay awake. But never once did he tell us to wait around for his return doing nothing. Rather, he told us to do greater deeds than he. Told us to carry his message everywhere around the world. Told us to do his commandments, to do God’s commandments, and to actively love one another.
So… the question gives the disciples and apostles direction. They go back to Jerusalem. They return to sharing their lives together in prayer, and study, and in good works, and in living the Christian Way.
As we heard today, as Jesus prayed over the last supper – he said to God, “I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world,” and so it is. Jesus is Risen. But Jesus is present through us to one another. Jesus is with God Our Parent, but has sent our Holy Advocate among us to remind us how to live Jesus’ teachings.
What does this look like in action today?
The first example I can think of is our offering today.
A second I think it speaks wisdom into our church woes. It’s no secret at all that churches are closing left and right. Attendance is way down from the height of the 1940s and 1950s. Most congregations operate in the red with their budgets and most congregations are strapped for people under the age of 50.
Like Mary at the tomb, we look in these once-grand buildings but find them empty. And we weep.
Like everyone staring up into heaven, we keep watching and waiting thinking that a return: maybe when the teens are adults and married. Maybe when the adults retire. Maybe when the retirees get lonely.
Some churches are trying to shake up things. You’ve heard of the churches with contemporary services and live music. You’ve heard of churches who worship outside, or worship over coffee, or even in bars. Some get rid of pews and some get rid of hymnals.
But in the end, even these churches find it is hard to keep being relevant to people’s lives. Their numbers may swell for a year or two, but then… things go back to looking drear.
The truth of the matter is – people don’t want to go to services to worship God.
Worshiping God isn’t important in their lives.
And I don’t blame them. That was me for years and years. Standing there staring into heaven felt nice once and awhile… like maybe an Easter or a Christmas service… but doing that weekly didn’t really get the house clean, or pay the bills, or make my day better.
The truth is… church wasn’t relevant to my life and it isn’t for most people.
And I think that’s what the angels are pointing out in our scripture, and even today… reflecting on the past is good, but fixated on it is not. It’s time to move on. Time to trust God, time to do as God asks, and welcome the new reality God gifts us. Reflecting on the glory years of our churches is good. But pining, wishing, for those years to come back is not good.
We won’t find the living among the dead. We’re not going to fill up this church or any church by changing little things or big things in our services.
You see, services don’t make Christians, services aren’t designed to and aren’t aimed towards people considering Christianity. We say prayers that aren’t printed, and we sing hymns not known in pop culture, and we use terms and phrases no one who isn’t ‘in the know’ understands.
Standing there gazing into heaven doesn’t spread the message to all of the ends of the earth. It doesn’t make our faith relevant.
Mission work. Out reach. Living a Christian life. When the apostles return and live lives of hope, of sharing, of community – people want to know more. Want to join. When a church has a mission, a purpose – people want to join in, and make a difference. When a church has an out reach, a program to assist the community – people want to participate.
The food pantry.
5th quarter, Hope homes, One Great Hour of Sharing, the PIN fund, Vacation Bible School, donating our hymnals, donating time and resources here and there – these are mission and out reach.
Praying for each other. Giving each other rides. Sharing our garden produce and our clothes, our homes and our lives with each other. Knowing how each other are doing. Calling, writing, facebooking, loving each other… this is living a Christian life. This is community.
Church? Worshiping God? These are the results of mission work, outreach, and the Christian life. Church is not an ends unto itself. It is the human response to God’s presence throughout our whole week – our whole lives.
This is where we recharge. Where we stand gazing into heaven and smile. Where we sink on our knees at the tomb in wonder. This is where we pause, reflect, and praise God.
But church is only relevant, only meaningful, if we have been in relationship with God and working for God long before we entered the church doors.
So… let me play the role of the angels for a moment and ask a jerkish question…
Why are you here today? Is church relevant to you? If not, what is missing?
Ezekiel’s prophecies don’t just spring to life without context. God gives them to Ezekiel to speak about the very real world Ezekiel knows.
Ezekiel was born into a priestly family of money, and power. He got an education, and worked as a priest advising the royalty of the Kingdom of Judah. Picture for a moment that Mexico and Canada get into a war… where are they going to fight? In the US. This happens to Judah, and the country begins to take sides with either Egypt or Babylon as the two nations both fight for land in the middle east. Babylon wins, and takes the nobles of Judah back to Babylon as captives. Sorta like if Canada wins this imaginary war, they take our president, his family, and our representatives and senators back to Canada. The idea is that without these leaders, we’re less likely to rise up and fight again.
Ezekiel is one of those people taken captive because he’s an important prophet. He and his wife begin to live with the other captives of Jerusalem in Babylon. There, he has prophecies that more woe is coming to the Kingdom of Judah. Sure enough, the old king’s uncle takes charge of the country, and rebels against Babylon with an alliance with Egypt. In our fake war, the president’s uncle goes to Mexico, gets support, and decides to lead a war against Canada.
Babylon’s had enough of these Judeans and Egyptians. King Nebuchadnezzar returns to the country. Clay tablets found in modern day Israel recount how the people in Jerusalem saw the signal fires of their neighboring towns disappearing one… by… one… as the Babylonian army destroyed everything and everyone in its path on the way to the king in Jerusalem. When they get there, they utterly destroys the Judean capital city. Archeological evidence shows that virtually the entire city was burned to rubble, including its walls. The Bible recounts how the king’s family was murdered before his eyes, and then the king was blinded before he was marched to Babylon. The Temple of Solomon – in all its glory and beauty – was ransacked. All the religious items, the Ark of the Covenant, the sacred scripture – all of it taken, sold, burned, or destroyed. Everyone in the city was scattered – some ran into the country, many died, and the rest were taken forcibly back to Babylon. About 1 in 4 of all the nation’s people were forced into exile.
Today, that would be like 80 million Americans kidnapped and sent abroad. 80 million people sent to a place with a different language, different religion, and different way of living. 80 million prisoners.
The people left in Judah are largely the rural peasants, the uneducated, the foreigners, and they later become known as the Samaritans, for they don’t keep burned and destroyed Jerusalem as their capital.
Ezekiel has seen visions of all of this, and has tried again and again to warn his people. He’s in exile, not able to return home. He’s seen his country defeated, and all his family and friends murdered. He’s seen the Holy Temple of God ruined, and his sacred books and items desecrated. His wife dies, and he can’t even mourn.
This is the context his bones vision rests in. He has literally seen the bones of his countrymen. He has literally seen his city, and his country, defeated. Ezekiel sits in exile with his home, his land, his people utterly, utterly destroyed. When God gives Ezekiel this vision of valley of bones… Ezekiel and the Israelites are dry. Out of hope. Out of joy. Tired. Exhausted. The ones who are still walking are zombies, husks – there is no life left in them.
God asks Ezekiel, can these bones live?
Ezekiel answers with exhaustion, “O Lord God – you know.”
You know – these bones are weary and dead. You know – these people are hopeless. You know – we don’t even have tears left to cry. We’re dry.
And God says: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord: you shall live. I shall put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.
And as Ezekiel tells the dry bones that God will put them back together, and gives them flesh, and muscle, and tendons, and skin – the bones wiggles and clatter and rattle and organize themselves back into people.
Then God tells Ezekiel to call to the four winds — call everywhere – and let God’s breath bring life. From all corners, God breathes, and the people stand up – healthy – no longer slain. No longer dry. No longer breathless.
God tells Ezekiel, “These bones are the whole house of Israel. They say ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost. We are cut off completely.’ But I say, I am going to open your graves and bring you up. I will bring you home. I will put my spirit in you, and you will live. You shall know that I have spoken and I will act.”
There, when all hope is lost, when the country is destroyed and the people scattered, when so many have died and even more are living hopelessly – with one foot in the grave and just waiting for death to claim them – when the breath, the Spirit of God, is snuffed… God says, I have spoken and I will act. I am speaking and I have acted. I give you hope. I give you life. I will bring you home.
The words of God are literal for Ezekiel – God literally helps the Israelites eventually return home, rebuild Jerusalem, and the Second Temple. But God’s words are also metaphorical – the hope and life given to the dead bones is the hope and life given to the people living in exile. Do not fear. I am God. Do not be hopeless. I am God. I am acting. I am giving new life. I bring hope against all hope.
Lazarus’ situation seems hopeless, too. Jesus was ran out of Bethany with the people there wanting to stone him to death. And now, back in Bethany, Lazarus is very, very ill. Mary and Martha have sent word to Jesus. Jesus tells his disciples Lazarus has fallen asleep – and the disciples are relieved. Oh good! Then Lazarus will be fine. There’s no need for us to go back to Bethany, which is right in the shadow of Jerusalem, and get stoned to death. But Jesus tells them plainly – no, Lazarus is dead and we are going back to Bethany. You hear Thomas say, “Well, guys, let’s go to Bethany too – might as well all die together.” They don’t have any hope that this situation is going to turn out well. They’re going to join Lazarus in the grave.
When Jesus and his disciples arrive in Bethany, they learn that Lazarus has been dead for four days. In ancient Jewish understanding, the soul finished leaving the body after three days. This makes sense medically – someone could enter a coma and appear dead, and wake up in a day or two… but if someone has appeared dead for three days… and rot has begun to set in… you know, they’re not in a coma. They’re not going to wake up. This person is very, very dead. Since it has been four days, Lazarus is beyond hope. Everyone knows – he is dead.
Martha goes out and meets Jesus. She says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died! But even now I know God will give you whatever you ask of God.” Listen to that angry accusation! Jesus – I sent you word – you knew Lazarus needed you ahead of time – yet you didn’t come. Where were you when Lazarus needed you? Now he is dead. I know you could have asked God to cure Lazarus and God would have answered your prayer.
Jesus replies, “Your brother will rise again.”
Martha’s heard this phrase over and over. Many Jews at this time believed there would be a final day when the dead would be resurrected and stand before God. I think Martha must sigh and say, “I know.” I know we’ll all meet again. I know there’s an afterlife – but Jesus – you could have done something now! I sent for you! I called for you! And you came too late!
Jesus replies, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
Do you believe this? Do you believe that a person’s body dies, but they live on? Do you believe that in Jesus, there is abundant life – even for those who are beyond hope? Even for bones that are weary, and dry, and souls that thirst, and are weighed with sin? Do you believe that we suffer death and deaths, but through it all, resurrection – new life – is always possible?
Martha replies, “Yes, Lord, I believe.” And she shares the news with her sister, Mary.
Mary comes to Jesus with the same accusation as Martha- but she comes in tears and falls at Jesus’ feet, “Lord – if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died!”
I’ve said both of these prayers of the sisters. I’ve cried out in anger – God, I told you when the prognoses didn’t look good – I gave you heads up – why didn’t you act?! If you’d intervened, my loved one would still be here! I’ve also fallen to my knees in prayer and sobbed, God, where were you?
… Mary is crying. Lazarus’ family and friends are crying. And Jesus begins to cry too, and asks where Lazarus’ body lays.
Around Jesus, people mutter, “Look at him cry! Look at how much he loved Lazarus.” Others say, “He opened the eyes of that blind man, he can cure and heal people. If he’d come quicker, couldn’t he have saved Lazarus? He’s crying out of guilt.” Why do we think Jesus is crying? Maybe he knew he was going to resurrect Lazarus, and that deed – the seventh and final sign in the book of John – would lead to Jesus’ death. Maybe Jesus is crying because he knows this sets into motion his return into Jerusalem, and his passion, and the scattering of the disciples. Maybe Jesus is crying because he loves Mary, and sees how much she is hurting. We’re told he is greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. But why? We don’t know.
In his agitated state, and full of tears, Jesus goes to Lazarus’ tomb. Show me him.
Martha reminds Jesus that Lazarus has been dead for four days. He stinks. He’s beyond curing. He isn’t in a coma – there is no soul left in his body. Jesus… Lazarus is beyond hope. Do you really want your last memories of him to be his rotting body? The tomb is closed. The story is done. The hope is gone.
Jesus replies, “If you believe, you will see the glory of God.” And he begins to pray over the reopened tomb – and calls out to Lazarus – “LAZARUS – COME OUT!” “Like the sheep that recognize the voice of the shepherd who calls them by name, Lazarus hears his name being called, he recognizes the voice of the shepherd, and the dead man comes out, because only the shepherd can lead his sheep out.” (Karoline Lewis)
The very dead man comes out of the grave still bound by the grave clothes. And these rags of death are unbound, and he is set free. Lazarus is alive!
Yet this very miracle, at the end of this chapter, is what leads in the book of John many to plan Jesus’ death. This final sign – that hope cannot be extinguished – is what leads to the cross.
And yet, we know, that even the cross cannot extinguish God’s ever renewing life and hope. Even should God Incarnate be crucified, nothing is ever so dead, so hopeless, to be beyond God’s saving grace – beyond God’s love.
Ezekiel stands in a landscape full of death – yet the hope for renewed life remains. Jesus stands at the tomb of his dear friend, in the shadow of the death – the shadow of the cross – Jesus knows the death and dryness of our own lives – literally stands with us in a garden of grief with gut wrenching tears – and yet, hope against all hope remains.
Based on Luke 12:13-21
Holy God, you have told us not to build bigger barns for our crops, but to share. We offer these tokens of gratitude for all you have given us, and ask you to send them to those whose barns, bellies, or hearts need filled. Amen.
Last week, Jesus was approached by a man who had studied scripture, memorized it, and knew all the commentaries. A super well educated man. And that man who knew all the writings asked Jesus – what must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus told him he can’t just read and study God… he must DO what he reads and learns God wants done. He can’t just know he’s supposed to love God and our neighbors; he also needs to LOVE those neighbors. Even the ones who are enemies. He can’t just read; he can’t just know; he must GO AND DO.
Today, the story continues. Jesus walks on and now is at Martha, Mary, and Lazarus’ house. And Martha is DOING. She’s being the good Samaritan and helping others. She’s getting dinner ready and making sure Jesus and his disciples have fresh water from the well to drink, and comfortable cool places to sit, and caring for everyone. She is being a good host, a good neighbor, and she’s clearly GOING and DOING.
Yet, Jesus says Martha’s sister, Mary — who is sitting at Jesus’ feet not going, not doing, and just listening and learning — has chosen the better path.
Didn’t Jesus say just the exact opposite to the lawyer last week?! Didn’t he say going and doing was needed to inherit ate eternal life? How he is saying the opposite?!
It’s no wonder people of all walks of life – pastors and professors and lawyers included – get lost in the Bible.
The Prophet Amos gives a little insight into the nuanced, the particular, truth Jesus is trying to communicate to God’s children. There is a little nugget of insight he is trying to give to you and me.
Long ago, centuries before Jesus, Amos arrived on scene. We know almost nothing about him other than he is the earliest prophet we have writings from. He has received a vision, and a word, from God: This is the end of God’s people. Amos cannot fathom what this means, (you see, he foresaw the Assyrians defeating the area, and the exile to Babylon, but Amos had no words to explain what the vision meant.) So Amos tries to explain what he saw again and again. God gives him a total of four visions to share and with each, Amos cannot believe that there is an ENDING coming. How can God do a new thing, and this new thing be the END of the promised land?!
And so God tries to explain: God’s chosen people have not been acting like God’s chosen people. They have been oppressing, harming, one another. The rich prey on the poor, and each other, and the poor prey on each other, no one cares for the land, and the weakest of the weak have no where to turn.
People observe the holidays, and the day of rest, but they complain about them. I could be out selling wheat! But instead, all the shops are closed today. I could be out selling grain! But instead, everyone’s home resting with families. There is money to be made!
We’ll mark the packages “One pound,” but actually it’ll only be 3/4 of a pound. We’ll say other people’s silver is worthless but our copper worth gold. We’ll fill part of the wheat sacks with floor sweepings instead of all good wheat. We’ll cheat, we’ll steal, and we’ll get ahead.
People will sell their lives to us for silver to pay their rent; and others will sell their lives for shoes. Everyone needs something! Everything — everyONE– is for sale at SOME price!
Why oh why isn’t this day of rest over yet?! We’re too busy to rest!
These are men and women who are DOING what is found in scripture. They are resting on the Sabbath. They aren’t selling or buying. But, their deeds haven’t God’s love in them. They simply are GOING and DOING because society expects it.
Today, many businesses are open every day of the week. Some are open 24/7. People get greedy. On the holiday of Thursday Thanksgiving, the day of giving God thanks, stores have begun to open so that no one has to wait for Friday. They can shop on the holiday. Stores wouldn’t open on holidays if it lost them money – so there are people wanting and willing to shop on these days — just like they were almost 3000 years ago.
Humans are greedy. God instituted days of rest to curb our greed, curb our desire to do and do and go and go, and give us balance in our lives… but most of us resist rest. We resist balance in our lives.
Amos’ time? They did as God asked… to the letter… but not with the spirit behind their actions. They observed the holidays because they had to, not because they wanted to. They went to church because it was expected, not because they felt God’s presence there. Lots of doing without knowledge of God in their deeds. God’s new deed would be showing them that there is resurrection after death; hope in hopelessness, and a return to balance between work and play, study and doing, prayers and actions — all focused on love of God.
And Jesus’ time? Martha is doing. Lots and lots of doing, because it is expected. And she is angry her sister doesn’t follow the expectations too. Again God is doing a new thing and returning the people to balance: reminding us that we must work and rest, hold still and listen in the silence for God and be busy doing God’s work. Both – done in love.
Just like the lawyer was reading and studying, lots and lots of knowing, without any doing. No balance. No studying out of love and working out of love.
Jesus advocates balance; just as his Father does. Balance: knowing God, loving God, and doing God’s work in the world. Taking time for scripture, time for reflection, and time for doing good things.
There is a time for everything, it says in Ecclesiastes, and a season for every activity under the sun. Sometimes we need to read scripture more, sometimes we need to do scripture more, and always we need to do both out of love of God and self and neighbor.
And if you’re any normal person… you find there just aren’t enough hours in the day. I’m certain Martha would have loved to sit at the feet of Jesus! But then, who was going to prep the house? I’m certain the lawyer would have loved to do more good deeds! But then, who was going to study the scripture and argue the cases to put bread on his family’s table?
Again, the wisdom of Solomon: There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the sun.
Jesus calls us from our business to look at what is really most important. Calls us from shopping and errands to reflect. Calls us from studying to do good deeds. Calls us from doing good deeds to sitting in quiet prayer and meditation. We are called to wholeness: balance.
My calendar has something written on it every day of the week. Check up for Selena, visit my mother, call a friend… and I write on it things I HAVE to write or else my life loses its balance. Left to my own devices, I know I’d fill up every little minute with something. I struggle with balance. It doesn’t come naturally.
We need a Sabbath day every week. A day where we don’t plan anything. A day where we are free to lie in the grass and count clouds, or free to do crossword puzzles, go visit a friend for coffee that lasts three hours, or just not get dressed all day long. Whatever it is that brings us rest – we need that day. A day of physical and mental and spiritual rest. Guard that day on your calendar. Don’t let is pass unobserved – it is a holiday. A holy day – of rest.
And we need a day of study too. A day to think and ponder God’s words. Most of us, this is Sunday and church and Sunday school. So – on the calendar – study God’s word.
And we need a day of deeds. Helping each other, doing good things, assisting our community and volunteering. I know we have 4-H advisors who are working double-time right now doing just this. We have people working the food pantry, and Foundation dinners, and visiting ill neighbors and friends. On the calendar: volunteer. Check in with friends.
Sabbath. Study. Works. Balance. A time for everything.
We will always be busy. ALWAYS. There will always be more to get done than we have hours of the day or night. 24/7/365 is not enough. We will die with books unread, dishes not clean, house projects half done, and a to-do list.
We will have an end. But, by the grace of God, may all we leave undone be the unimportant things. By the Grace of God, may we come to the end of our day, the end of our lives, with a balance: having fully known about the love of God, fully given others the love of God, and fully experienced the love of God. Study, work, rest.
May you be resurrected! May you find the new thing God is doing in your life! May you know the centering love of our savior! Amen.