Sermon from April 6, 2014. As preached (more or less) at the 10:30am service at Ebenezer Lutheran Church in Chicago, IL.
Gospel Text: John 11:1-45
Grace, peace, and mercy to you from God, the fountain of our life, and Jesus, our redeemer.
Here’s my advice, avoid resurrection.
I know that sounds weird. But I’m serious.
Take today’s gospel reading for example. Lazarus is safely in the tomb, nothing more can hurt him, he’s not doing harm to anyone. Yes, Mary and Martha are grieving, they are hurting, and we’ve been there. Recently. The accusation is fresh on our lips, “Lord, if you had been here…” We’ve lost loved ones and we want them back, just like Martha and Mary wanted Lazarus back. And Jesus brings Lazarus back. He gives Lazarus new life. And our reading for today ends: many who had seen believed. And that seems like a pretty lovely… fairy-tale … sort of ending. But that wasn’t the end of the story.
There are two important consequences of Lazarus’s resurrection that our text today doesn’t include. The first is that the resurrection of Lazarus is the last straw for those seeking to destroy Jesus; it’s the action that causes them to get serious about getting rid of him.
The second is that the authorities want to destroy Lazarus, too. Having someone living a resurrected life is just too dangerous.
Neither one of those consequences seem hopeful or life-giving, which leads me back to my original statement:
Avoid resurrection, if you can help it.
Avoid letting God affect you so deeply that you become a threat to the status quo. Avoid letting faith guide your financial, political, and social decision-making because you will face persecution. Avoid letting Jesus create new life in you because your new life might be offensive to someone else.
And most importantly, avoid seeing yourself and others through the lens of God’s love and mercy, because you might make friends with the wrong people.
Resurrection is risky. There are plenty of examples of people whose vision of God’s kingdom changed their lives so dramatically that they became a threat to the status quo. I was particularly reminded this weekend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s threatening vision of a society based on justice and equality. Friday was the anniversary of his assassination. And there are many throughout history whose radical kingdom visions have made them targets. And there are many more whose experience and expression of the love of God have made them outcasts in their communities or even in their families. Just this morning there was the story about conscientious objectors in S. Korea facing prison time. Prophets of old, like Ezekial, were almost never welcomed. The man born blind was cast out of the temple after his radical encounter with Jesus. Assassination is not the only way of attempting to silence a resurrection life, a radical kingdom vision.
I have to admit, I often have a hard time understanding why God’s kingdom is such a risky vision.
But that’s probably because I operate with God’s love for me and God’s kingdom vision in the abstract, in the ether of ideas, rather than in the concrete reality of relationships and lifestyle decisions.
God’s kingdom vision of justice, equality, and mercy, is great, until it threatens my way of life. It’s great until I have to embrace Pastor Fred Phelps, the late pastor of Westboro Baptist Church, as a child of God, or until I have to act on the fact that my neighbors live not only down the street, but also under the overpass, or until I realize that my own complicity in structures of injustice means that it is also my responsibility to seek solutions.
God’s kingdom is easy to embrace, until it gets real and walks among us.
When God’s kingdom walks among us, everything our culture encourages us to value about ourselves and one another – how we look, how smart we are, how much money we make, where we went to school, what neighborhood we live in, what sort of car we drive, who our friends are – is called into question. We recognize that, wittingly or not, we judge ourselves and one another based on characteristics that have nothing to do with our value as people before God.
When God’s kingdom walks among us, we might find that we want to step out of the system of broken values, but the system pushes back, trying to keep us where we are. It’s a powerful force. It operates on our fears and vulnerabilities. It tells us that we will be destroyed if we don’t get back in line. It calls us evil.
Yet, we keep coming back to the source of this disruptive vision, gathering as a community of God’s people. We keep baptizing our children into the death and resurrection of Jesus. We keep praying for God’s will to be done on earth. We keep longing for resurrection, for the new life of God to transform us and our world. We keep risking that God’s vision will overtake us.
Perhaps we know something deeper than the risk of resurrection.
Having seen that what our culture offers us only leaves us empty, we see that God’s vision of love and justice and mercy is the only way we can ever be free and whole. There is good news: there is an unshakable foundation on which to build our lives and our communities and it is God. We do not have to exist at the mercy of finite reality. We do not have to exist at the mercy of other people’s opinions. We do not have to exist at the mercy of our economic status or whatever else we find ourselves defined by. Instead, together, we can live in the abundance of God’s kingdom.
The only identity that will make us truly free is the identity we are given in baptism, the identity we are reminded of when we witness the resurrection of Lazarus and remember that we live because it is the breath of God that animates us. We gather each week to be reminded of this identity, not for our own comfort, but so that we might go out from this place to proclaim to the world the good, but hard, news that God’s love and mercy are wider than the oceans and deeper than the seas.
Let us remind one another of God’s love and mercy. Let us seek to live into God’s kingdom vision together. Let us bring resurrection to one another and to the world. Amen.