Staying connected to life: Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb

The gospel of John is amazingly rich. My friend and colleague, Vicar Denise Rector of Ascension Lutheran Church in Milwaukee, says the author of the gospel must have been a mystic. Each passage flows with multiple meanings that speak to us in so many different ways. As soon as you say this is what this one means, another interpretation springs to life. In the story of the man born blind, I heard a question of identity. Who am I? Who are we to be in the world? Who is the man born blind? Who is Jesus? What is his identity? Because he had more than one in the story. To say it means only this or only that is to turn away from the richness of the writer’s work. It’s the same with this week’s story of the raising of Lazarus. Yes, Jesus brings his friend back to life. Yes, it presages his own death and resurrection. But the story has so many other different lives that we shouldn’t, that we can’t turn our backs on. This is how it hits me this time around. This is how I connected with the power of the raising of Lazarus in March / April of 2017 as societal forces in our world are trying to break the connections that are so vital to us as people of God in the world.

I like my devices, my gadgets. This tablet that I got from my five children as a combination Father’s Day-60th birthday present back in the summer of 2014. This smartphone that I got myself from the Boostmobile store at 52nd and 22nd back in the summer of 2015. I don’t need a new tablet. This one works just fine. But I could use a new smartphone, one with a slightly bigger screen, because the screen size inexplicably has shrunk over the years, making it harder to read what’s on it. Go figure.

I like my devices, my gadgets. They help me stay connected to friends, family to the world. There are some who have a problem with them. They think, for one, I am too attached to them. Maybe. And they assert such devices are part of the problem because it would be better not to be connected, at least not so much, at least not so often. And while an “information fast” may sound like a good idea – and may even have merit – it is not a panacea. It won’t protect us. Even though it seems like it would be a lot easier, a lot safer, a lot less stressful to find a cave, hide away from the world’s troubles – as long as it was a comfortable cave with hot and cold running water, indoor plumbing, modern appliances, tasteful furnishings and access to a healthy food supply and good medical care. The flaw in that plan – and yes, there likely is more than one – but one of the biggest ones is that the world’s troubles don’t stop just because you are trying to hide away.

Truth be told, I have a problem with my devices as well. They use prodigious amounts of battery power. They run down in just a few hours. And the phone doesn’t work all that well if the battery level drops below 50%. Another reason I should get a new one. The batteries are rechargeable. Which is good. The flaw in that plan – there always seems to be a flaw, doesn’t there – is that you have to have access to an electrical outlet so you can plug in a charger so you can plug in your device so you can recharge it so you can keep the connection to the world strong and unbroken.

At the synod assembly last spring, for example, we were in the gymnasium at Carthage for most of our business. It had very limited outlets. You would think that in a modern university, that wouldn’t be a problem. Because of that, even though I had my charger with me, it wasn’t always possible to plug in. I had to try to nurse both devices along so I would have one that worked. I would turn off the tablet if I wasn’t going to be taking notes or turn off the phone when I had the tablet on. It worked, but just barely. The phone’s battery life almost ended at one point. It almost went dead.

Without power, the phone and similar devices don’t do the jobs they are supposed to do. Without power, the phone and similar devices are no good to anyone. Without power, the phone and similar devices are just lumps of metal and glass and plastic. This says something about the power and importance of connections. They need to be connected so they can help us be connected and stay connected. There is always a way to do that if we know where to look.

And we need to be connected to the world because that is what we are called to be. Whether we want to be or not. We’ve heard that. We’ve seen that. Even if we were to find the comfortable cave away from the world, we couldn’t stay there. Not if we want to do the work, walk the path, make the journey God has given us to do, to walk, to make. We can’t do that if we try to pull away from the world, if we say this isn’t our job, let someone else do it, if we say we don’t have the power to stay in touch with the world, with God’s world, and with the people, God’s people.

Jesus goes to great lengths, as we can see in the story about the raising of Lazarus today, to keep us connected to the world. Jesus goes to great lengths, as we see in the story about the raising of Lazarus today, to make sure that we have a source of power, strong and unbroken, so that we can stay connected to the world.

Even with all that going for us, it is tempting to pull all the plugs. It is tempting to let the batteries run down on all the devices. It is tempting to look for that cave or make one of our own where we think we can stay and never be touched by what is going on out there.

Jesus doesn’t let us do that. Jesus doesn’t let us hide. Even when that “cave” is a tomb. Even when it appears death has sapped all our power. Even when we may not see any way we can recharge our batteries. Even when it looks like all of the connections we have made have been irreparably broken. With all of this swirling around us, Jesus stands in front of us and calls to us to come out, pulls us out of the stench – that is a powerful word right there – pulls us out of the stench of our own self-absorption and gives us the power to connect with and stay connected with the world and its people. Jesus acts somewhat like this portable charger here.

I was walking through the Kenosha Penneys just after last Thanksgiving. I passed a display of brightly colored cylindrical objects advertised as “portable chargers for your mobile device.” Brilliant. Why hadn’t anyone told me about these things before? They are rechargeable batteries inside a container. You can plug your phone, tablet or other mobile device into them and recharge the device. The one I bought – not from Penneys because they didn’t have very good ratings – is supposed to be capable of recharging my phone 7 times and the tablet twice before needing to be recharged itself. I haven’t let it run down that far. It works marvelously. I don’t have to worry about having enough energy to stay connected. And that’s good. One less thing.

Or is it good? Do we want to do that? To stay connected? To stay powered up?

Do we want to be a church, do we want to be part of a church that is always connected, that draws its power from staying plugged in? Or do we want to be a church, be part of a church, that is looking to unplug or to stay unplugged?

Do we want to be a church, be a part of a church, that looks for ways, for opportunities to recharge, or do we want to be a church, be a part of a church, that is comfortable with running down, with having our batteries fall to low levels, even if that means we just become a lump of metal and wood and mortar, no longer able to make or sustain connections with God’s people and God’s world?

Do we want to be a church, be a part of a church that looks for ways to get out of the tomb, to help lead others out as well, or do we want to be a church that looks for excuses to stay in the tomb?

Do we want to be a church, be a part of a church, that hears and acts on the voice of Jesus calling us into the light of action and mission in the world or do we want to be a church, be part of church that lets the voice go unheeded, even if it means we stay in, are trapped in, the darkness and in the stench? Such a nasty word.

We are almost at the end of our Lenten journey, our weekly reflection of what kind of church we want to be, what kind of church do we want to be a part of. Hopefully, it has given us pause to think about how we see ourselves and our mission in God’s world. Next week, we will triumphantly enter Jerusalem with Jesus, we will go on trial with Jesus, we will be in the upper room when Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, we will stand at the foot of the cross as Jesus breathes his last, we will keep watch over the tomb of Jesus. And as we do all that, we can continue to contemplate and reflect on what kind of church we want to be, what kind of church we want to be a part of, what kind of church we are being called to be, where our power actually is, whether being in the world or being unplugged is what we are being led by the one who stood and the entrance of Lazarus’ tomb so long ago and brought him back into the world, into life, into the light with a single sentence: “Lazarus, come out.” Only he will have updated it so it has more power for us today, so we can better connect with it today: “Church, come out.”

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The man born blind: A question of identity

It would be fitting in a way if today were the last Sunday in Lent rather than the second to the last. Not that I want Lent to be over. While the season is always busier for pastors, secretaries, musicians, custodians and other church staff than other times of the year – although a little less so than in past years for pastors here because of the way the Kenosha cluster did the midweek Lent grand pastor tour – it is always a blessed time, one filled with contemplation and reflection on who we are, how we are making our way in God’s world, how we can approach our need for repentance and forgiveness in true humility, how we can discover who we are so that we might be a people and church better able to connect with God, God’s world and God’s people.

We have been attacking at least part of that proposition – the part that asks what kind of church do we want to be, what kind of church do we want to be a part of – during our Lenten journey together. And this story, the story of the man born blind whose eyes are opened by Jesus to a brand new identity, to whole different way of seeing himself, of looking at his life and his world, would be a perfect way to wrap-up that journey. Sometimes, though, things don’t go the way you want but the way they need to. We have the raising of Lazarus coming next week. We can anticipate an enlightening final step.

The question of identity is a powerful one. Identity is so much more than just a name and a picture on a piece of plastic that lets us drive, cash checks, vote, check out library books. It is interesting, it is challenging, it can be frightening if we let it this time we are in – as people, as faithful people, as faithful followers of Christ in the world. We still seem to be looking for our identity in Jesus when you would think, after almost 2,000 years, we’d have figured it out. But not quite. Maybe in a couple more millennia. Right now, it seems, we are in the process of rediscovering who we are – or at least we should be, who we are supposed to be. We are looking for or trying to hold onto our identity. It can be confusing. It can seem like we are flailing around in the dark, being pulled this way and that, unable to focus, unable to see clearly.

What helps us to do that, to see more clearly? More light? Would more light surprise us, the way it must have the blind man in today’s story from John? Where did it come from? The man had never seen that light before. He’d never seen any light before. His world has been only darkness. Living in darkness was his identity, the way he presented himself to the world, the way he coped with the world. Identity is more than bits of information, a compilation of details. It is how we view and interact with the world, how the world views and interacts with us. We want to know who it is we are inviting into our world and whose world it is we are entering.

Spending all his time in darkness wasn’t the man’s fault, even though his culture said it was, his or his parents’. He hadn’t asked to be born without the ability to see. He hadn’t asked to spend his days and his nights in unending, all-enveloping darkness. He didn’t know anything else. He had made his peace, it would seem, with his, I don’t know, what would you call it, condition. If that’s the best word. It seems so nondescript. Much like the man himself. He’s just there. He’s part of the landscape. Not someone who would be seen, even by those with perfect vision.

He’s not someone who would expect much. He might have hope – he seems like he’d be a hopeful sort – but at the same time limited expectations. He wouldn’t expect to be noticed, expect to be helped because he hasn’t gotten that much help in his life. There’s a reason for that. Results. Or more accurately, lack of them. Our society certainly can understand that. Who wants to “throw away” time, talent and/or treasure on him that knowing the results probably wouldn’t be there. The world is geared to using its resources in ways that produce measurable results. Helping a blind man wouldn’t do that because in the end he’d still be, you know, blind.

In a world that must have at times baffled him, must have at times seemed hostile to him, very seldom tried to try to accommodate him, he is about trying to scrape together an existence from sitting at a city gate, beggar’s bowl in hand. That was his identity. That’s how the world would have seen him. That’s even how he might have envisioned himself. Blind. Beggar. Nondescript. Nothing to offer. Someone not worth a lot of thought. Not worth the expenditure of resources. No hope of positive results from that. Trying to get out of the world’s way. And the world would be happy with that, with him staying out of the way. Trying to do the best he could to live his life without being a burden, or too much of a burden, to his mother and to his father – who most likely loved him and grieved his situation before they got used to it, before they accepted that this is the way things were meant to be and that there was no possibility things ever would change – and to his community.

That was all before, of course. That was all before Jesus, of course. That was all before Jesus came to town, of course. That was all before Jesus the rule breaker did a little bit of work on the Sabbath, of course. That was all before Jesus just came up, just walked right up to him without so much as introduction, covered his eyes with mud, told him to go wash the mud off and gave him his sight, something he had never had before.

In an instant, the man’s world changed. In an instant, the man’s identity changed. He was no longer the man born blind but the man who had been given his sight. He was no longer the beggar on the corner. He was no longer someone who didn’t have to be noticed, someone who could be shunted into the background. And frankly, all that change, instigated by this wandering rabbi, scared the heck out of people, caused them, or at least some of them, to ask questions that they really didn’t feel comfortable asking. Questions a whole lot of other folks didn’t want asked, didn’t feel real comfortable thinking about, didn’t want to have to try to answer.

Our identity as a community of faith in Jesus is much like this. Do we want to want to be a church, to be part of a church, that has its identity tied up in, lashed to, inextricably linked to the hands-on, muddy thumb work of Jesus or do we want to be a church that would rather keeps its hands clean? Do we want to be a church, be part of a church, that has as its identity seeing the places in the world that need our help, need to be lifted up, need to be given the gifts that we can bring or do we want to be a church, be part of a church that says we don’t think we would see any results from those efforts, that tries to measure results in society’s terms not in Jesus’ terms? Do we want to be a church, be a part of a church, that has as its identity helping, being a source of aid, without even being asked, or do we want to be a church, be part of a church, that sits back, waits to be asked for help, then says what do we get out of it? Do we want to be a church, be part of a church that has as its identity wrestling with the tough questions, the uncomfortable questions or do we want to be a part of a church that is content to let the questions flow past unanswered as long as we are undisturbed? Do we want to be a church, be part of a church that has as its identity living its life in Jesus wide open to the world or do we want to be a church, be part of a church that keeps its eyes closed tight, hoping that if it can’t see the world the world won’t see it, and more to the point, won’t expect anything of it?

Being the church, being part of a church that has as part of its identity seeing and being seen isn’t easy. Being a church, being part of a church that has as part of its identity asking and wrestling with the tough questions such as what is our identity as a church of Jesus living into the call and work of Jesus can be tiring, maybe unnerving, even at times offputting to the outside world. Being the church, being part of a church that steps up and steps out can come at a cost. For the man born blind, with his new identity, the cost was his old family, old community, old identity, old way of life. But he was not so blind that he could not see that there was a better way waiting for him in following, truly following, the man who had noticed him, had seen him, had stuck mud in his eyes. What might it take for us to find the way, a better way if need be, to follow the one who comes to us unheeded and often times unexpected with mud on his hands?

Nevertheless, she persisted: The Samaritan woman encounters Jesus at the well of their ancestor

 

I was asked to start a blog. By a 70-plus congregation member who asked if I ever wrote out my sermons. I said yes. She asked who reads them. Cindi, my wife. Shouldn’t other people be able to, the congregation member asked. I guess. This is the March 19 message on the Samaritan woman at the well.

She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.

That pretty much sums up the story of the Samaritan woman at the well as John lays it out for us in his typical abundance of detail. Although maybe not in the way it sounds.

She was not warned. Not this particular time. She really didn’t need a warning. On this day. She was a woman, after all. She had been given a warning her entire life. You are to have nothing to do with this man because he is a Jew. You are to have nothing to do with this man because you are not related to him. You are to have nothing to do with this man because you are alone. And she, as we can see, is more alone than most. She knew, from a lifetime of warnings, that when she saw this Jewish man sitting at the well of her ancestor Jacob – who himself knew a thing or two about being persistent – she should just walk away. Nevertheless, she persisted.

She was not given an explanation. Not this particular time. She really didn’t need an explanation. On this day. She was a woman, after all. She had been given an explanation her entire life. Well, not so much given an explanation as being burdened with and trapped by a set of expectations – spoken and unspoken. Because she was a woman and according to the culture of that day, not worthy of an explanation. A woman should be about the business of doing what she can to make a man comfortable, not uncomfortable. Her needs, like the needs of all outsiders, are secondary to the needs of insiders – no matter how those groups are defined. The customs and traditions of the day are not to be violated or even tampered with, no matter how burdensome they might be.

The spoken and unspoken warnings, the written and unwritten rules of the day pointed to one thing: That’s the way life had always been. That’s the way life would always be. That’s as much explanation as the woman at the well, the vast majority of women at the time, would get. That’s as much explanation as the woman at the well, the vast majority of women at the time, should need. That’s as much explanation as the woman at the well, the vast majority of women at the time, should expect. So she knew, from a lifetime of explanations, that when she saw this Jewish man sitting at the well of her ancestor Jacob – he who had worked 14 years to be allowed to marry his favorite wife Rachel, so you could say was persistence was a family trait – she should wait, out of sight, until he left. Nevertheless, she persisted.

It has been said that well-behaved women seldom make history. It is spot on in this case. Because if the Samaritan woman on this day had been well behaved, if she had not been, we might say, such a nasty woman – because you have to know that’s what the apostles were thinking when they saw her violating all manner of cultural and ethnic and religious protocols by talking to Jesus, even if they didn’t say it out loud, because Jesus most likely gave them that look; you know the look I’m talking about, the one that says be quiet if you know what’s good for you – if she had heeded the warning of the ages, had paid attention to the explanation of the culture, had allowed the expectations spoken and unspoken of her society to guide her actions, then she wouldn’t have walked up to the Jewish man sitting at the well of her ancestor Jacob, wouldn’t have challenged the warnings and explanations she’d gotten all her life and we wouldn’t be talking about her today. Or ever.

We never would have known about her. If she had lived up to – actually down to might be more accurate – her lifetime of warnings, explanations, expectations, if she’d gone home, if she’d waited in the shadows, off to the side, out of sight, out of mind, out of the story of Jesus, until he left, we never would have heard of her encounter with the Jewish rabbi because there would have been no encounter. Only because she persisted do we know anything about her.

Do we want to know anything about her? Do we want to be a church, do we want to be part of a church, that wants to know and listen to people like her? Do we want to be a persistent church, one might even say a nasty church, one that makes it its mission to stand with the marginalized of its culture, its community, one that stands with those who stand against the cultural warnings and explanations and expectations of the day if they are harmful, if they try to take away anyone’s humanity, or do we want to be a church, do we want to be part of church, that avoids such outsiders because, in our eyes, they have little to contribute to our understanding of the world, of our mission?

Do we want to be a church that says to those who have been seen as outsiders – however that is defined – treated as second class people by the culture and society that we are here for you, we will help you resist, we will help lift you up or do we want to be a church, be a part of a church that says why are you talking to that person, that wants to keep an arm’s length from such outsiders – however they are defined – because somehow they diminish us, because somehow we think that resistance, public, open resistance is not what Jesus is calling us to do.

Do we want to be a church, do we want to be part of a church that is open to all voices, that is willing to listen to all stories as we seek out the authentic Jesus Christ in the world, even if those stories challenge us, shake us up a little bit? Or do we want to allow only officially sanctioned voices, hear only culturally approved stories that would tell us that Jesus came only for us, that do not challenge or shake us, not even gently, silence those voices that come from the outside?

As we wrestle with the story of the Samaritan woman today, we see her ignoring the warnings, turning aside the explanations, persisting. Jesus himself lifts up her story for us. But there are plenty of places in the world where stories are being told that don’t get heard. There are people resisting, challenging systems put in place to benefit one group at the expense of another that we know nothing about. Why? Because those stories are not told by the right people.

One of the most remarkable parts of our story today is that the woman goes on to tell her story, the story of Messiah, the story of God come into the world, to the rest of her village. But even that is not as remarkable as what happened then. The people listened. Just as Jesus listened to her. They listened with their ears. They listened with their hearts. They listened with their spirits. They took her seriously. Just as Jesus took her seriously. They honored her by carrying her witness, her testimony to all the region. Jesus stayed with the villagers for two days because they wanted to hear more about him and his work and his plans after they listened to the woman they at one time would have ignored, would have taken pains to ignore.

Jesus modeled to his disciples and to all of us how we are to be in relationship with those who exist on the fringes of their societies. He persisted. He remained present with her, just as he does with everyone, especially those looked on as the lost and the least. He persisted. He listened to her story, entered into her story, just as he does to everyone and to all stories, especially those that come from the margins. He persisted. He took her seriously, just as he does everyone, especially those who have been or are being pushed to the outside by societal and cultural forces beyond their control. He persisted. He honored her, just as he does all people, especially those who are told in many different ways there is no reason they should expect such treatment.