Saturday, April 26, 2014

Comfort and Comedy

John 20:19-31
Easter 2 / Holy Humor
April 27, 2014
William G. Carter 

. . . Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

It is a cruel irony that Doubting Thomas visits us on Holy Humor Sunday. Thomas is the kind of guy who can’t take a joke. The few times we meet him in scripture, he is earnest and precise. He believes words should mean what they mean.

He speaks first in chapter eleven, after Lazarus dies. Lazarus, the beloved friend of Jesus, had been sick, and Jesus wait for a couple of days. Then Jesus says, “Let’s go to Judea.” The disciples say, “Lord, they were just trying to kill you in Judea,” but Jesus says, “We have to go wake Lazarus.” They say, “But if he’s only sleeping, he will be OK.”

Jesus smacks his head and says, “I guess I can use metaphors and euphemisms with you people. Let me say it straight: Lazarus kicked the bucket, bought the farm, and bit the dust.” And they look at him blankly. So he says, “Lazarus is dead. Come on, we are going to him.” And Thomas gets his first speaking line in scripture, kind of spoken in the tone of Eeyore: “Alright, let’s go die with him.”

The big joke is that Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. I imagine him looking at the twelve and saying, “Do you get it?”

The next time Thomas speaks, he interrupts Jesus. It’s the Last Supper. Judas has just slipped out to betray. Jesus is giving an extended speech. It’s a farewell speech. He tells them how to make their way in the world after he’s gone. These have become some of the most beloved words in the Bible: Love one another, as I have loved you. I am the vine, you are the branches; stay with me.

At one point Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house, there are many dwelling places… If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.”

And Thomas interrupts and says, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
He is one of the Beloved of God, and he interrupts some of the most comforting words that the Lord ever speaks.

It seems he can’t help himself. It is how he processes reality: with precision, with accuracy, with clarity. He wants to know, and to be clear about it.

Thomas reminds me of how Garrison Keillor describes an engineer. If a pessimist sees a glass and says it is half-empty, and an optimist sees a glass and says it is half-full, then an engineer sees a glass that is twice as big as it ought to be. I have engineers in my family. Thomas would make a good one. These are the people we count on to design our bridges and measure our brake pads. It’s OK that they are not comfortable with ambiguity.

But faith requires something else. Faith is a move from outer observation to inner comfort. We could say with Thomas that “seeing is believing” – but faith is about believing even if we do not see.

That’s why the Gospel of John tells the story of Thomas. John is writing sixty years or more after the Resurrection. For us, that’s kind of like the people who still remember fighting in World War 2. There aren’t as many of them as there used to be. If the stories are to be remembered, they must be written down. That is what John is doing for the people who didn’t actually see Jesus.

And he is offering this as a gift to people like us, who come years later. We hear about Jesus, we hear about his resurrection, but he does not come “on demand” as if he has to prove anything.

That reminds me of Doubting Thomas’ favorite joke. Ever hear that one?

Knock, knock.
Who’s there?
No, it’s not.
Yes, it is.
No, it’s not. Jesus never knocks. He appears if and when he chooses, and rarely when we expect him.

I wonder if anybody laughed when the Lord appeared a week after Easter. The disciples were in a room they knew how to lock from the inside, but suddenly he was there. Not only that; he had heard what Thomas and the others were saying when he wasn’t visibly present in the room.

Last week, we heard how Mary Magdalene did not even recognize him outside his tomb. This week, we hear of an eavesdropping Lord – he can hear what we say, and can appear anywhere – recognized or not – before he slips out of sight again. If these are clues from John as to how to live with a Risen Lord, then the blessing really comes when we believe what we cannot see.

Erik Erikson, the psychiatrist, wrote about children who cry the moment that a parent steps out of sight. To use his words, ''The infant's first social achievement, is his willingness to let the mother out of sight without undue anxiety or rage, because she has become an inner certainty as well as an outer predictability.''[1]

I like that phrase: “an inner certainty as well as an outer predictability.”

In these weeks after Easter, we are going to spend some time in worship with the Heidelberg Catechism. It’s a teaching document from 1563, designed to give us the words to ground our faith, to help us establish Christ as an “inner certainty.” I invite you to a weekly Wednesday evening class at 6:15 as we work through the words before I preach about them on the next six Sundays. A catechism is a Question and Answer document, and the first question is the one before us today: “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” The answer begins, “That I am not my own, but belong – body and soul, in life and in death – to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Faith takes root in this answer. We belong to Jesus Christ, the One who returns from the grave, who hears our doubts and misgivings without blasting us in punishment, who is free to come and go as he please, who is with us without recognition, who beckons us to join in the life eternal of the Father. We can’t see or prove any of this – but we can trust it as an inner certainty.

Jesus offers us a faith without any props, beginning with the prop of his physical body. Nobody can cling to his shoulder, like Mary Magdalene wanted to do. Nobody can stick their finger in the nail holes, like Thomas said he needed to do. Bodily contact is not necessary for Christian faith, because faith is a matter of the spirit, an inner certainty that benefits both body and soul.

We belong to Christ, to the Risen Christ. That is our comfort, and our only comfort. There are people who can give us comfort, people we can love and adore, but they are not perfect and sooner or later they will let us down. There are words by great spiritual leaders that offer wisdom and insight, but words slip into the air and evaporate eventually. Even a church, a good church like this one, has an array of opportunities for worship, education, and service - - but every human institution waxes and wanes, goes through cycles, evolves, changes, or falls apart – every single one.

What remains is Jesus Christ. Death did not take him away; on the first day of New Creation, God raised him. He’s back and completely alive. Nothing can take away the love he has for us. It is a certainty.

From time to time, some of you have heard me quote Frederick Buechner. Fred is an award-winning writer, a Presbyterian minister in fact. A few of his books are on my top shelf, close to where I write my sermons. I reach for them when words fail me, because his words speak so well.

What is not so widely known is the moment when faith bubbled up within his spirit. Buechner was a published novelist, widely acclaimed, yet he sensed something was missing. Here’s how he tells the story:

. . .  for the first time in my life that year in New York, I started going to church regularly, and what was farcical about it was not that I went but my reason for going, which was simply that on the same block where I lived there happened to be a church with a preacher I had heard of and that I had nothing all that much better to do with my lonely Sundays. The preacher was a man named George Buttrick, and Sunday after Sunday I went, and sermon after sermon I heard. It was not just his eloquence that kept me coming back, though he was wonderfully eloquent, literate, imaginative, never letting you guess what he was going to come out with next but twitching with surprises up there in the pulpit, his spectacles aglitter in the lectern light. What drew me more was whatever it was that his sermons came from and whatever it was in me that they touched so deeply.

And then there came one particular sermon with one particular phrase in it that does not even appear in a transcript of his words that somebody sent me more than twenty-five years later so I can only assume that he must have dreamed it up at the last minute and ad-libbed it —and on just such foolish, tenuous, holy threads as that, I suppose, hang the destinies of us all. Jesus Christ refused the crown that Satan offered him in the wilderness, Buttrick said, but he is king nonetheless because again and again he is crowned in the heart of the people who believe in him. And that inward coronation takes place, Buttrick said, "among confession, and tears, and great laughter." It was the phrase great laughter that did it, did whatever it was that I believe must have been hiddenly in the doing all the years of my journey up till then. It was not so much that a door opened as that I suddenly found that a door had been open all along which I had only just then stumbled upon.[2]

Crowned among confession, and tears, and great laughter. With that, the open door, the inner certainty, the comfort offered within God’s grand comedy of resurrection. Trusting in that makes all the difference.

 Did you hear the one about the preacher who spoke too long? He sat down and the people sang about joy.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Erik H. Erikson, Childhood and Society, chapter 7 (1950).
[2] Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey, Harper and Row, Publishers.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

O Mary, Don't You Weep!

John 20:1-18
Easter Sunday
April 20, 2014
William G. Carter

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

For all of today’s hosannas and hallelujahs, Easter begins with tears. A woman went to the tomb of a beloved friend and found it cracked open. His body was supposed to be there. She had every reason to expect him to stay in Joseph of Arimathea’s donated tomb. Mary Magdalene had stood near the cross with his mother. She heard him gasp in pain, she saw him breathe his last breath. She knew he was gone and wasn’t coming back.

So there is no logical reason for her to go to his tomb. John says all the necessary work had been done. The body of Jesus was wrapped in linen with the burial spices. Nicodemus had seen to that, returning secretly with an extraordinary amount of myrrh and aloes to prepare the body. The deed was done, the tomb was sealed, the Sabbath rest began.

I have been with people when they discover a grave has been desecrated. It is not a pretty sight. There were gasps and exclamations of shock, then blind rage. “Who did this? Where are those vandals? Why wasn’t somebody watching?” Then come the tears, tears that declare “I loved him.” It was hard enough to watch him die, to say goodbye – but now this: a broken grave.

Before we rush onto thin affirmations today, let’s first take the time to feel the shock of it all. Easter begins with tears. Easter begins with Mary weeping by the tomb.

She had run to tell two disciples that the grave had been robbed. Simon Peter and another race to the empty tomb. They can only confirm that the grave is open, and that it is empty. Somebody has been there before them. The linen wrappings lie without a body. Some of them were rolled up and placed off to the side. Who knows what they think? Simon Peter leaves, heartsick and scratching his head. John says the other disciple “believes,” but doesn’t actually say what he believes. So the two of them go home.

What exactly do you believe about Easter? Not what people have told you, but you yourself. What do you believe? I believe Easter begins with tears. Real tears. Death is real. Our loved ones die. Jesus died. Mary Magdalene was certain of that.

As she peers into the tomb after the other two depart, she sees two angels. They weren’t visible before. They ask about her crying. “Woman, why are you weeping?” They offer no consolation, only a question. Her grief should be self-evident, if angels have any emotion. She has lost her Jesus, not once but twice. He died and now he is missing. The tears are real. They are always real. Easter begins right there.

I was eleven years old when my grandfather died. He had a heart attack on his way to seeing me walk a ceremonial bridge from Cup Scouts to Boy Scouts. Grandpa was only five years older than I am now. My parents raised me as a Christian, and I had heard plenty of sermons that declared Jesus Christ had been raised from the dead. But as I stood sobbing by my grandfather’s grave, I also knew my grandfather wasn’t coming back. The fresh dirt on his grave assured me of that.

Was Easter real? Was death defeated when Jesus was raised back to the life? I couldn’t say at age eleven. I knew death was real. And I knew if I ate enough chocolate eggs and marshmallow Peeps on Easter, I wouldn’t think about death for very long.

But here’s the thing. Mary turned away from the tomb. Through scalded eyes, she saw somebody she could only construe as the gardener. He asked her the same ridiculous question, “Why are you weeping?” as if he was on the same wavelength as the two angels in the tomb. She didn’t recognize his voice even as he spoke to her.

He asked another question, “Whom are you looking for?” That’s a question that the Gospel of John places on the lips of Jesus over and over again. He knows there is a search going on in every human life. We are looking for something, Someone, who can meet us, who can complete us, who can hold us forever in grace and truth.

People will do all kinds of things to satisfy this fundamental human hunger. They will take cruises and come back weary. They will dine on extravagant meals and come back weary. They will medicate themselves to get as high as they can, only to fall like Icarus with melted wings. A friend of mine tells me about a loved one who is going in June on a weeklong retreat in Hawaii with a new age guru; it’s going to cost $6800 for her to search for enlightenment, and she’s looking for the same thing the rest of us are looking for: meaning, purpose, holiness . . . God.

The gardener asked the question, “Whom are you looking for?” Truth be told, she was looking for a dead Jesus, so she could take him away and keep him safe once and for all. That was all she was looking for.

That’s when he said it: “Mary…” Easter happens when Christ calls our names.

Some people today are out trying to prove the resurrection. They haven’t realized it is impossible to do. If you go to Jerusalem, the Christians over there can’t even agree on the location of the empty tomb. They don’t know conclusively where it actually was. Three hundred years after the first Easter, some Christians said, “We know the place; let’s put a church on it.” In 1867, a Garden Tomb was found and others said, “This is the place.” A friend of mine tells me they are both wrong; the tomb of Jesus is actually in Japan.

The fact of the matter is, Christians have never worshiped a tomb. There is no comfort in a tomb, especially if it’s empty.  No, we worship Jesus Christ. He is the One who calls our names . . . Louise, John, Ann Kelly, Margaret, Richard . . . Easter becomes real when we know he is alive and he is the One we are looking for.

If Jesus is alive, he can speak to us. He can lift the old words of scripture off the page and lodge them in our hearts. And we know the Lord is our shepherd, we know that death has no final power over us. I spend a lot of time with the Bible, and sometimes it is as if he speaking to me – because he is. Have you ever had that experience? He is the One we seek behind all of the words written in Bibles and newspapers.  

If Jesus is alive, he can come to us even if we do not see him. “Though we walk in the valley of the shadow of death, we fear no evil - - for You are with us” We can stand a little taller, stand a good bit stronger, because it is He who helps us to stand. And we discover because of his presence with us, there is nothing for us to fear. Not since he is alive!

If Jesus is alive, he can invite us to do something important for God and God’s world. He does not want us to fall into selfishness and self-absorption, but invites us – calls us – to give ourselves to others as he gives himself to the world. One of our church members apologized to me the other; she has to skip worship today because they need her to serve food at the soup kitchen. I said, “Don’t ever apologize for responding to the voice of the Risen Christ. You have to do what he calls you to do.”

Easter becomes real when we hear the Risen Christ calling our names.

I didn’t know that at age eleven, standing by my grandfather’s grave. But I have stood beside countless graves of other people and declared with full authority, “Don’t be afraid. The God of life is stronger than death, and the people who have trusted Christ continue to be alive eternally.” I said it because it’s the truth, and I said it because I believe the Risen Lord called me by name and said, “Bill, this is what I call you to say.”

Mary’s tears are real. But she stops weeping when the Risen Christ calls her by name. Easter is for her.

And Easter is for you. Trust that, behind all the words we say today, behind all the hymns we sing and the prayers we speak, trust that, behind the bread we eat and the cup we drink, Christ is alive. He knows you better than you know yourself. He loves you more than you can possibly imagine being loved. He imagines you living a life free from fear, a life you can offer to him for the benefit of the broken world that he loves.

This is the grand adventure of faith, Easter faith. And if, at heart, you are looking for him, he will find you . . . and he will call you by name.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

What Got Into Him?

John 13:21-31
Maundy Thursday
April 17, 2014
William G. Carter

After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, ‘Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.’ The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved - was reclining next to him; Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, ‘Lord, who is it?’ Jesus answered, ‘It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.’ So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, ‘Do quickly what you are going to do.’ Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, ‘Buy what we need for the festival’; or, that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.

The Bible story takes me back a moment when I was five or six years old. My mother parked in front of J.J. Newberry’s variety store, and helped my sister and me to get out of our seatbelts and take us shopping. But just as we walked into the store, there was a rough looking man with a black comb-over. He had a tattoo prominently displayed on his left shoulder, and a gold ring in his ear. She clutched our hands, pulled us toward her, and said, “Stay close.” Then she murmured, “He’s a bad man.”

I later learned she was responding to more than mere appearances. He was a local character. The man had recently gotten out of prison for doing time for some unmentionable act. In my mother’s world, at least at that time, a man like that should not have been walking the streets. “Stay close,” she said, “he’s a bad man.”

The experience still gives me pause. Was he a bad man because of something he did, or was there something wrong in his soul? It’s an ongoing question. We struggle to explain human lapses. Is it bad decision-making, or something far worse?

Every time the Gospel of John mentions Judas Iscariot, it gives him a swift kick and says, “He’s a bad man.” John says Judas was “a devil from the beginning.” (6:70)  He kept the finances for Jesus and his disciples, but John says Judas often put his hand in the money box to keep a little something for himself (12:6). This is the betrayer, says John. He was indifferent to the poor. He collaborated with Jesus’ enemies. Worst of all, the devil had crept into his soul. He was not clean.

Now this is how John tells the story, some sixty years after it happened. He and his church had some time to think about it. By the time John writes the book, his church saw the world as a struggle between dualities: good and evil, light and darkness, God and Satan. Jesus comes to the world in perfect goodness and the world smacks him back. This is the cosmic struggle of the Gospel. Jesus came to his own people, says John, and they refused him. It was a bad decision, to say the very least, and it was probably due to the pervasive power of evil.

Even so, we have to wonder about a few things. The first is this: Jesus chose Judas. It was his intentional decision to select him as a disciple. He was one of the twelve. He heard the teachings, he saw the miracles, he passed out the loaves and fishes, he took care of the finances. Sixty years after the fact, John declares in chapter six that Jesus knew from the beginning how Judas would betray him. He knew it, and he chose him anyway.

Not only that, in the account we heard tonight, it is Jesus who directs Judas to go and quickly do what he was going to do. Jesus (who knows everything) seems to be calling the shots for a man he chose who has Satan in his heart. Let that sink in for a minute . . . it sounds like the dark side of predestination, that God had a plan for Judas, that Jesus the Son knows the plan, and that Judas is playing a part in the plan for Jesus to save the world. Is he a bad man – or in some grander sense, is he doing what God wants him to do?

Of course, John is writing this story sixty years later, around 90 AD. And as he looks back, he remembers what God has done in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. He takes it with him to the cross, where in a single act of glory, his self-giving love once and for all cancels the power of sin, and God raises him from the dead to speak peace and invite us to believe and receive God’s eternal life. John sees the whole thing and says it was a plan from the beginning of time. God wants to rescue the rebellious world that God himself loves.

So, is Judas a bad man? Or is he a bit actor in a much bigger plan? Here’s my conclusive answer: I don’t know.

What I do know is the story is as complicated as we are. The Bible reads us perfectly. If you look at the people around you, you can’t describe them in a simple diagnosis. That would be like that Far Side cartoon from years ago. A goofy looking man is babbling away on a psychiatrist’s couch and the shrink writes on his pad, “Just plain nuts.” Oh, if it were only that simple.

The other day, I was reading about a man named Cornealious Anderson of St. Louis. He was arrested and convicted for armed robbery thirteen years ago. He held up a Burger King store with a BB gun. The court said, “You’re going to jail,” but through a clerical error, they never came to take him away. Mr. Anderson was out on bail. He kept waiting, but the court never gave him a prison date. So he went about his business, got married, had some kids, learned a trade, got a job, started his own business, paid his taxes, renewed his driver’s license, and, generally speaking for the past thirteen years, straightened out his life.

Last summer a clerk discovered the old error and pretty soon a SWAT team knocked on Mr. Anderson’s door. At the time, he was fixing breakfast for his three year old daughter. He has been thoroughly rehabilitated, but the state of Missouri took him off to prison without so much as an apology.[1] Is he a bad man? Not any more.

So I wonder about Judas. I wonder about the rest of us. I believe God has reconciled the world to himself through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I believe God intended this from the beginning. I believe there is only one God, and regardless of evil and wherever it comes from, God is infinitely more powerful.

I also believe people are complicated enough to still create an awful lot of messes, both in their lives and in the lives of others. What gets into them? Is it Satan? Or are they just full of themselves? It may be too complicated to say, but the messes still happen. The very people God loves can fall down. The Messiah is betrayed.  

And so tonight, two words are offered to us from scripture. The first comes from an early preacher of the church, “Discipline yourselves; keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him!” (1 Peter 5:8-9). In my mother’s early warning, “Stay close.” Stay close to the protective power of love. For we have the ability to say No to all that can hurt, destroy, and betray. We need the clarity and courage of God to do so.

The second word comes from Jesus. It is the Christ who takes a piece of bread from his Last Supper table and gives it to Judas. He feeds Judas from the bread at the Table. And he hands us the same bread from the same table and says, “Take, eat, this is my body given for you. Do this, remembering me.”

Imagine this: to be so full of Christ that evil has no power over us! Now, there is a holy plan.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Missing the Cues

John 12:9-19
Palm Sunday
April 13, 2014
William G. Carter

When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.

The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord— the King of Israel!” Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him. So the crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify. It was also because they heard that he had performed this sign that the crowd went to meet him. The Pharisees then said to one another, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!”

One of the awkward truths about being human is that we miss a lot of things that are going on all around us.
Perhaps we are distracted. Or confused. Or we are simply not paying attention. For instance . . .

“Did you see that man who fell asleep in church?”  No, where was he? “He was sitting right next to you.” I guess I didn’t notice. I was listening to the trumpeter.

It happens a lot. The day dreaming motorist sits in front of a light turned green. The high school actor fawns over the attractive singer and forgets to go on stage. The young executive should have double-checked the zipper. All of us do this. Oblivious can be our middle name.

I had something horrible happen two weeks ago. After preaching for a big celebration in Abington, just north of Philadelphia, I greeted some people after the worship service. One of our talented church members was there. It was great to see him. He mentioned that church was only a short distance from where he is pursuing an advanced degree in physical therapy. I said, “Oh, this would be a great place to worship while you’re down here!” and made a mental note to mention it to the church’s pastor.

Then I turned to the next lady in line, an older woman on crutches. She had heard our conversation and smiled broadly. I pointed to Ben and said, “Ma’am, are you in need of a good physical therapist?” She said, “I would be, if I had another leg.” Oops! I had not noticed. Call me Captain Oblivious.

Ever have something like that happen to you? It is a common human problem. Something big is going on and we are fussing on the sidelines. We lean down to tie our shoe and miss the motorcade passing by.

It is a way to understand this Palm Sunday story. Jesus comes to town and people miss who he is. The Gospel of John isn’t the only one to say this.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus rides down the Mount of Olives on the donkey and he pauses midway to look at the Holy City. There is a chapel there now, in that precise spot, and it is shaped like a teardrop. It is said that Jesus wept there, gazing at the beautiful city, and he cried out, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, if only you knew the things that make for peace! But you can’t see them, for you miss who is visiting you.”

They don’t notice. The Passion story is a story about a lot of missed cues. A lot of people don’t observe what is going on right in front of their noses.

According to John, Jesus comes into the city with Lazarus. He has just raised Lazarus from the dead. The buzz is all over the region. The crowds are looking for him. The very serious religious officials are upset. “Look at this!” they exclaim. “We can’t do anything about this movement. We had better kill Jesus . . . and we had better kill Lazarus too, his sermon illustration.” It is one of the dumber things that anybody ever says in the Gospel of John: Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead, so you’re going to kill both of them? Don’t you notice what kind of life-giving power is at work in the world?

John the Gospel-Writer is not beyond using irony. In fact, it’s often the main course on his banquet. One of the primary reasons he writes this book is to tell the truth about the human race. The truth is quite simple: In Jesus Christ, God comes to us and we don’t want him. We reject the Power that gives us life. We shrug off the Healing that can make us well. The Glory of the One True God shines bright but we put on sunglasses, and then we shut our eyes.

A friend named Rodger had an invitation to speak at a church in Alaska, all expenses paid. It was a long way from Atlanta where he lives. So he flew up to Alaska, took the ferry through the fjords, caught a ride, and got to the church. He said it was amazing. Right behind the pulpit was a huge glass window. Out there were mountains and glaciers, and a pristine lake. It was breathtaking, and it was behind him when he spoke.

At one point, he caught some movement out of the corner of his eye. He turned to see an eagle swoop down, snatch a trout, and then drop it in front of a Mama grizzly and her cubs. He said, “Wow! Did you see that?” The people in the congregation said, “Oh, we see it all the time.” Ho hum, no big deal.

I believe it was John Calvin who wrote that one of the main pieces of evidence for our sinful condition is that we ignore the glory of God when it is right in front of us. We are blinded by something we see all the time. We grow dull and stop paying attention.

Either that, or we filter it, as a way of making it more manageable. You know another missed cue when Jesus came into Jerusalem? The crowds thought he was coming to get rid of the Roman army. You know how we know that? They responded by using a political symbol: they waved palm branches.

In his new commentary on the Gospel of John, Dale Bruner reminds us that for a hundred years palm branches had been a sign of military power, especially subversive political power. When the Maccabeus family led a guerilla revolt against the occupying empire, the Jerusalem Jews celebrated by singing psalms and waving palm branches.[1] They have a long memory. They are thrilled because they believe it’s happening again.

That’s why Jesus counters by choosing a donkey to ride. Not a groomed white horse of victory, but a farm animal of low humility. That’s how God comes to town – humble, self-giving, winning over not armies but one person at a time.

Jesus has been through this before. In chapter six, he fed thousands of people, who then tried to force him to be their king. But he slipped away. He wouldn’t have it. Satan had offered him a crown in the wilderness, and Jesus said, “Get out of here!” His own people had offered him a throne and scepter, but he refused.

It’s not that he doesn’t care about politics. The Lord of Life is deeply concerned about the affairs of human beings, especially about their welfare and their ability to live with one another. But he doesn’t exert his authority as if he were a politician. As he will say to the politician Pontius Pilate at the end of the week, “My authority – my kingship – doesn’t come from around here.” Pilate, a career politician, doesn’t understand him either.

We have to welcome Christ on his own terms, not on our own. That’s difficult for us, because one of the highest human goals is getting our own way. We want to be self-determined, self-authenticated, self-righteous. We want to determine what kind of Christ we will get. And when the real Son of God comes to town, we miss him.  

I am not willing to criticize the crowds and the religious officials for this. My own soul is riddled with blindness and a good dose of cluelessness. There are many, many cues that I miss, and a great many more that I can’t respond to. Maybe it is the same for you.

So this time through Palm Sunday, I want to pay closer attention. As John tells the story, there are plenty of distractions. Over here is the resurrected Lazarus, the brand-new celebrity who still smells of embalming spices. His manager says, “Maybe we can get him on Dancing with the Stars.”  It’s all about the fame.

Listen to the cheers of the adoring crowds, ever hungry for Somebody to take charge and fix everything that’s wrong with their world. They are willing to alter one of their favorite psalms and cry out for a king. Did you know they do that? They change the words and say, “Come, O King,” as they wave their palm branches.

Meanwhile, the religious officials are in despair. They see their power slipping out of their grip and an uneasy truce with the Romans coming to an end. The whole world is going after that Jesus. That’s not true, you understand; the whole world is no more interested in Jesus than it ever was. But the Pharisees, the scribes, the priests, are feeling like their whole way of life is threatened. What are they going to do?

Lazarus, the joyful crowds, the religious officials – all of them are consumed with distractions. They are missing who it is who rides down the hill, into the city, and up to the cross. This is the One who gives us the life of God. This is the One who makes all things well. This is the One that most people miss because he comes calmly, simply, and humbly.

Maybe what we need this Palm Sunday is a little less cheering and a good deal more adoration. Maybe we need to watch him, to trust him, to love him. Maybe what we need is this humble, quiet man who is not turned aside by anything. He stays focused on his purpose: to give his life that we might have life. This is the work of God. Pay attention. Don’t miss it.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] F. Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2012) 708-710.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Easter Life in a Lenten Graveyard

John 11
Lent 5
April 6, 2014
William G. Carter

On a recent visit to Washington DC, I was reminded of what kind of world this is. My daughter and I went to visit the Hirshhorn Museum on the National Mall. It’s one of the modern art collections in the Smithsonian Institution.

The Hirschhorn is holding an exhibit on the theme of destruction. Destruction. Within a few steps of entering the exhibit, there are the remains of a grand piano after it was chopped up by an axe. Go a little further and there are photos of atomic explosions and abandoned automobiles rusting in lakes. You can watch footage of Yoko Ono in the days before John Lennon. She sits in a chair as people come forward with scissors and cut away chunks of her clothing. A mattress is posted on the wall after it has been incinerated. At the end, there are a series of photos of what happens in a crematorium.

Destruction. Death and destruction. What kind of world puts these things on display? The kind of world that we live in. Some would say this is a world enchanted with its own demise. Others would simply declare what the museum curator declares: that we live with destruction and death every day.

As the apostle Paul quotes from one of the Psalms, “We are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” [1]

Word comes to Jesus that his friend Lazarus is near death at his home in Bethany. Lazarus is special. The Gospel of John calls him “beloved,” the friend whom Jesus loved. In a very curious move, Jesus stays where he is. He waits intentionally until his friend passes away, and then he moves toward the tomb.

He is met first by Martha, then by Mary. Both sisters wanted Jesus to come and prevent the death. They want him to cure their brother and keep him around for a while. But Jesus doesn’t do that. Instead he waits long enough for his beloved friend to die and be buried. He skips the funeral. It is not that he doesn’t care about his beloved friend. No, it’s that Jesus is indifferent to death.

I am going to guess that the Lord would probably skip the exhibit at the Hirschhorn Musem. He’s not interested in destruction. If we recall the opening words of the Gospel of John, we will remember why. In that peasant’s tunic, hidden in the splintered hands of the Carpenter, is the One through whom all things were made. John says, “What came into being through him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (1:3-4). Don’t bother him with death; the Jesus of John’s Gospel is only interested in life.

Life blows in the window on the wings of God’s Spirit, free and powerful. Nicodemus wondered, “How can this be?” Life wells up like a fountain and spills freely for all who will drink it. The Samaritan says, “Really? Where is your bucket?” Jesus heals the crippled person, then the sightless person, without restriction. The religious officials said, “You can’t do that; we have a Bible that says God can only act on certain days of the week.”

Now he stands before the sealed tomb of Lazarus. He says, “Roll away the stone,” and Martha replies in good King James English, “But Lord, he stinketh.” Ignoring her, ignoring the hired mourners, ignoring Death itself, Jesus bellows, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man stands up, now full of life, and the Lord of Life gives the order to unbind him and set him free. We live in a world burdened and bound by death; and Jesus gives life – full life, abundant life, God’s eternal life to a world obsessed with death.

Maybe it’s just me, in my wild imagination, but I wonder about hypothetical things. Would Abraham Lincoln beat Jefferson Davis in a game of bowling? Would Martha Stewart ever sit at a church potluck dinner without trying to improve it? Here’s my wild hypothetical thought this week: would Jesus pay good money to go to a zombie movie?

I say that with all seriousness. What’s this current obsession with the walking dead? What’s behind all of that? Are we so obsessed with death that we are afraid its representatives will stalk us, hunt us down, and eat our brains? What’s with that? Are we so fearful of the future, or sufficiently fearful that there’s not going to be a future, that we dream up these nightmares about the undead taking over the world? Somehow I think if Jesus bothered to go to a zombie movie, he would shut it down. He is not interested in celebrating death. He comes to give life. Easter life.

But it’s still Lent, you say. Easter doesn’t come for a couple of weeks. Fair enough. For that, we have the strange and unusual Gospel of John. John tells of Jesus going to the tomb of Lazarus when it’s on his timetable. He doesn’t drop everything to hurry up and fix his dying friend. No, death has its business to do. When Jesus goes it will be for an opposite reason.

When Jesus gets there, he sheds a tear. The people standing around say, “Ah, look at that. See how he loved him!” Well, they don’t understand. Sure, Jesus loves his friend, the one who is called “beloved.” But the reason he is there is to give him life, to freely give him that gift from heaven. And Jesus knows if he brings Lazarus out of the tomb, a world obsessed with death is going to put him into the tomb. That is why he weeps.

This is John’s version of the Garden of Gethsemane. This is the moment of commitment, when Jesus decides to give God’s eternal life to Lazarus, even if the backlash will kill him. That’s how the Gospel of John tells the story. We will hear more of it next week in his version of Palm Sunday.

For today, it’s enough to remember where we live. A large part of our world believes it is a Lenten graveyard, a valley of dry bones, with no hope, no breath, no power. Many churches are dwindling or dumbing down. The wider culture has forgotten its Christian influences. Greenland is thawing. CNN is obsessed with the technological failure of airplane tracking systems. And somebody out there is making blockbuster movies about zombies. The only conclusion: the whole place is falling apart. Maybe you are fearful of that, too.

If so, I commend to you Jesus of Nazareth. He doesn’t obsess about death because he’s free of it. He comes with the life of eternity, to give it freely to anybody who wants it, to give it to Lazarus who ran out of time before he could ask for it. To take hold of this life, you simply have to trust that is why he has come, and what he has come to do – to give life to you and to the world. Just trust that. That’s the essence of faith.

As somebody has said, “Apart from trust in God, the world is a cemetery, but into the world God has sent in Jesus Christ the offer of resurrection, the opportunity to pass from death to life. Just as the crowds wanted bread and he offered Bread, so here the sisters want their brother returned and Jesus acts to restore the world to life. To act in this larger life-giving way means Jesus must move to his own death, and so he does.” [2]

To come to faith, to come to Christian faith, is to trust that the life God gives is stronger than death. Even if we can’t see it, we can trust it. And it shapes how we live.

Yesterday my friend Virginia Miner reminded me of a story about the medieval Christians. They believed Jesus gives life. They believed eternal life begins in us when we start to trust the life-giving God with our hearts. So in the Middle Ages, when famines and plagues came to town, the Christians were the last to leave. They stuck around because there were people to be cared for – and they weren’t afraid of dying. Of course. Living with God here and how, living with God eternally – it’s one and the same. And there’s holy work to do.

Lazarus is raised from the dead. He’s going to die again. But living or dying, he is going to remain with Jesus. So what’s the difference?

That’s the eternal life – or more properly translated, the life of eternity. It begins at the point of our faith and trust, and it just keeps going forever. Jesus commits himself to giving us this. He dies, yet he says, “I am the resurrection. I am the life.” Then he gives that profound paradox: we die but we live - or we never die. It’s a paradox that makes complete sense if we are full of life.

A Lenten graveyard? But Easter life. Always Easter life. I conclude with a poem by Julia Esquivel, a remarkable poet from Guatemala. She loved the poor, remembered those who were forgotten, and was exiled from her native country because of her Easter poems. One of those poems goes like this:

I am no longer afraid of death
I know well
Its dark and cold corridors
Leading to life.
I am afraid rather of that life
Which does not come out of death,
Which cramps our hands
And slows our march.
I am afraid of my fear
And even more of the fear of others,
Who do not know where they are going,
Who continue clinging
To what they think is life
Which we know to be death!
I live each day to kill death;
I die each day to give birth to life,
And in this death of death,
I die a thousand times
And am reborn another thousand
Through that love
From my People
Which nourishes hope! 

Do you know why I like that poem? Sounds like Jesus.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Romans 8:36, cf. Psalm 44:22
[2] Fred B. Craddock, John: Knox Preaching Guides (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982) 85.
[3] Julia Esquivel, Threatened with Resurrection: Prayers and Poems from an Exiled Guatemalan (Elgin: Brethren Press, 1982) 65.