Sunday, April 02, 2017

Journeys to Resurrection

I've preached this homily twice before, years apart, with different examples. I reread it this year wondering if the beginning would seem stale, if I'd need to rewrite it, but I still like it. I hope other people will, too. The readings are Ezekiel 37:1-14 and John 11:1-45. *

“How could God let this happen?”

We hear this question all the time: after shootings, after tragic car accidents and plane crashes, after typhoons and mudslides and earthquakes. In my volunteer work in the ER, I’ve heard it often. It is the agonized cry of faith in the face of tragedy, and it’s at the heart of this morning’s Gospel.

The raising of Lazarus is a dress rehearsal for Holy Week. Eleven verses before the beginning of this passage, the religious establishment of Judea threatens to stone Jesus for blasphemy, for claiming to be God. After Jesus escapes that threat, he learns that his beloved friend Lazarus is dying. So Jesus — knowing that a return to Judea will seal his death sentence — decides to go back, but only after he’s dawdled a few days, to make sure that Lazarus will be dead before he gets there. An ordinary healing won’t be enough this time. The stakes have been raised; the chips are down. Jesus is about to perform nothing less than a resurrection.

As a dress rehearsal for Holy Week, this story contains many familiar elements: an all-powerful God refusing, for seemingly inexplicable reasons, to prevent the death of a beloved; weeping women; a tomb sealed by a stone; and, finally, the death-shattering miracle of resurrection. The biggest difference is that Lazarus dies of natural causes, not by execution.

Or does he? If Jesus could have prevented Lazarus’ death and refuses to do so, isn’t it somehow his fault? Mary and Martha think so: both of them say, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Some of the mourners agree: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” How could God let this happen?

Jesus has earlier told his disciples, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.” But belief isn’t the main issue here. Mary and Martha, the other mourners, and the disciples already believe in Jesus. The issue is anger. If we believe in God, if we know that God can act to prevent suffering and forestall untimely death, we may become more angry at these things than non-believers would. People who don’t believe in God don’t wonder where God is in the middle of earthquakes and famines and tidal waves. They don’t rage at God when their loved ones die too soon or after too much pain. They don’t demand, “How could God let this happen?” For non-believers, such events constitute compelling -- indeed, crushing -- proof that there is no God.

It’s believers who rail at God. “We know you can fix this. We’ve seen you do it before. Where were you this time? If you really love us as much as you say you do, how can you just sit there, cooling your heels, while our brother’s body is growing cold in his tomb? How could you let this happen?”

Jesus wept. This is, famously, the shortest verse in the Bible. Jesus weeps when he sees Mary and the mourners weeping. “He was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved,” the Gospel says.   I always want to ask, “What did you expect, Jesus? Did you think the people who loved Lazarus wouldn't weep at his death? Did you think they’d tell each other, ‘Oh, don’t worry, Jesus will show up one of these days, when he gets around to it, so let’s have a party?’”

Any way you look at it, the situation stinks, just like Lazarus’ body stinks after four days in a hot Middle-Eastern tomb. And yet, having finally shown up, Jesus does indeed make everything right.  He calls Lazarus out of the tomb, and he instructs Lazarus’ family and friends to unbind the burial cloths, to help Lazarus readjust to his new life. Any mourners who didn’t believe in Jesus before that little demonstration certainly believe in him afterwards.

Their belief is about to be tested yet again. The dress rehearsal is over. Holy Week is almost here.  This time, even Jesus will cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Once again, there will be weeping women and a tomb sealed by a stone, a tomb from which God impossibly, miraculously, will call forth new life.

The story of Lazarus offers us at least three lessons. The first is that there are no shortcuts to resurrection, even for those who believe. The most steadfast faith will not protect us against grief and doubt and bitter trials. The most serene acceptance of God’s will cannot shield us from feeling, at times, as if God has abandoned us. All of that is human and holy. It is human and holy to get angry when we feel forsaken; it is human and holy to question God, to rail at God, to weep at God’s apparent absence. It is human and holy to mourn our dead. God weeps with us, and when the time comes, God will show us how to unbind what has been resurrected.

The second lesson is that resurrection is a process, even for those who believe.  Look at today’s reading from Ezekiel, the famous Valley of Dry Bones. That’s a resurrection story, too, but it happens in stages.  First you need breath; then you need muscle, sinews, skin. It’s like peeling an onion, but in reverse. Resurrection happens from the inside out, and it takes time.

That is why, every year, we make the long slow journey through Lent, walking through those forty days just as Jesus walked through the desert, just as he walked back into Judea to Lazarus’ tomb. We make such journeys at other times, too: whenever we have suffered grief or betrayal, whenever we feel abandoned by God or other people, whenever we gag at the stench of death in a place where we had prayed for rebirth. Rebirth can still happen. God’s time is not ours. Even as we weep and pray, God journeys towards us, step by step, bringing resurrection.

But God needs our help. The third lesson of the Lazarus story is that resurrection is a community project. “Unbind him, and let him go,” Jesus tells the onlookers. Those who have been resurrected need to be helped by their neighbors and welcomed back into community. They need to be loved. They need to know that they matter.  

This makes resurrection inescapably political. People desperate for new life can’t achieve it if they’re deported back to their tombs. They can’t achieve it if the communities to which they have journeyed put them in handcuffs instead of unbinding them. They can’t achieve it if other people’s fear of who they are, or where they came from, overcomes willingness to love.   

Here, courtesy of CNN, is a story about what that kind of love looks like. In January, an Illinois woman named Nancy Swabb learned about a baby girl in Cote D’Ivoire, the Ivory Coast in Africa, who needed emergency life-saving surgery in the United States. Baby Dominique also needed foster care during her treatment. Swabb and her family, who live near the hospital that donated the surgery, opened their home to Dominique and asked their neighbors to help out with supplies. Within two days, a pile taller than Swabb herself filled the house. Neighbors donated diapers, formula, wipes, clothes, a stroller, a car seat and a playpen. Swabb's daily walks with Dominique in the stroller stretched to an hour as neighbors stopped to greet the baby they had helped welcome. "She has become the community baby, and everyone has been really interested in her story," Swabb said.

Dominque’s story ends as happily as Lazarus’ did. Her long, complicated, risky surgery was more successful than the doctors had dared hope. She is recovering well and will return to her African birth family in April. "I can't wait for her parents to see her," says Swabb, who hopes that the two families can meet someday.

Here in Reno, St. Paul’s -- along with other churches -- has welcomed our local family of Syrian refugees just this warmly. But having kids in the picture makes that easier. Dominique is ten months old and adorable. The Syrian family has small children, too. Kids remind us of innocence, of birth, of Christmas. Lazarus, four days dead and reeking, probably wasn’t adorable, but he was welcomed back into the world by people who’d known him his entire life, who already loved him.

Our challenge as a country right now is to remember that everyone alive is someone’s child: both God’s child and the child of human parents. Everyone alive was a baby once, as lovely as Dominique, as the Syrian children, as the infant Jesus on Christmas morning. Our challenge is to help yesterday’s Christmases become tomorrow’s Easters. We are called to unbind, not just the innocent and adorable, but the adults such children become, people whose unlovely tombs and journeys have left them shattered and smelly and scarred. We may well demand to know how God, or other people, could let this happen to them. But even if we never learn the answers, we can still welcome them into new and abundant life.  


Saturday, February 11, 2017

Promised Lands

Here's tomorrow's homily. I can't believe that I haven't preached since last May, and I'm very happy to be doing so again, but Matthew 5:21-37 is a bear. The other reading I talk about here is Deuteronomy 30:15-20, a much smaller bear.


A few weeks ago, my friend Shira asked her friends on Facebook if they’d help her teenaged daughter Valerie by buying containers of chili. Valerie is raising money to visit detainee camps on the Texas-Mexican border with a Methodist youth group. The group will meet with agencies to discuss how to help families released from the detention center. They’ll be bringing things like craft supplies and soccer balls to help them make friends with the children of these families.

This is a wonderful project, but I was a little confused. Shira and her family are Jewish. How had they gotten involved with the Methodist church? “Valerie's part of the group even though we're not members,” Shira told me. “She went with them to build in Appalachia. She went on a civil rights trip last spring break. She went to Washington to advocate for the SNAP program.” After noting that she doesn’t see any other faith organizations, Jewish or Christian, doing similar work in her area, Shira added, “It's maybe the only church I've been to where I actually feel welcome. Plus they say you can replace Jesus with love in prayers.”

This conversation reminded me of Kirk, last week, wondering what might happen if we replaced our crosses -- symbols of execution -- with glow sticks, symbols of God’s light. Would wearing glow sticks make people outside the church feel  more welcome?  

Welcome, something our own parish has been emphasizing for several years now, makes all the difference for people searching for a faith community. All of us want to find the place that welcomes us and feels like home. It’s worth noting, though, that welcome isn’t the same thing as comfort. Shira and Valerie feel welcome at the Methodist Church not because they’re being coddled or sheltered, but because they’re being challenged: to house the homeless, feed the hungry, and visit the imprisoned. Confronting and relieving suffering, our own or others’, is rarely comfortable. It involves sacrifices of time, money, and privilege. It involves looking at things we’d rather not see. In the short term, it may make us more unhappy, rather than less. That was certainly the experience of the Isrealites, whose flight from oppression involved forty years of hardship. No one reaches the promised land overnight.  

Promised lands take many forms: geographical, cultural, personal, political, vocational. Setting out for any promised land requires courage, planning, and the ability to persist without guarantees. Not all of the Isrealites crossed the Jordan. Moses himself didn’t, although his work made the journey possible for others. His exhortation in Deuteronomy -- “Choose life, that you and your descendants may live” -- reminds us that our actions affect future generations. Even when we won’t see the results ourselves, we work for a better world for those who will come after us.  

Choosing life is also, less obviously, at the heart of this morning’s Gospel, another in our continuing series from the Sermon on the Mount.  Among the “hard sayings” of Jesus, today’s are among the most difficult. I don’t know anyone who’s never been angry, but Jesus equates anger with murder.  I don’t know anyone who’s never been attracted, however briefly, to someone outside a primary relationship, but Jesus equates fantasy with literal cheating. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t sinned, but Jesus commands us to perform self-mutilation rather than continue to do wrong.  

Jesus is telling us to take God’s law to heart, to police ourselves rather than relying on other people to do it for us. He is telling us to address problems at their source. Everyone knows we aren’t supposed to murder, but Jesus’ followers also need to root out hatred and anger. Everyone knows that cheating is a terrible betrayal, but Jesus’ followers need to be as faithful in thoughts as in actions, because unchecked thoughts ultimately express themselves in action. We have to be willing to confront our darkest selves, the impulses that polite, respectable society would prefer to ignore.  

Fair enough. The problem, though, is that the lord of love and forgiveness seems neither loving nor forgiving here. I can’t imagine my friend Shira being comfortable hearing this passage in church. I’m not comfortable hearing this passage in church. There are no glow-sitcks anywhere in the vicinity. This is desert territory, hard and stony and parched. Jesus may be drawing us a map about how to reach the promised land, but getting there involves a lot of forced marching under a merciless sun.  

Next week, in the next section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus will command us to love our enemies. That’s hard, uncomfortable work too, but at least we’ll be back to talking about love.  Next week, Jesus will once again say things that sound at least somewhat comforting. But that’s not much help to us today.  This Sunday is a kind of mini-Lent, practice for the real thing coming up in three weeks. This Sunday, Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms to confront our sins -- our disconnections from God, from other people, and from ourselves -- and to do whatever we need to do, no matter how difficult, to make those relationships healthy again.  

Sometimes becoming healthy involves the agonizing process of cutting away diseased tissue. Sometimes it involves sacrificing things that mean a great deal to us, things that polite, respectable society tells us should make us happy. I suspect that everyone in this room has a story about doing that. Here’s mine. Please be assured that this story has a happy ending.

Almost exactly six years ago -- just before Valentine’s Day in 2011 -- I went through a very dark time. For fourteen years, I’d been an English professor at UNR.  I’d worked very hard to get the job, which paid nicely and gave me good benefits. I had tenure, which meant that at least in theory I had lifetime job security. I worked with lovely colleagues and taught excellent students, people I really cared about. By the standards of polite society, I should have been happy, and for ten years or so after starting the job, I had been.

But by 2011, I was miserable. I didn’t enjoy teaching anymore. I wasn’t doing the kind of service work my department wanted me to, which made me feel incredibly guilty, but thinking about doing that work made me feel like I was being crushed by boulders. My husband had given up his own lucrative job in New York to follow me to Reno, where he couldn’t do what he’d been doing before. I was supporting both of us. If I stopped doing that, we’d both be miserable, and I’d have broken my word. I felt trapped. I couldn’t see a way out.

For about five days that February, I seriously considered suicide. I had a plan, one that could have worked. That very week, the same plan did work for someone else. I saw the story in the newspaper and was instantly shaken, completely horrified. I felt sick for the person who’d died, sick for that person’s family and friends, sick that I’d been contemplating the same departure. My thoughts had almost led to a catastrophic action.

The good news is that they didn’t. Remembering that week, I’m still horrified at how close I came. But as scary as the episode was, it was also a major wake-up call: a summons not to death, but to new life. I obviously had to find another career, however difficult that seemed. After considering several other options, I hit on the idea of medical social work. For financial reasons, it’s taken me a while to translate that thought into action, but I’m now on my way. With my husband’s blessing, I’m in my last semester of teaching at UNR. I’m already taking classes in UNR’s Masters of Social Work program; this fall, I’ll enroll full time. I’m glad that getting here took only six years, not forty. And I’m grateful that my dark thoughts six years ago will help me understand clients who are struggling with their own. That terrifying time of darkness and disconnection will connect me to people who are suffering.

But while this absolutely feels like the right move, it also involves a lot of scary sacrifices. For at least the next two years, I’ll be cutting our family income by at least two-thirds. I’m trading job security and seniority to go back to square one in a poorly paid profession, in an era when healthcare and social services are on newly precarious ground. I’ll be giving up tenure, summer vacations, and quite a bit of social prestige. To a lot of people in polite, respectable society, this would look crazy.

I don’t think it’s crazy. I think I’ve chosen life. I can breathe again. So far, I feel very welcome in my new profession. I hope I reach my promised land, and I hope my journey allows me to help other people. But the process isn’t comfortable.

I’m being called to something new, and I’m on a long, uncertain road to get there. Maybe some of you are, too. In one way or another, all of us are. We can’t take comfort in any guarantee of earthly safety on these journeys, for there is none. Our comfort is in the one who walks beside us and ahead of us, showing the way:  the one who endured his own trials in the desert, and who reminds us that our true job is to find our own path to loving God, and others, and ourselves. Our comfort lies in knowing that even when our road takes us to the foot of the cross, there will still be life beyond it.