Cross of Grace

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Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

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Reformation Series: Dying and Grieving - John 11:17-27

John 11:17-27

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”


Our theme for today is about “dying and grieving.” And remember, with this series we’ve been preaching on, we’re supposed to be looking for common ground between Christians of different stripes, as we make our way to Reformation Sunday, next weekend. Specifically, we’ve been looking for common ground around themes like communion and prayer and forgiveness and reconciliation between Catholics and Lutherans in the world these days.

So, outside of the trappings and traditions of church practices, you can’t deny that every person of every theological, denominational, geographic, political, cultural, sociological, economic demographic, share common ground when it comes to death and dying. I mean, we will all do it someday. Every one of us will die and we all know someone else who will, too. So far, humanity hasn’t found a way out of it. Our lives are finite… limited… they will come to an end. We will die and we hope someone will miss us and grieve our going. And as hard as it is, I hope we all have someone to miss and to grieve, along the way.

According to the book that has been informing our sermons the last few weeks, if given the choice, most Americans say they want to die quickly. They wouldn’t mind dying in their sleep, without any warning that death is coming. And most of us don’t want our dying to be a burden to anyone. And I believe it.

When my wife, Christa, and I try to talk to her mother about preparing a will or making plans for elder care and nursing home insurance, she jokes about not wanting to think about that; that when the time comes, she just wants to put on a big red hat and walk off into a field of flowers at sunset, or something like that. It’s kind of a joke, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she has a red hat hidden somewhere, should the opportunity arise.

My own father has pact with at least one of his pastor friends where they’ve agreed to mistakenly step on the oxygen tube or pull the plug for the ventilator from the wall, should either of them find themselves in such a predicament down the line.

My point is, as much as we’d like to avoid or deny or make as easy as possible the dying we encounter in our lives – either our own or that of the people we love the most – things don’t always work out that way. And as Christian people on the planet we live in a strange way when it comes to death and dying. So much of our faith is wrapped up in the hope that this isn’t all there is; that there is something more on the other side of God’s heaven; that life after this life is something we’re promised and something to look forward to somehow, even if none of us knows exactly what that looks like.

If nothing else, this bit from John’s Gospel, about Lazarus, his sisters, and his good friend Jesus, remind us that not a lot has changed when it comes to faithful people dealing with death, like we do. There’s much more to this story of course…

Jesus hears about his friend Lazarus being sick, but he doesn’t rush to rescue him, like Mary and Martha had hoped. He takes his time getting there and when Jesus finds Lazarus dead – stinking up his tomb after four days inside – the sisters are mad. “Jesus if you had been her, our brother wouldn’t have died.” Isn’t that the accusation of the ages? “God, where have you been?” “God, why didn’t you show up?” “God, if you are who you say you are – and if you just would have shown up to prove it – our brother, our sister, our son our daughter, our mother, our father, our aunt, uncle, friend, whoever – wouldn’t have died.” Haven’t we all wondered or accused something similar?

And so I think our greatest lesson – as hard as it can be to learn or to practice some days – comes from Martha. In the midst of all her grief and despair and anger and frustration; when she’s as sad as she can be, she confesses a faith that, I frankly wonder, if she’s all that certain of at the moment. I mean, her brother’s dead, and has been for four days. His friend – and her Lord – seems to have neglected their prayers for help. And she’s no super-hero, so I’m okay guessing that maybe she was trying to convince herself that she believes something she may not be all that sure of: “Yet, even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.” “I know that he will rise again, in the resurrection on the last day.” And, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent my own fair share of time, like Martha, convincing myself to believe some pretty incredible things at some pretty difficult times. And I don’t mean to over-simplify this dying and grieving stuff too much, but I wonder, today, if that isn’t our calling as believers in the world: to remind and to convince and to comfort and to hope with one another – and for one another – when we need it most, even in the face of death.

Because Jesus ends up working a miracle for Lazarus that day, by raising him from the dead. He calls him out of that tomb, smelling like death, and still wrapped in his grave-clothes, but walking and talking and living and breathing, in spite of it. And Mary and Martha get their wish, their prayers are answered, and we get a reminder of what it means to trust in the promise of God’s love, in spite of and in the face of the power of death in this world.

Now, we can’t all do that – raise each other from the dead, of course. But we do have a story to tell. And some of you have heard me say something like this before… that there are three things about death that can’t be denied – that it is irreversible, that it is universal, and that it is final. Remember those words for a minute – irreversible, universal, final. I got this from another pastor who talks this way to kids about death and dying - Irreversible… Universal… Final…

Death is irreversible. Like I said before, we humans haven’t found a way to undo the work of death in our lives or for the sake of ones that we love. Even Lazarus, who Jesus raised from the dead this morning, dies again, and for good, just like the rest of us will one day. Death is irreversible.

And death is universal, too. No one is beyond the reach of death. Black, white, rich, poor, Lutheran, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, American, Asian, European, you name it, the whole lot of us will die one day. It happens to the best of us. Death is universal.

And death is final. It is our last official act as people on the planet. There is nothing to follow our final breath or last heart beat on this side of the grave. Death is final.

It is irreversible… universal… final. But we get to say all of that, as Christian people, with a different kind of perspective.

What might sound like fear or sadness, despair or defeat to some people, doesn’t have to be that way for the likes of you and me who, like Martha in the Gospel story, believe Jesus to be the Messiah, the one coming into the world; believe Jesus, himself, to be the resurrection and the life. Because we know something else about “irreversible…” “universal…” and “final…” as the people of God.

We know that the love of God in Jesus Christ – the love poured out and promised in and through Holy Baptism – is irreversible. It cannot be taken away. It cannot be undone or erased or mistaken, for that matter. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ, remember… not hardship or distress or nakedness or persecution or peril or sword. And not even death. God’s love for us is irreversible.

And it’s universal, too. The love of God in Jesus Christ is for all people – red and yellow, black and white; slave and free; Jew and Greek; for God so love THE WORLD that he gave his only Son…not to condemn the world, but in order that the world would be saved through him; the light of God in Jesus Christ was/is the light for all people. God’s love is universal.

And God’s love is final. The Good News of our Gospel in Jesus Christ is that the love of God wins every time. It trumps cancer and heart disease and natural disasters and suicide and alzheimer’s and MS and battle fields, bombs, the bottle and all of our bad choices. Because on the other side of Easter’s resurrection tomb, the love of God in Jesus Christ always, always, always gets the last word. God’s love is final and forever.

Irreversible, universal and final. Death is all of those things, for sure. But even more is the love of God made known to us in Jesus Christ irreversible, universal, and final. And the love of God in Jesus Christ – out-lives and out-lasts the death that scares and saddens us too often in this life. And it’s that kind of love that defies and defeats, even death, when we share it with each other and for the sake of the world, in Jesus’ name.

Amen

Reformation Series: Forgiving and Reconciling - Matthew 9:2-8

Matthew 9:2-8

And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.”

Then some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, perceiving their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk?’ But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” – he said to the paralytic – “Stand up, take your bed and go to your home.” And he stood up and went to his home. 

When the crowds saw it, they were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings.


The book that inspires our current Reformation sermon series (One Hope: Re-Membering the Body of Christ) tells this story:

“After apartheid ended in South Africa, a white police officer named Mr. Van der Broek was put on trial. The court found that he had come to a woman’s home, shot her son at point-blank range, and then burned the young man’s body on a fire while he and his officers partied nearby. The woman’s husband was killed by the same men, and his body also was burned.

The woman was present in the courtroom and heard the confessions offered by Mr. Van der Broek. At one point, a member of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission turned to her and asked, “So, what do you want? How should justice be done for this man?”

“I want three things,” the woman said confidently. “I want first to be taken to the place where my husband’s body was burned so that I can gather up the dust and give his remains a decent burial.”                                                                                                

She continued, “My husband and son were my only family. I want, secondly, for Mr. Van der Broek to become my son. I would like for him to come twice a month to the ghetto and spend a day with me so that I can pour out on him whatever love I still have.

“And, finally, I would like Mr. Van der Broek to know that I offer him my forgiveness because Jesus Christ died to forgive. This was also the wish of my husband. And so, I would kindly ask someone to come to my side and lead me across the courtroom so that I can take Mr. Van der Broek in my arms, embrace him, and let him know that he is truly forgiven.”

“The Gospel of the Lord.” Sort of, right?!?!

I thought that story from the Gospel – about Jesus healing that paralyzed man – was a miracle. And who doesn’t love a good miracle, right? I think it’s great when Jesus shows off his super powers. It’s good news when someone gets healed. And I especially like it, here, when Jesus does it all with a little bit of attitude.

When the scribes are grumbling about whether Jesus, that carpenter’s kid from Nazareth, could possibly have the power to forgive sins…? When Jesus says something like, “Really? That’s what you’re worried about here…?” And when he asks them, “What’s easier, do you suppose, to forgive sins or to make a paralyzed man stand up and walk?” It was a rhetorical question, of course. Almost sarcastic, it seems to me.

One big piece of this puzzle has to do with how 1st Century people understood the connection between sin and sickness. The short version of the story is that, often-times, when someone was paralyzed, or blind, or deaf, or mentally ill, or had a case of the chicken-pox, for that matter, those afflictions were often attributed to some sort of sinfulness on their part; like they must have done something to deserve some punishment; like they were paying dues for their misdeeds. Which means – in the case of the paralyzed man – to be able to stand up and walk, wasn’t just evidence of his physical healing. It was also proof of his divine forgiveness that couldn’t be refuted or argued or denied, no matter how hard it was to believe.

And, Jesus knows no one believed he had the power to cure paralysis any more than they thought his forgiveness was worth a lick. So when Jesus does one – sends that paralyzed guy skipping home, with his mat under his arm – everyone has to believe that he’s done the other, too; that his forgiveness is just as real, that it counts just as much as that miracle they all saw stand up and walk right out of the room.

And it is a miracle, right? Not just to cure a disease, but to forgive like that? And not just like Jesus does, but to forgive like that poor South African woman who lost so much and who had every reason to hold a grudge; to punish severely; to hurt, harm, and retaliate against the officer who murdered and defamed and disgraced her family in such an ugly, hateful way – and who stole so much from her in the process. Can you imagine?

We are supposed to imagine it. And we’re supposed to marvel at it…just like those first century witnesses who saw what Jesus did and “were filled with awe and glorified God,” like the Gospel tells us, “becuase God had given such authority to human beings.”

“BECAUSE GOD HAD GIVEN SUCH AUTHORITY TO HUMAN BEINGS.”

Which means we’re supposed to do more than just imagine it and marvel at it. We’re supposed to practice and model it, too.

My hunch is that that day in that South African courtroom wasn’t the first time that grieving woman had forgiven someone in her life. My hunch is, she didn’t show up to court ready for the Olympic-level, World Championship-sized game of forgiveness with which she was faced and crush it the way she did, without some serious practice over the course of her lifetime.

I imagine she had practiced the art of her forgiveness on the very souls she was grieving so deeply – her husband and her son, more than once. I imagine she practiced the art of forgiveness at the market with strangers… at school with her son’s teachers… in the neighborhood with other parents and children… at church with her fellow parishioners and pastors, even.

And I have another hunch about that South African wife and mother who was able to forgive the murderer of her husband and her only child. My hunch is, having practiced forgiving others in the past, she knew something about the benefits of forgiveness … for herself; that she had no choice, almost, but to offer it.

See, forgiveness isn’t just benevolence and blessing for those who are forgiven. When real forgiveness is achieved, when full pardon is able to be granted to another, the forgiver is set free, too – free from the weight of a grudge to bear; free from the anxiety of holding onto anger; free from the struggle of harboring the poison of unforgiveness in your body, mind and spirit. (Maybe you’ve heard that refusing forgiveness, holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.)

Which is why God calls us to forgive and why Jesus shows us how to do it. Forgiveness is God’s gift of power to us. Forgiveness is God’s gift of authority to us. The people who watched Jesus heal and forgive were filled with awe and glorified God because God had given such authority such power to human beings – to them – to you and me – and to mothers in South Africa, too.

Because can’t you just imagine the power shift in the courtroom that day as that grieving mother met face to face with that guilty officer, only to hug him and to love him in spite of the sins he committed against her? His power to hurt her – the power of sin and death – would have been overcome by her unwillingness to accept it – and to forgive him and to love him, somehow, in spite of it. That is the power of God.

May we never have to muster the measure of forgiveness and grace offered by that woman. But may her story give us some perspective about the power and pleasure of practicing forgiveness more often, more readily, more graciously in our daily lives, because we are blessed and better for it. And because God’s hope and intention is that forgiving and reconciling will change our hearts and lives, our relationships, our families, our schools, our churches, and the world in God’s kingdom, when we do.

Amen

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