The First Christian Preacher – A Sermon about Mary Magdalene

St. Mary Magdalene(This is a sermon in our 10-week Wonder Women of Faith series.  This week’s Wonder Woman is Mary Magdalene. The sermon Scripture is John’s resurrection account, John 20:1-18. You can listen to a podcast of the sermon here.)

How many of you read Dan Brown’s book The Da Vinci Code, or saw the Tom Hanks movie based on it?

Then you know the “truth” about Mary Magdalene. That she secretly married Jesus. That she was pregnant when he was crucified. That she gave birth to his child and there are descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene living among us RIGHT NOW!

Oh, and some of the best evidence for this is Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper, where Mary Magdalene lays her head on Jesus’ shoulder disguised as an apostle.

Right.

Mary Magdalene is one of the most important women in the Bible. She is one of the most important people in the Bible. She is also one of the most slandered – people have been making stuff up about her for a couple thousand years.

And no wonder. For folks who want to challenge the truth of the Gospels, she is a witness who must be discredited.

To men who have historically held power in the church – and still do – she is a woman who threatens the legitimacy of the patriarchy.

But listen: “Between the time Mary Magdalene met the Risen Christ at Easter and when she announced his resurrection to the disciples, Mary Magdalene was the church on earth, for only to her had been revealed the Paschal Mystery. Any discussion of women in the church begins with this.”

That was a quote from Jesuit priest James Martin.

“Any discussion of women in the church” begins with Mary Magdalene. She – not a man – was the first witness to the risen Christ. She – not a man – was the first preacher of the risen Christ.

So who was Mary Magdalene, really?

In the Bible, we first find her mentioned in Luke Chapter 8:

“Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.”

So this group of women who traveled with Jesus had means – they had money – to support Jesus’ ministry. They were well-connected – one of them was married to the manager of King Herod’s household. And they had been cured by Jesus.

Mary Magdalene is listed first, which means she was probably the leader of this band of Jesus’s female followers. Luke says she had seven demons cast out of her. That could mean several things – that she had been cured seven times, or that she was completely cured as seven was the number that symbolized completion. As we’ve seen in other Bible accounts of people identified as possessed by demons, her symptoms would have appeared to us as something like epilepsy or mental illness.

Mary Magdalene had been troubled and tormented by something serious. She was a victim of illness, not someone who brought trouble on herself. Jesus had set her free.

Now in gratitude she followed him. She was a DISCIPLE – disciple means a follower. I know we usually think of Jesus’ disciples as men, but Mary Magdalene and the other women who followed Jesus was as much a disciple as the men with whom we are more familiar. She is mentioned by name in the Bible more often than most of those 12 disciples. Mary Magdalene can help us broaden our vision of what a disciple looks like – that we are ALL disciples when we follow Jesus, whether we are men or women.

Not only did Mary follow Jesus and lead the other women disciples, she also supported his ministry financially. She put her money where her faith was – another trait of a disciple. Perhaps she was a widow who had been left money by a wealthy husband, or maybe she had established some kind of business in Magdala, her hometown (and the origin of “Magdalene”).

This may not be the Mary Magdalene you thought you knew. Not only have people falsely, without any Biblical support, claimed that she had some kind of relationship with Jesus beyond teacher and disciple, perhaps you have heard she was a prostitute or some other kind of sexually promiscuous woman. In Jesus Christ Superstar, Mary Sings, “And I’ve had so many men before, in many different ways.”

Promiscuity is certainly a charge men make when they want to discredit or dismiss a powerful or influential woman. We saw that with the Woman at the Well in last week’s sermon.

The widespread disparagement of Mary Magdalene’s character can be attributed to Pope Gregory the Great. In 591 he pronounced that Mary Magdalene was the same person as Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. He also said she was the same person as the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with her tears. So Pope Gregory the Great combined three women into one, and in doing so both minimized the witness and importance of women in the Gospel accounts and slandered Mary Magdalene along with Mary of Bethany and the other woman.

Pope Gregory said the “seven demons” that had been cast out of Mary Magdalene represented the seven deadly sins. So therefore she was guilty of all of them (especially the sexual ones).

Pope Gregory took the story of Mary of Bethany (a completely different woman) anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive ointment and gave it a prurient twist – he said the ointment had been previously used by her for sensual purposes.  And he took the description of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with her tears – another completely different woman – as a “Sinner” to show Mary Magdalene was a beautiful, vain and lustful young woman saved from a life of sin by Jesus.

None of this has anything to do with Mary Magdalene, and all of it is a symptom of sexism if not misogyny that results from a church ruled by a patriarchy. Women must be put in their place and kept there, lest women take a place equal to men.

Jesus promised that “The last will be first.” Certainly, that statement applied to women who were last in the culture in which Jesus lived and ministered. In Mary Magdalene we have an example of Jesus’ intention that women be lifted up, not kept in status below that of men. If we think about Jesus coming to lift up the least, the lost, the last, and the left out, that would certainly describe women at the time of Jesus.

But Mary Magdalene cannot be kept down! You may make up things about her, conflate her with other women and otherwise attempt to malign and defame her, but you cannot discount her role in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Along with a few other women, and perhaps one of the twelve male disciples, she was one of the few with the loyalty and guts to show up at Jesus’ resurrection when almost all of his male followers went into hiding.

And there she was going to the tomb at dawn on that first Easter Sunday, going to properly prepare the body of her teacher – her rabbi – for permanent burial.

But the tomb was empty.

John tells us that she ran to tell Peter and another disciple that “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” Those disciples raced to the tomb, saw that it was empty, and left.

Mary remained at the tomb. She was crying. She was crying because she had seen Jesus die and because now his body had apparently been stolen. She had lost everything.

After a brief encounter with two angels in the tomb who asked her why she was crying, she turned around and saw someone standing there.

The tomb was in a garden, so she assumed it was the gardener. John tells us it was Jesus but Mary did not recognize him. Why not? She did not expect to see him there in front of her, talking or even breathing. He was dead. She had seen him die. She had seen his body placed in the tomb.

Jesus asked her why she was crying. He asked who she was looking for.

She responded, “Sir, if you’ve carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

Then it happened. Jesus said her name.

“Mary.”

She responded with recognition. “Rabbi.”

Jesus told her not to hold onto him – she had work to do! Go and tell the disciples!

And she went – the very first preacher with the good news that Christ is Risen! The very first Easter preacher. The first evangelist of the risen Christ. The “Apostle to the Apostles.”

She went and said, “I have seen the Lord!”

Mary Magdalene was trusted with the message of resurrection, the best news EVER. Death does not have the final word. The old order has been turned upside down – LIFE follows DEATH.

But notice Mary does not preach a sermon of theology. She does not quote Scripture or speculate on the mechanics of resurrection. No. She carries her own experience of the risen Christ to the other disciples.  “I have seen the Lord!”

What an example for our life as disciples. What an example for our own witness. We are sent into the world to share our experience of Christ – to tell others how and where and in whom we have seen our living Savior, Jesus Christ.

And Mary reminds us that in the church there is no distinction between men and women, no jobs – especially the pastoral office – that are reserved for men alone. Over the years, men have perpetuated their leadership in the church by dismissing and denigrating women such as Mary Magdalene. But let us return to the example of Jesus.

I saw this on a t-shirt advertised on Facebook this week:

Dear Church,

Jesus Protected women.
Empowered women.
Honored women publicly.
Released the voice of women.
Confided in women.
Was funded by women.
Celebrated women by name.
Learned from women.
Respected women.
And spoke of women as examples to follow

Our turn.

AMEN

Posted in Bible, Christianity | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

“It Is Very Biblical to Enforce the Law”

The Bible according to the Jeff Sessions/Sarah Sanders interpretation of Romans 13:

babies thrown into the nile– Hebrew women, including Moses’ mom, should’ve turned over their babies to the Egyptian authorities because of God’s “clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes.” Those authorities had the right and duty to kill those babies because “It is very Biblical to enforce the law.”

– Daniel, and the three men in the fiery furnace, should have bowed down and worshiped King Nebuchadnezzar because of God’s “clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes.” They deserved to die in the lions’ den and the fiery furnace because “It is very Biblical to enforce the law.”

– Those brave Christian martyrs in Acts and beyond should have stopped talking about Jesus when ordered to do so because of God’s “clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes.” The Roman government was right to put them to death because “It is very Biblical to enforce the law.”

– That especially includes Paul who wrote Romans 13. But he must have been a real hypocrite since he defied the law and was executed for it.

– And finally, there’s Jesus. He should have cow-towed to Pilate and the other Roman authorities who put him to death because of God’s “clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes.” The Romans were right to crucify him because “It is very Biblical to enforce the law.”

To paraphrase Inigo Montoya . . . Sarah and Jeff, I don’t think those words (Romans 13) mean what you think they mean.

NOTE: The first quote in each section is from Jeff Sessions yesterday. The second is from Sarah Sanders, also yesterday.

(Exodus illustration by Martin Young, purchased from www.biblecartoons.co.uk.)

Posted in Bible, Christianity, Christianity and Culture, Political | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

“Into the Hand of a Woman” (Or, A Well-Placed Tent Peg)

Jacopo Amigoni 002(This is the second sermon in our 10-week Wonder Women of Faith series.  This week’s Wonder Women are Deborah and Jael. Their story is found in Judges 4 and 5, but the reading in worship was Judges 4:1-10. You can listen to a podcast of the sermon here.)

Our story begins with the A-B-C-D cycle typical in the Book of Judges.

A – The people of Israel Abandon God. After the previous judge, Ehud, dies, the people turn again to idolatry instead of God.

B – They are Battered by Enemies – Employing 900 Iron chariots, King Jabin’s army commanded by General Sisera conquers and cruelly oppresses the tribes of Israel for 20 years.

C – They Cry out to God.

So now it’s time for D. It’s time for a Deliverer.

Who will he be?

Surprise! She is Deborah.

Deborah is a multi-tasking woman. I’m sure many women can relate. She’s a wife. She’s a judge – literally. She sits under a palm tree and people come from all over Israel to have her settle their disputes. A woman!

And she’s a prophet – one of fewer than 10 female prophets mentioned in the Old Testament, along with a handful in the New. (You think there were more than that who didn’t make it into the Bible that men wrote and put together? I have my suspicions.)

Deborah – Wife, Judge, Prophet . . . And now deliverer – or at least one of the three deliverers we will meet in this story.

Deborah is truly a Wonder Woman.

God tells Deborah to send for Barak – whose name means lightning. Deborah does what prophets do – she speaks God’s Word to Barak: “Hey Barak. God commands you to round up 10,000 men and go attack King Jabin’s army commanded by Sisera. Remember he’s got lots of troops – oh, and iron chariots, too. (And we don’t have any of those.) But God’s going to give you victory.”

If I’m Barak, my answer is, “Uh huh.”

You heard what the real Barak said to Deborah: “I’ll go if you go with me, but if you don’t go with me I won’t go.”

So this man – General Lightning – tells this woman, Wonder Woman that she is, that he won’t go into battle without her.

This story is full of surprises! First a woman in charge and now this reaction from Barak – that’s not how God’s generals in the Bible act.

When I first read this I thought maybe Barak was a little . . . scared if not a lot needy. General Lightning is kind of a mess.

But that might be a little hard on Barak.

I got to reading and thinking about this. What if Barak is actually . . .  kind of faithful? What if he knows and believes God is with Deborah, so it’s not really about taking Deborah herself into battle but rather the assurance of God’s presence?

Whatever the reason for Barak’s request, Deborah says she will go with him. BUT, she says, it will be a woman that ultimately defeats Sisera. General Sisera will be “delivered into the hand of a woman.”

Who will that be? Deborah? You might think so, but we’ll see . . .

That’s where our reading ended but I want you to know the rest of this story – it’s a good one and it’s hardly ever read or especially preached on or even taught in Sunday School.

How many of you know this story? (A handful of folks raised their hands.)

What happened next is that Sisera heard that Barak and his army were on the move. So General Sisera called together his 900 iron chariots and all his fighting men to meet them in battle. It should have been an easy fight . . . for General Sisera. All those chariots gave him a huge technological advantage.

But Deborah told Barak to attack. She said, “The Lord is going before you!” Barak and his 10,000 men streamed down from the mountains toward the enemy army.

God somehow throws General Sisera’s army into a panic. And it starts to rain. Creeks, streams, and rivers overflow their banks. That makes lots of mud. All those powerful chariots get . . . stuck.

Every single one of those enemy soldiers are wiped out. Except one.

General Sisera.

He runs away on foot – not very dignified behavior for such a powerful general.

It gets worse for him.

He runs to the tent of a man named Heber the Kenite. Heber the Kenite’s family have some kind of alliance with King Jabin, so General Sisera thinks he will be safe.

But Heber the Kenite isn’t home. Only his wife – Jael (remember that name) is there.

Kenites are not Jews. So Jael is both a woman AND a gentile.

An unlikely hero, right?

Jael invites General Sisera into her tent. Sisera is apparently exhausted from the battle and the running away, so he lies down. He tells Jael if anyone comes looking for him, “Tell them I’m not here!”  Now things turn kind of weird – Jael mothers General Sisera. She covers him up with a blanket. Then he asks for some water, but she opens up a container of milk instead.

And General Sisera, safe and cozy in the blanket and soothed with the milk, falls asleep.

Jael picks up a tent peg and a hammer. She approaches sleeping Sisera. She places the pointy end of the tent peg on his temple.  She raises the hammer . . .

I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.

And that’s how General Sisera was ultimately defeated by a woman.

So who’s the Deliverer in this story? I’d say there were three – Deborah, Barak, and Jael. Two women and a man.

Judges 4 is less Wonder Woman and more The Avengers: Age of Sisera. Israel is rescued by a team of unlikely heroes. Deborah the wife, judge and prophet. General Lightning, the reluctant warrior. And Jael, tent peg assassin.

God uses unlikely heroes to accomplish God’s purposes. God uses people marginalized by their cultures – like Deborah, who would have been considered second-class because she was a woman. Don’t ever think God doesn’t have a plan and a purpose for your life because somebody thinks you are less than them.

God uses flawed people like Barak – and you and me. God uses “Normal” seemingly random people like Jael – and you and me. Don’t ever think God doesn’t have a plan and a purpose for your life because you’re not perfect or you’re not special enough.

The church is a collection of marginalized, flawed, random people. We are God’s version of “The Avengers,” each with our own superpowers like hospitality or teaching or serving or leadership or giving or mercy – gifts of the Spirit to build up each other and the church and to share God’s love in Christ with the world. WE together are called to tell in word and in action the story of God’s deliverance of the whole world – and of the One who saved the world.

Together, Deborah, Barak, and Jael, were the “D” in the Judges cycle. They delivered Israel from King Jabin and Sisera’s oppression. They freed Israel from what were ultimately the consequences of their walking away from God.

We, too, have an unlikely deliverer. He was born as a member of a people who were occupied and oppressed, born to a poor unwed mother and a laborer-father. He became a refugee, and as an adult never had a permanent home. But he saved not just Israel but the world. He saved not from earthly powers but from the power of sin and death and evil.

He saved the world not with armies and weapons – even tent pegs – but by dying on a cross. He saved the world with love, sacrificial love, servant-love.

Jesus is our once-for-all deliverer. His deliverance is eternal.

But the truth is, we still live out that ABCD cycle.

It’s a cycle that makes Judges very frustrating for me to read. It happens twelve times in Judges – 12 times the Israelites Abandon God and then get Battered by Enemies and Cry out to God and get a Deliverer. Then it happens again . .. and again.  It gets more and more aggravating each time.

“Why don’t you learn?!” I want to shout at God’s people. “Just stick to worshipping the God who rescued you from slavery in Egypt and from each time you got battered by enemies. Just stop with the idol worship!”

You know, the things that frustrate us most in other people are the things we see in them that remind us of ourselves.

It drives me crazy when other people procrastinate. (I wrote that line at  5:51pm yesterday.)

This cycle bothers me so much because it’s my cycle.

Things go along great and I get farther and farther from God. I am much less likely to remember to thank God in the good times than I am to plead with God in the challenging times. As I move away from God in those good times, other things fill up my God- space – idols like stuff I want and things I want to do. My biggest idol, the number one thing that replaces God is . . . me.  Myself. I start thinking maybe I’m okay on my own, I don’t need God so much. (Yeah, Pastors fall into this, too.)

Then, as they always do in this life, stuff happens. I am battered by enemies – whether those enemies are health or finances or relationship challenges.

So what do I do?

I cry out to God. “Help!”

Do you see yourself in that cycle?

It’s our human cycle.

We abandon God and turn to our idols, whatever they are – money, power, sports, popularity, success, patriotism, politics, social media – whatever good things we turn to idols because we look to them for peace, love, and joy instead of God, because we look to them for freedom instead of God – when we turn to them it’s not that we lose our deliverance or our freedom we have in Christ – it’s that we can’t experience that deliverance and freedom.

God is always with us. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. But we can separate ourselves from the experience of God with us, from the experience of God’s love, by turning to idols. And the biggest idol is . . . ourselves.

These stories in Judges call us to repentance. They remind us of the consequences of abandoning God for idols, and invite us to turn back and cry out to God.

These stories assure us that God will always answer, even when we like the Israelites don’t deserve it. (And we never deserve it.) And God will always remind and assure us that we have already been delivered, that we are forgiven, that we are saved, and that we are already – and forever – loved.

AMEN

(Preached June 3, 2018, at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church of Millersville, ELCA)

Posted in Bible, Christianity | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

That’s Just the Way “They” Are

WMATA Metro LogoThe four young women burst into my car on the DC Metro late one afternoon last week. Probably in their mid-teens, they entered with the loud exuberance of unrestrained youth. Mindful only of their group and oblivious to the sparse sprinkling of their fellow-riders commuting to the suburbs, they were too loud, too rambunctious, too . . . much.

Some passengers glanced up from their phones and newspapers to greet the girls with brief looks of rebuke. Most just ignored the commotion.

For the space of one stop, the young women laughed uproariously at adolescent humor, uttered an occasional curse word for effect, and one became so overcome with hilarity she dramatically fell out of her seat and rolled on the floor of the Metro car.

It was all finally too much even for one of them who became uncomfortable and encouraged the others to tone things down. The other three ignored her and continued the boisterous antics.

The train stopped. The Metro doors slid open and the young women piled out onto the platform. The one rebuker continued her entreaties. As the doors closed behind them, I heard her say, “Y’all are why white people think black folks . . .” (The young women were African–American.)

I didn’t hear any more as the doors shut and we pulled away.

I heard enough to wonder what it must be like to go through life knowing that to many you represent all people who look like you . . . or worship like you or speak the same language you do.

I wondered what it must be like to know that any misstep only confirms and contributes to prejudices you carry as a burden you didn’t ask for and cannot simply unload.

Those of us  in dominant cultures, ethnicities, and religions move through life confident our foolishness – and worse – won’t adversely reflect on all those like us.

We justify our preconceived notions of “others” by holding up examples that support our prejudices and saying, “That’s just the way they are.”

The behavior of those young women was certainly over the top. But that’s how young people in groups act sometimes.

That folks would observe those young women and think, ‘That’s how black folks act,” is sad.

That a young woman would think – would know – people would respond in that way is heartbreaking.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Women Who Challenged Moses (and God): The Daughters of Zelophehad

d of z 2(This is the first sermon in a ten-week series, “Wonder Women of the Bible.” The story of the Daughters of Zelophehad takes place during the wilderness wandering of the People of Israel, and is recorded in Numbers 27:1-11. The sermon was delivered at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church of Millersville on May 27, 2018. You can listen to a podcast here.)

Let’s start with names. Today’s reading revolves around the importance of a name. Zelophehad’s daughters say, “Why should our father’s name disappear?”

There are names upon names upon names in the Bible. Did you ever decide to read the Bible all the way through, and then get to the begats – the genealogies – and give up?

Did you ever notice how few men are included in those lists of names?

To remember a name implied and imparted importance. Women just weren’t considered that important.

We have name after name of men who apparently didn’t do much of note, but think about how many women in the Bible were pretty important . . . and nameless. I found a website with a list of 107 of these nameless women, including Noah’s wife (no, she wasn’t Joan of Ark), Job’s wife, the woman at the well, the Widow of Nain, the woman caught in adultery, and Jesus’ sisters. We know the names of at least some of Jesus’ brothers, but none of his sisters.

To decide whose names are remembered and whose are forgotten is power.

It is power not just over the past but power to shape our present and our future. How long has the church gotten away with making women second-class citizens and used carefully chosen Bible verses to justify it?

I wish I could say how long did the church get away with it, but we’re not there, yet. There are still churches where women can’t preach or teach men, or be leaders in congregations.

In too many churches its taught that men are supposed to be in charge – not just in the church but in the home and in the community. You can justify the marginalization of women, and patriarchy, and even misogyny by the choices of men who wrote and compiled Scripture, and by men who choose what and who to preach about.

It’s not just those “other” denominations. There are churches in our own ELCA who won’t call a woman pastor. I hear and read form women pastors that not only do they have more trouble than men getting calls, but that their authority is not taken as seriously as a man’s, and that congregation members comment on the way their dress and other things they would never mention to a male pastor.

This is why I’m so excited about this sermon series. We get to intentionally disrupt those patriarchal systems that codified what – and especially who – is important and worth remembering. I’ve heard from several folks who looked at the list of women in this series and have said, “Some of these I’ve never heard of.”

I’ll be honest – one of these women someone requested a sermon about I had to look up to see who she was. (I’ll tell you who when we get to her in a few weeks.)

And this is why the five names we are given in today’s reading are so important:

Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah, and Tirzah.

Zelophehad’s daughters.

Their father had died. The Law – God’s Law – said only sons could inherit. So Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah, and Tirzah would have nothing.

These women could have just kept in their place.

They could have accepted the status quo.

They could have said, “It’s not fair but it’s the Law.”

All the pressure of Law and tradition and society and culture and decorum and propriety argued and pressured for their acquiescence and silence.

Nevertheless, they persisted.

The writer of Numbers tells us, “They came forward.”

Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah, and Tirzah came forward. They stood before Moses and the other leaders, before the whole assembly. They stood at the entrance – the doorway – of the Tent of Meeting.

They spoke. “Our father died in the wilderness.” He wasn’t part of the rebellion. “Why should our father’s name disappear . . . because he had no son?”

That’s a good strategy, isn’t it? “Do it for our father! Do it for a man!”

Their approach was excellent. They started with questions, then they made their demand:

“Give us property among our father’s relatives.”

Can you imagine what it took for Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah, and Tirzah to come forward and to stand in the doorway? What it took to speak and present their demand to Moses and those other leaders, and the whole assembly – all those men?

It took Holy Chutzpah.

I didn’t make that up. It’s from a sermon about this story I found online by Rabbi Amanda Greene.

You’ve heard of chutzpah? It’s a Yiddish word that means audacity or insolence. The classic story from Judaism that illustrates chutzpah is about a man who kills both his parents then has the chutzpah to go to court and plead for mercy because he’s an orphan.

Originally chutzpah had a negative connotation, but when it’s used in English it’s come to mean more of courage or boldness in the face of opposition.

I agree with Rabbi Amanda Greene. For Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah, and Tirzah to come forward, and to stand in the doorway, to speak, and to make demands took some Holy Chutzpah.

Their story is a call to Holy Chutzpah, to challenge injustice even when we’re walking into the headwind of tradition or swimming upstream against a current of “The way things have always been.”

How Holy Chutzpah is received often depends upon gender. Men who come forward and stand in the doorway and speak and make demands are “tough” or “driven” or “they know what they want.”  They are called “leaders.”

When women, even and especially today, come forward and stand in the doorway and speak and make demands, they are “pushy” or “bossy” or “hormonal.”  They are called . . . witches.

You don’t think there were some men among those gathered there at the Tent of Meeting who whispered to each other about those “pushy Daughters of Zelophehad” . . . or worse?

Sadly, the same thing happens today and our daughters hear those words and get those messages. They are then less likely to come forward and stand at the doorway and speak and make demands. They are less likely to have Holy Chutzpah.

I don’t know about you, but I want my daughter and the daughters of our congregation, our community, and our country to have Holy Chutzpah.

And the day is changing. The church is lagging behind, as usual, but we’re getting there. At least some parts of the church.

It took the Lutheran Church until 1970 to ordain a woman pastor – Elizabeth Platz, who served as campus chaplain at the University of Maryland.

Five years ago, we elected our first woman churchwide bishop, Elizabeth Eaton.

Just this month, two synods finally elected our first African American women bishops – The Reverend Patricia A. Davenport in the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod and The Reverend Viviane Thomas-Breitfield in the South-Central Wisconsin Synod.

After her election, Bishop Breitfield was asked why she thought it had taken so long. She responded, “I think that, sometimes, our beloved ELCA is stuck on just being, “Oh, this is the way it is.’”

Yes, sometimes we are stuck. Too often.

But this story about Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah, and Tirzah reminds us that we don’t have to be stuck. We don’t have to settle for the way things have been or are.

We can be, and are called to be, part of God’s ever-expanding revelation and revolution of grace.

We can be, and are called to be, part of the shattering of glass ceilings and the breaking of barriers and the tearing down of walls.

Like Moses of all people!

What really stuns me in this story is Moses’ response to the demand. He’s an old man, tired and frustrated from leading over a million complaining, stubborn, sometimes rebelling, people through the wilderness. If anyone should be set in their ways, it would be Moses, right?

It would not have surprised me if Moses’ response had been, “No! Only men can inherit.”

Like one of those bumper stickers:

GOD SAID IT
I BELIEVE IT
THAT SETTLES IT

But Moses doesn’t do that. He says, “Let me check with God and I’ll get back to you.”

In effect, Moses acknowledges there’s a chance he’s gotten it wrong. That maybe his interpretation of what God wants has been filtered through his own experience and prejudices and desires. So he goes to God.

And God says, “They’re right.”

And God makes a new law – daughters can inherit if there are no sons. Progress.

For the first and only time in the Torah, Law is made based on someone’s request.

Not just someone – five women: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah, and Tirzah.

Remember their names.

Remember their names when you think it is God who favors men, and not the men who have interpreted God’s Word and God’s will to legitimate and perpetuate their own power.

Remember their names when you believe that patriarchy and leadership limited to males is God’s will and not a manmade (literally man-made) perversion of God’s will.

Remember their names when you think the possibilities of inclusion and grace are limited by the way things have always been done, or the way we’ve always thought God wanted it.

For a long time, the whole church taught what God wanted was men in charge and women quiet, not just in churches but in homes and in the world. As we go through this sermon series, pay attention to these women who snuck through the cracks in the patriarchal system. Pay attention to these women who couldn’t be silenced, who through their Holy Chutzpah and the work of the Holy Spirit we remember today.

The Bible for too long was used, and is being used still, to prop up patriarchy and to keep women from coming forward, standing in the doorway, speaking up, and making demands. The church has been complicit.

But, I heard Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz Weber say something about this on a podcast just yesterday:

“Sometimes the origin of the harm can be the genesis of the healing.”

The Bible – and the church – have been the origin of the harm done to women. The Bible and the church – WE – can be the genesis of the healing.

AMEN

Posted in Bible, Christianity, Faith | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Children at the Border: The Cruelty of “Whatever Works”

“Just shooting one would be all that it takes . . .”

In my mid 20’s  I worked for two years at a Wilderness Camp for delinquent young men. It was rewarding but often challenging and frustrating work. Living in the woods 5 days a week with a group of ten adolescents could make you a little crazy.

You learned to eat fast. The program operated on a positive peer culture model, so if one or two members of a group acted stupid during mealtime, the whole group had to go outside and deal with the problem. That could take a while; often the remainder of the time allotted for eating. Sometimes three or four of the six groups would be outside at once.

It was after a spell of consistently interrupted mealtimes that my co-worker uttered his facetious (I hope) idea for a solution. “Just shooting one would be all that it takes. You’d do it in front of everybody and we wouldn’t have any more dining hall problems.”

He was most certainly correct. If we implemented his strategy, we would be able to finish breakfast, at least for a while.

It would have “worked.”

Fortunately, we did not determine what is ethical and permissible by what “works.”

Utilitarianism – the philosophy that actions are correct if they are useful, especially for the majority – seduces with its promise of success, but ultimately those who embrace it are sucked into a morass of self-centered rationalization.

A philosophy that favors actions that benefit the majority seems “logical” to members of that majority. Selfishness becomes rationality. The needs and desires of minority “others” can be “reasonably” cast aside for the good of “us.”

None of that sounds like Christianity, or especially like Christ.

For Christians therefore, utilitarianism is contrary to the faith we profess to embrace, and to the One we claim to follow.

“Because it works” has never been and never will be Christ’s test for what is ethical. When we sacrifice our faith on the altar of utilitarianism, we no longer follow Christ, but rather the means to our own ends.

As you have probably heard, the Trump administration has implemented a policy that results in the separation of children from their parents at the border. The administration explains this cruel practice will “work” to reduce illegal immigration and keep “us” safe. The policy will make parents think twice before looking to America for safety and opportunity.

The administration is probably correct. The policy will indeed “work” to reduce some undocumented immigration.

Utilitarianism says the child separation policy is a good thing.

But what does Christianity say? What would Christ –  concerned for “the least of these” rather than the majority – say?

Does this policy “love our neighbor as we love ourselves”?

For Christians, those are questions to ask before “will it work?”

Christians and Christianity – and therefore Christ – continue to lose credibility and the respect of those outside our faith by embracing utilitarian leaders and policies.  “America First,” “Religious Freedom,” and “Enhanced Interrogation” are  examples of Orwellian newspeak for utilitarian selfishness.

The unmitigated cruelty of ripping children from their parents exposes this anti-Christian and anti-Christ way of thinking and acting. It is not just this present policy that is the issue, but the hellish utilitarian philosophy it so callously illustrates.

Posted in Christian Living, Christianity | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

An UpLyfting Ride

lyftIn these dark days of divisiveness, you’ve got to find hope where you can.

Last week, hope surprised me in a grey Honda Accord.

Lyft driver Rayan* picked me up at my San Diego Hotel. I’d spent a few days with my wife who was attending a conference for work. I told Rayan that I was on my way to rent a car and head up north of LA to see my daughter.

He replied that he hadn’t seen his family in quite some time. They still lived in Jordan. He’d left there 15 years ago for a better life in America. He hoped to get back at the end of this year or the beginning of the next.

We commiserated about how hard it is to be far away from people you love. He told me a little about his move to America and how much he liked it here.

Rayan asked me what I did for a living.

I told him I was a pastor.

He told me he was Muslim.

The conversation did not desist or deteriorate.

We talked about how much our faiths have in common. We recalled our joint Abrahamic roots and prophets we share.

He reminded me how important Jesus is to Islam. I told him about our church’s forum last year when we invited some of our Muslim neighbors to speak and share about their faith.

We discussed some of the misunderstandings members of our faiths have about each other, and how awesome it would be if  Christians and Muslims  got to know each other rather than making assumptions about each other.

Rather than listening to voices whose power and authority come from stirring up distrust and disdain.

As we approached the car rental facility that was my destination, Rayan said, “There would be peace if only Muslims acted out the faith we claim to follow.”

“And if Christians would act like followers of Christ,” I added.

We said our goodbyes.

Outside the car, I sat on a bench and opened the Lyft app.

Rayan got five stars.

—–
* I’ve changed Rayan’s name and some of the details since I didn’t ask him if he wanted to be featured in a blog post.

 

Posted in Christian Living, Christianity, Islam | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Review: Paul, Apostle of Christ

paul apostle of christ.jpgI have been posting brief reviews of films on my Facebook page, but am going to start posting them here as well. I welcome your comments, especially your disagreements (which are much more interesting than agreement, but those are welcome, too).

I saw “Paul: Apostle of Christ” yesterday kind of on the spur of the moment.

It was not what I expected, a dramatization of Paul’s exploits as recorded in the book of Acts. The film provided a speculative narrative of the time between the end of Acts (Paul in jail) and Paul’s execution. Only brief hazy flashbacks dramatize any of the events in Acts – and only Paul’s pre-conversion persecution of Christians and, very briefly, his Road to Damascus experience and subsequent healing.

Whether this divergence from my expectations is a good thing or not, I’m not sure. Certainly the Acts narrative with its nonstop action would have been more exciting if familiar. This film involves a lot of talking in whispered voices when Luke meets with Paul in prison.

A couple of the sub-plots were interesting – the conflict among the underground Christians in Rome whether to fight back against persecution, and Luke’s struggle with his faith in the midst of that persecution. Another thread about the illness of Paul’s jailer’s daughter was less compelling because of its predictable outcome (he is DOCTOR Luke after all).

But . . . despite the stilted dialogue (why do people in Bible movies talk like they are in Bible movies – they wouldn’t have sounded like that in Bible times) and limitations of the 5 million dollar budget, I think the film is worth seeing. There are lots of things to talk about especially the contrast between Paul’s acceptance of his suffering in the name of Love, Luke’s struggle with it, and those who advocate taking up arms.

Perhaps the best line in the film was spoken by either Priscilla or Aquilla (who are leaders of the underground Christians in Rome – not sure if they were ever in Rome in the Bible) to those who wanted to overthrow Nero – “God calls us to care for the world, not to rule it.” Many implications of that sentiment NOW.

It is certainly better than films purveying Christian pablum like “God’s Not Dead.”

One caveat – there is lots of blood. While most violence takes place offscreen, the bloody results are shown including dead and about-to-be-dead children. One guy in a Roman temple pours a bucket of blood on his face. Plus Christians are lit up as lamps with much screaming. So maybe adolescents and older would be appropriate.

Finally, the film is more about Luke than about Paul. Luke is portrayed by James Caviezel, who played the title role in “The Passion of the Christ” Once I got past my initial reaction when he first appeared on the screen and I thought, “There’s Jesus,” I thought he did an adequate job within the limitations of the writing. And “Game of Thrones'” James Faulkner similarly succeeded as Paul.

And one other thing – I’m not sure how much sense the film would make to those not familiar with Paul’s story or who Luke is, so this might not be the best film for non-Christians.

Posted in Arts and Culture, Christianity, Christianity and Culture, film, Movies, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Unexpected Pastor’s Best Picture Countdown 2018

2018-Oscar-Best-Picture-Nominees

Here we go again! Every year I rank the films nominated for Best Picture. As always, these are not predictions nor is the order based on films I “liked” the most, but rather my opinion of which films are most worthy to win the Best Picture Oscar. Tune in Sunday night to see if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters agree with me (probably not!).

Phantom Thread9. Phantom Thread

After emphatically stating this is not a list based on how much I liked each film, I will begin by explaining why I did not like Phantom Thread. I’m sorry Daniel Day Lewis and others involved with making this film – clearly it’s not you, it’s me. Ninety-one percent of Rotten Tomato critics, as well as my wife, love this film.

My disdain for Phantom Thread is similar to my minority opinion several years ago about another Oscar-nominated film, Sideways (96% on Rotten Tomatoes). I simply cannot abide a film in which I do not find a likable character. That was true of Sideways in which I felt trapped for 127 minutes (that I will never get back) with two excruciatingly irritating people. It was like a middle-seat flight from hell.

I did not like the primary characters in Phantom Thread.  Ultimately, their story turns out to be Fifty Shades of White, with Sewing and Mushrooms as its S&M.

Phantom Thread is beautifully filmed and marvelously acted. I was interested for about 2/3 of it but never emotionally invested. The end result was the worst thing I can say about a film – I was bored.

Again, the critical acclaim  indicates this may be a lack of taste on my part. Your mileage may vary . . . significantly.

the post poster8. The Post

Numbers 2 through 8 were the most difficult to rank on this list. Phantom Thread was my clear #9, and as you will see I have known my pick for Best Picture since viewing it months ago. But the other films are all excellent and therefore difficult to compare.

It makes me a little sad to put The Post so low on this list. Even without the Hollywood Holy Trinity of Spielberg, Hanks, and Streep, the story of the publication of the Pentagon Papers is both important and timely. The Post is a powerful and much-needed reminder that a free press in vigorous pursuit of the truth is an essential check on those who would abuse their authority.

I have heard complaints that The Post moves a little slow. I believe the languid pace is more a feature than a bug, necessary for the change in Meryl Streep’s character to seem real.  Streep’s Kathryn Graham begins as a housewife who excels at hospitality but depends upon the “experts” (all men) to run the newspaper she has tragically inherited after her husband’s suicide. By the end of the film, she has assumed leadership and become a potent, independent force.

The Post is not just about Kathryn Graham or even the incident it depicts; it is a universal story about the evolution of women’s roles. Perhaps the best scene in the film is when she walks down the steps of a courthouse and young women literally look up to her, more able to imagine an empowered future for themselves.

Tom Hanks is excellent as always, but this is really Meryl Streep’s film. If this weren’t such an incredible year for Best Actress nominees, she would be a favorite to win another statue.

Why then is The Post not ranked higher on this list? It’s a very good and worthwhile film, but not Best Picture caliber. I’ve written before that one of my criteria for a great film is one that I wake up thinking about the next day; The Post is not memorable in that way.

Darkest Hour7. Darkest Hour

Gary Oldman. Gary Oldman. Gary Oldman.

Gary Oldman will win the Best Actor award on Sunday for his portrayal of Winston Churchill. That is the surest thing about this year’s Academy Awards. As they used to say in movie ads, “Gary Oldman is Winston Churchill.”

The makeup artists should get strong consideration in that category as well.

Darkest Hour almost certainly won’t be awarded Best Picture, but it is a worthy nominee. Joe Wright’s direction is excellent. What could have been a static, talk-heavy film bristles with interest and intrigue.

It is a happy coincidence that Darkest Hour and Dunkirk were released in the same year. Darkest Hour tells the political back-story of the events so well-depicted in Dunkirk (more about that later!).

Get Out6. Get Out

Get Out is not an extraordinary horror movie.

But Get Out is an effective and eviscerating satire. It employs horror tropes in service of a subversive statement about race, racism, and the hypocrisy of facile liberalism. Director/Screenwriter Jordan Peele could have set his film in Alabama or Mississippi to score some easy points about redneck-racism. Instead he expertly skewers upstate New York progressives and racist hearts that may lurk below mouths that spout rote pieties (“I would have voted for Obama a third time if I could’ve.”)

Although Get Out is a notch below the most serious Best Picture contenders, Peele should receive serious consideration in the Best Original Screenplay category. He is the first African American to be nominated for the trifecta of Best Picture (as producer), Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay categories, and only the fifth African American to be nominated for Best Director. (Incidentally, no African American woman has ever been nominated for that award; perhaps Ava DuVernay will change that this year with a nomination for A Wrinkle in Time, the nomination she SHOULD have received for Selma a few years ago).

 

Call Me By Your Name5. Call Me By Your Name

Let’s leave the horror of upstate New York behind and spend some time remembering the light and bright colors of “Somewhere in Northern Italy,” as the title card says that precedes the events of Call Me By Your Name. It is a place where erudite and unconditionally accepting families spend summers and Hanukkahs, where the apricots from the back yard orchard are always succulent and peaches are always available if you need them for, uh . . . better if you see the film yourself. It’s a place where the worst thing that will happen if you break up with your girlfriend because you’d rather have a boyfriend is that she will want to be friends for life. And it’s a place where when your parents realize that attraction, they will suggest you take a trip with the object of your affection.

It is easy to make Call Me By Your Name sound kind of silly. The wonder of the film is that the beauty of the location and the stellar performances drew me into what is ultimately sort of an idealized coming of age story. Sure, it’s too good to be true, but why not enjoy the setting and the people who inhabit it for a couple of hours.

The other significant achievement of Call Me By Your Name is that although it focuses on a same-gender relationship, it feels quite universal in its exploration of love and especially a young adult figuring out who he is  and who he will be.

What would be a pleasant diversion is elevated to Best Picture worthiness by the last ten minutes of this film. Michael Stuhlburg makes one of the great dad-speeches in film, speaking to love and loss with great lines like, “Don’t make yourself feel nothing so as not to feel anything. What a waste. . . .We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should, that we go bankrupt by the age of 30.” Stuhlburg embodies empathy in this monologue, which imbues everything that has transpired with both deeper and higher meaning. Then there is the extended – really extended – shot that closes the film that allows us time to process the end of the ideal world in which we have been immersed, and perhaps the transition from the idealism of youth to the reality of adulthood.

three billboards4. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards proved the most difficult film for me to place on this list. I enjoyed the heck out of this film as I enthusiastically hopped on board Best Actress probable winner Frances McDormand’s revenge train. I applauded Best Supporting-Actor favorite Sam Rockwell’s apparent redemption, and wept at shoulda-been-nominated Woody Harrelson’s tragic demise. Best Director nominee (and very likely winner) Martin McDonagh had me right where he wanted me.

But the more I thought about Three Billboards, the more conflicted I felt. As I considered its glorification of revenge and the increasingly destructive actions of its protagonist, and how I had reveled in them, I felt compelled to repentance or a shower.

Especially troubling is the film’s police brutality backstory. The film relegates this apparently racially-based beating to a footnote, but upon reflection this underexplicated event staunches sympathy not just for Rockwell’s character who perpetrated it but also for Harrelson’s police chief who seems more concerned about protecting his officer than the injustice he wrought.

On the other hand, perhaps the film’s moral ambiguity should be praised when so many films traffic in easy right and wrong obviousness. Perhaps the film does not celebrate revenge as much as it ultimately reveals the futility of vengeance.

There are no easy answers in Three Billboards. One plot twist I genuinely appreciated  was that Rockwell’s apparent solving the case through a ridiculous coincidence turns out to be a red herring. A lesser film would have allowed everything to wrap up neatly with good feelings all around.

Instead, we get a fittingly inconclusive ending with McDormand and Rockwell, two damaged and destructive individuals, on their way to do . . . something. Or maybe not.

Perhaps I should move this film higher on the list. I’ve thought about Three Billboards much longer than just the morning after I saw it. I hope it’s clear I still haven’t worked through my feelings about it, and that’s the mark of an excellent film. Although I do believe the next four films are more worthy of a Best Picture Oscar, I won’t be disappointed if Three Billboards wins.

Or maybe I will.

Lady-Bird3. Lady Bird

Of the nine nominees, I most enjoyed watching Lady Bird. It is a film with a huge heart. Even the least likable characters have redeeming qualities.

The best films on this list, and in general, create and immerse us in a world that seems real no matter how alien to our experience. Lady Bird ‘s milieu is not that exotic, but it is foreign to most of us – early 2000’s Sacramento, California as seen through the eyes of a young woman on the edge of adulthood. Lady Bird is notable for telling a coming of age story from the point of view of a female director and screenwriter. Greta Gerwig expertly and eloquently establishes the setting; the characters, plot, and dialogue all ring true.

Saoirse Ronan turns in a stellar performance as the title character. It is hard to believe she is the same performer nominated for Best Actress as an Irish immigrant in Brooklyn,  but she convincingly plays a suburban high school senior struggling with that adolescent conundrum of desire to both cling to, and break from, her family. Laurie Metcalf is outstanding as her loving mother who can’t seem to resist passive-aggressiveness (among other faults).

I was disappointed Tracy Letts did not score a supporting actor nomination for his work as Lady Bird’s quietly supportive father (and Metcalf’s long-suffering husband).  Maybe he and Michael Stuhlberg could share a “Movie Dad of the Year” award.

Lady Bird is a critical triumph (for a long while it had a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes) but probably not the Best Picture winner.

the shape of water.jpg2. The Shape of Water

If I were still a betting man, my money would be on The Shape of Water to take home the Best Picture Oscar. It is a paean to movies and those who create them. Vintage films, especially musicals,  seem to be the only programming available on the televisions in The Shape of Water. The settings and overall atmosphere of the film echoes Hollywood pictures of old. What could be a better bet for an award determined by the voting of filmmaking folks?

If The Shape of Water is crowned Best Picture on Sunday, it will be well deserved. Director Guillermo del Toro has crafted a gorgeous film that deserves to be viewed on a screen bigger than what is available in your living room. If you haven’t yet, go see it at a movie theater. There you can better appreciate its contrasts of light and darkness, pastels with grays, and color with black and white.

Cinematographer Dan Lausten should run away with the statue in his category. del Toro calls Lausten’s camera always into motion, sweeping and swirling around the beauty, strangeness, and occasional sanguine gore. Even the blood is disturbing but beautiful in its own bright crimson way.

The Shape of Water is a work of magical realism that asks the viewer to suspend disbelief for a couple of hours. Immersion in its world is well worth the surrender to its extraordinary strangeness.

Perhaps the best reason to see The Shape of Water is the performance by Sally Hawkins as the mute heroine of this cross between Beauty and the Beast meets The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Without uttering a word (except in an exquisite dream sequence), she communicates more with her expressions and emphatic signing than most actresses convey with pages of dialogue. Hawkins is my choice for Best Actress among the stellar performances in that category for her work in The Shape of Water and also in Maudie earlier in the year (although Frances McDormand will most likely win).

Dunkirk1. Dunkirk

Dunkirk is the only film I saw twice in the theater last year. The first time was on a regular screen; the second was in IMAX. I returned not just to experience the enhanced picture and sound, but to pay more attention to how director Christopher Nolan intricately wove the strands of three stories with three different time frames into one coherent unit.

Nolan has always messed with time. The plot of his first widely available film, Memento, unspools backwards yet still manages to provide a surprise “ending.” Both Inception and Interstellar deal with realities where time proceeds at different rates – remember the levels of dreams in Inception? In Dunkirk Nolan’s time-bending skills serve the telling of history. Incidents overlap and diverge as we experience events from the 2-week perspective of soldiers on the beach, the 2-day perspective of sailors coming to the rescue, and the 2-hour perspective of pilots providing air cover.

As awed as I am by Nolan’s manipulation of time, there is a more basic reason Dunkirk would have my vote for Best Picture. Film is a medium of showing rather than telling, and that is precisely where Dunkirk excels. The dialogue is minimal and occasionally (as some have complained) unintelligible. But the visual power of the images Nolan orchestrates need no narration. (If you want a fuller picture of what’s going on, watch Darkest Hour before you see Dunkirk.)

From the start, Nolan drops us into the chaotic middle of things without exposition or buildup. Dunkirk never lets up. None of the standard war picture tropes clutter the action – for example there are no flashbacks to better know the characters. Some have criticized this as a flaw, but in Dunkirk the characters are stand-ins for the thousands who were trapped on the beach, or sailed civilian vessels to rescue them, or supported the rescue from the air. Too much character specificity would have detracted from the sweep of the film and the incredible history it depicts.

More than any of the other nominees, Dunkirk demonstrates the power of filmmaking. It is the Best Picture of 2017.

And the Best Picture not Nominated for Best Picture . . .

Wonder Woman! If nominated, Wonder Woman would have been in the top five on the above list. I am not a big fan of comic book movies, but Wonder Woman transcends its genre.  Director Patty Jenkins probably deserved a nomination as well.wonder woman

And finally, my favorite film of 2017. . .

the big sickThe Big Sick. Ray Romano and Holly Hunter should have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor and Actress and it wouldn’t have killed the Academy to give a straight-up comedy a Best Picture nomination even if it does not deserve the award.

If you haven’t seen The Big Sick, do yourself a favor and watch it!

 

 

 

2018-Oscar-Best-Picture-Nominees

 

 

Posted in Arts and Culture, film, Movies, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Resurrection in That Place Past Hope

27973382_2368405409852424_8778068383164763664_n(Adapted from a sermon preached February 18, 2018, at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church of Millersville. You can listen to a podcast of the sermon here. The sermon text is The Raising of Lazarus, John 11:1-44.)

When Jesus finally got to Bethany, where his friends Lazarus, Mary and Martha lived, he found out Lazarus had been in the tomb four days.

Four days. The Jews at the time believed a person’s soul left their body after three days. Four days. There was no hope.

All Mary and Martha, sisters of Lazarus, could do was grieve.

You’ve been there, right? At that place past hope. Walking away from the body of a loved one at the cemetery after a funeral. Walking out of your home after the eviction or foreclosure notice. Walking out of work for the last time after being laid off. Walking out of a medical building after a doctor has told you or a loved one “There’s nothing more we can do.” Walking away from a relationship after being told, “I just don’t love you any more.”

Or hearing on the news about another school shooting.

We’ve been in that place past hope.

And in that place, perhaps you’ve wondered. “Why didn’t God do something? Where was God, anyway?”

Because God is all-powerful, and God is all good. Why did God allow this?

Why did God allow ME to get to this place past hope?

Lazarus’ sisters Martha and Mary wondered the same thing. When Jesus was near, Martha went out to meet him. Mary stayed home – do you think maybe she didn’t want anything to do with Jesus just then?

That happens sometimes in that place past hope. We don’t want to hear, or can’t hear,  the platitudes and the preaching. We need to be angry for a while – angry even at God.

That’s okay. God can take it.

Anger at God is even a sort of expression of faith – you can’t get angry at someone who you don’t believe exists. You don’t get angry at someone unless you believe they have power to change a situation – but didn’t.

Martha makes that kind of an angry statement of faith when she comes face to face with Jesus. “If you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. But I believe even now that God will give you whatever you ask.”

She believes Jesus could have saved her brother.

Jesus responds by assuring her that Lazarus will rise again.

Martha responds that of course he will, on the last day when everyone rises.

Then Jesus makes the statement that is at the heart of this story. It is at the heart of John’s Gospel. It is at the heart of OUR story:

Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me will live, even though they die, and whoever lives believing in me will never die.”

Wow! Being in relationship with Jesus means that death will never have the final word.

In that place past hope – Martha is there because her brother has died – Jesus IS our hope.

And then Jesus asks Martha, Martha who is grieving, Martha who doesn’t understand what Jesus is about to do, Martha who is ANGRY at Jesus . . . he asks her, “Do you believe this.”

Listen to Martha’s response: “Yes, Lord. I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”

Lazarus is still in the tomb!  We know Jesus is about to raise him to life. But Martha doesn’t know that yet. Isn’t it extraordinary that Martha makes this confession about Jesus BEFORE the miracle, before the resurrection?

Even in that place past hope being with Jesus allows her to hope.

Jesus doesn’t explain why Lazarus has died. He doesn’t give Martha answers. He just gives Martha himself.

That’s what Jesus offers us. Jesus offers us himself – he offers himself on the cross, suffering and dying to show us love beyond imagining, he offers himself in the new life we have in him RIGHT NOW, the new life that began in our baptism.

Then Jesus asked to see the other sister, Mary, the one who didn’t come out to greet him. Presumably the one who is even angrier than Martha.

Mary went to Jesus and fell at his feet. Whether she fell there out of grief or exhaustion or just being overwhelmed, John doesn’t tell us. But we know in that place past hope our emotional and physical suffering becomes physical. It wears us out. There at Jesus’ feet, Mary says the same thing – the same confession of anger and of Jesus’ power – that her sister uttered at first. “If you had been there my brother would not have died.”

Jesus saw Mary weeping. He saw other mourners there weeping. He was, according to the NIV translation we use, ‘Deeply moved in spirit and troubled.”

That is a translation of a Greek word that means he felt strong emotion. He was worked up into an intense combination of sadness and anger. It is a word that specifically meant to snort with anger, like a horse.

What was Jesus angry about? He was angry at death. His friend was dead. Really dead. His other friends were grieving. Death is the enemy. Jesus hated death so much that he was willing to suffer and die to defeat it’s power. Jesus is on the way to the cross. Raising Lazarus will so anger the leaders that they will plot to kill both Jesus and Lazarus. Jesus will spend his last night before the Last Supper – the Wednesday of Holy Week – with Lazarus and his sisters. For Jesus, death is an ever-present reality. Jesus is horse-snorting angry-sad at death.

Jesus asks where Lazarus body has been laid.

“Come and see,” is the reply from those weeping near him.

And then, verse 35: “Jesus wept.”

Some have called this verse, the shortest in the Bible, a summary of the Gospel. Why?

This picture of Jesus weeping gives us the essence of his mission. He became one of us. So completely one of us that he wept – and he weeps – not just for us but with us. He does not feel sorry for us, he feels our sadness – and our anger – right along with us.

I have felt that snorting like a horse anger-sadness in the presence of death. To know Jesus is so close to me, loves me so much, the he feels it along with me is amazing – and comforting. We never suffer alone.

As Jesus wept, someone near him said, “See how he loved him.”

See how Jesus loved his friend, Lazarus. See how Jesus loved Mary and Martha. See how he loved the other mourners.

As they walk to the tomb, some of the others who are with him say, “He opened the eyes of a blind man. Could he not have kept this man from dying?”

In other words, why is Jesus upset. He could have stopped this from happening.

I wonder if Jesus thought, “Just wait.”

When they get to the tomb, John tells us Jesus again was deeply moved – horse snorting angry-sad. The tomb was a cave with a stone in front of the entrance.

Then Jesus said, “Roll away the stone.”

I think John leaves something out here. Do you think folks jumped up and ran to the stone to roll it away? Or do you think they might have laughed and wondered why they would risk hurting their backs or spraining their knees to roll that heavy stone away. After all, Lazarus had been dead 4 days. It’s hard to believe there’s something else – somewhere else – in that place past hope.

John does tell us Martha spoke up. She doesn’t want the stench of death to fill the air.

Jesus answered, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”

Something about that, and something about Jesus, both quiets Martha and inspires enough people to roll away the stone.

Then Jesus prayed. “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing there, that they may believe you sent me.”

Jesus wanted the people to know that this was God’s work, and that he was, well, God in the flesh. Jesus didn’t just do miracles, even for his friends, just for the sake of the miracles. They are signs so that those who witness them – and read about them – might believe and have life in his name. Might have hope.

After the prayer, Jesus called out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”

I wonder how long it took Lazarus to make his way out of the tomb. He would have been all wrapped up like a mummy and would probably have sort of waddled out like a penguin.

Imagine being in the crowd around the tomb, watching, waiting, wondering. Imagine being Mary or Martha. Allowing yourself just a bit of hope.

You see some movement there in the darkness of the cave. Is it just your eyes playing tricks on you? Do you hear a rustling, maybe someone dragging their feet on the stone floor?  And then, there he is. Lazarus. Emerging from the darkness into the light. From the darkness of the tomb into the light of day. From the darkness of death to the light of Jesus.

Then Jesus told those who were there to take off Lazarus’ grave-clothes.

He was alive. Jesus brought him from death to life.

Jesus IS the resurrection and the life.  Even in that place past hope.

Wednesday afternoon I felt great. It was Ash Wednesday. It was Valentine’s Day. For the Nationals, it was the first day of Spring Training. We had 10 people gather first thing in the morning for Morning Prayer. Karen had gotten the flowers I sent her at work for Valentine’s Day. The noon Ash Wednesday service had gone well. I was happy just to be in church on Ash Wednesday after spending it last year in the hospital. A great day!

But then . . . then I saw an alert on my computer. Another school shooting, this one in Florida. The news kept coming in. Seventeen dead. More than Columbine. (Remember Columbine? Seems like ancient history now.)

I was horse-snorting angry-sad. Still am. I don’t know if you caught me wiping away tears during the moment of silence we had at the Ash Wednesday service that evening. I know I wasn’t alone.

The next day I saw a photo online. You might have seen it. A mother embraces her daughter, a student at the school. They are both crying – wailing. I’m sure there were many, many scenes like this one.

What made this photo unique was that it clearly showed the ash cross on the mother’s forehead.

That cross is a symbol of our mortality. It is a reminder of death. The reality of death intruded into an unexpected place on Ash Wednesday. On Valentine’s Day.

That cross is also a symbol of God’s love. A reminder that even the reality of death is not beyond God’s redemption, that death’s power was defeated once and for all on a cross on a hill outside Jerusalem.

Resurrection will come.

But, as it was for Lazarus, first there is death. Death is real. Death is the enemy.

Jesus was there for that mother and daughter, wailing along with them, horse-snorting angry-sad. He is there with every family who lost a child, and every family traumatized by the unimaginable fear of that day.

And he will walk with those children and parents and families through these next days – through the rest of their now-scarred lives. He will not let go.

Jesus will walk with every parent for whom it’s a little harder to let go of their children and send them off to school each day. He will walk with every child for whom there is more fear at a place that should be safe.

Jesus will be there even with those who do not recognize him or his presence.

There are no limits to his love.

Jesus wept. Jesus weeps. But he does not only weep. Jesus did not stop with weeping. He brought – and he brings –  life. And hope. Even in those places past hope.

But he does not do it alone. Not because he can’t, but Jesus invites his followers – us – into his life and hope-giving. In our story, he invited some to roll away the stone. He invited some to take off the grave-clothes.

Where is he inviting us – as individuals but especially as the people of God – to roll away stones and strip away the clothes of death?

What is he inviting us to do beyond weeping about what happened in Florida? What is he inviting us to do beyond weeping about the violence in our world? What is he inviting us to do bring life and hope to those who are bullied and lonely and those who experience pain because of their race or gender or ethnicity or religion or orientation? What is he inviting us to do about injustice and hunger and all the other things that make us – and Jesus – horse snorting angry-sad?

What stones are we being called to roll away? What grave-clothes are we being called to strip away?

Jesus weeps with us, yes. But Jesus also calls us, calls us into life-giving in a world that too often gives death.

Sisters and brothers, together we can roll stones away. Together we can strip off grave-clothes. But we can only give life and hope . . . and love, when we realize our life and hope and love are gifts from God through Christ. We can only love – really love without conditions or boundaries –  when we realize how much we are loved.

And let me assure you – in the good places and in the places beyond hope, you are loved.

AMEN

Posted in Christianity, Christianity and Culture, Church, Faith | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment