Friday, April 28, 2006

Sermon for April 24, 2006

I Need a Sign
John 20:19-31

I guess Easter is over for another year. The lilies are fading, attendance is down from last week, and the candy has long since been devoured. And in churches all across America today, substitute preachers fill the pulpits. Pastors often take the week after Easter off. There are two main reasons we are advised to do this. First, the week before Easter is usually a very busy week in the life of the church and the preacher. There are additional worship services to prepare, all of which require extra time and energy. And then comes the main event: the Easter Sunday worship service. Do you know what the Easter service is for the preacher? It’s like the Super Bowl for preachers. It’s like the seventh game of the World Series, or the NCAA Championship! If you’ve got a good sermon in you, you’d better trot it out for Easter! I try to have a good sermon prepared every Sunday – sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail - but Easter is special. Not only is Easter the holiest day of the year for the church, it is also the only chance the preacher may have to communicate the Gospel to those who come to church only once a year. We know that last Sunday, in churches all over the United States, people who could usually care nothing about the church 51 Sundays out of the year put on their Easter outfits and came to worship services. Most of them are not in church today. They’ve gone back to their normal Sunday routine, whatever that may be. While these “Easter Christians” sometimes frustrate me, I have to confess that I have a warm place in my heart for those folks who only show up for church once a year. As we worship, I can see their faces register shades of doubt and puzzlement at the apparent faith of everybody else. They look to the right and to the left and see other people singing “Christ the Lord is risen today.” But when they go back to where they live the other 51 Sundays of the year and receive the news of the death or serious illness of a loved one, it’s hard for them to accept Easter’s assurance that “death is swallowed up in victory.”

It’s hard, the week after Easter, to pick up the morning newspaper and read murders in communities, or to face the doctor and hear, "I’m sorry. We’ve done all we can." The fact is that all of us – not just our Easter visitors – have to wake up on the Monday after Easter to a world that has not changed because of what we celebrated. Life goes on and Easter doesn’t seem to make a difference. I want to tell you that it’s okay. According to the witness of Scripture, you’re in very good company if you feel that way. I’m not just talking about Thomas, who must forever bear the nickname, "Doubting Thomas." Thomas isn’t the only disciple to doubt the resurrection. When we read the accounts of Easter in the Gospels, one thing they all have in common is that the first reaction of all the disciples when they first receive the news of the empty tomb is doubt and fear. They didn’t know what to make of it.

This morning we are going to discuss what to do when we begin to doubt the resurrection power of Christ. What do we do when the resurrection seems like an empty promise? What do we do when we need to encounter Jesus, and we aren’t sure if he’s going to be there when we need him? What do we do when we need a sign that Jesus is alive and at work in the world? Today’s text from John’s gospel speaks to some different times when he can trust Christ to show himself to us.

To begin with, Jesus reveals himself to those who continue a connection with church

Look at verse 24. John tells us that Thomas was not locked away with the other disciples when Jesus first appeared. Because he was not an eyewitness to the Jesus sighting, he refused to believe the hearsay of the other disciples. I wonder where Thomas was when Jesus first showed up. Some think that Thomas’ doubt kept him away, but that doesn’t seem likely to me. Thomas never lacked courage. He loved Jesus. He volunteered to go to Jerusalem with Jesus when the other disciples were afraid. Thomas was a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of guy. He’s the kid in your class who raised his hand and asked the questions that everyone else was thinking but never asked. Biblical scholar William Barclay thinks that maybe Thomas was so brokenhearted that he couldn’t meet the eyes of the other disciples. He just wanted to be alone in his grief. No matter the reason, I can’t help but notice that Thomas separated himself from the disciples. He withdrew from Christian fellowship. He sought solitude rather than fellowship and he missed the first appearance of Jesus.[1]

Perhaps the gospel suggests to us that Christ appears most often within the community of believers that we call the church, and when we separate ourselves from the church, we take a chance on missing Christ’s unique presence. When we disconnect ourselves from our brothers and sisters in the church, we can’t fully experience God. When sorrow comes to us, or when sadness envelops us, or sickness visits us, we tend to close ourselves up and refuse to meet people. That’s the very time when, in spite of our sorrow, we should seek the fellowship of Christ’s people. But we are most likely to meet Jesus face to face when we are with others.[2] So, if you want to see Jesus, don’t go it alone. Continue your connection with the church.

Once in the church, we need to realize that Jesus reveals himself to those who don’t deny doubt.

Jesus didn’t blame Thomas for doubting. So often, the church handles doubt by squashing it. But Jesus never condemned Thomas for doubting. I think Jesus understood that once Thomas worked through his doubts, he would be one of the most faithful men in the Kingdom of God. I don’t know about you, but I am skeptical of people who say that they’ve never had any doubts‑‑people who always seem so sure. Sometimes I have my doubts. Sometimes I wonder if my whole ministry is based on absurdity. I see the pain that others go through. I sit with the sick and dying. I hear the cries of families who mourn the death of a loved one. Sometimes I think silently to myself: Is my faith true? Is resurrection a reality?[3]

Growing faith honors the value of doubt. Thomas comes to his expression of faith only after stating his misgivings. The kind of faith that will see you through the dark nights of the soul each of us must endure rarely comes without questioning and doubt. In fact, it usually comes as a RESULT of questioning and doubt. We’ve been brought up in a religious environment in which doubt is pictured as the opposite of faith. But doubt is not the opposite of faith. Unbelief is the opposite of faith. Doubt has a positive role to play in faith development.

I don’t want to be a doubting Thomas and neither do you. But we are frequently faced with unresolved issues of faith, questions that have no easy answers. As the church, we often tend to dismiss questions and doubts as the byproducts of immature faith. In our conviction that we at least know some of the answers, we sometimes act as if we have ALL the answers. Do you know what the three least-used words in the vocabulary of the church are? I DON’T KNOW!

Couldn’t we respond more positively to questions and doubts by using them as learning opportunities? Can’t we learn from our doubts and questions that even though we don’t know exactly where Jesus is leading us, it’s enough to know that he makes the journey with us? Our Lord doesn’t meet our doubts with scolding, but with a demonstration of grace. If we want to see Jesus, we need to embrace doubt. But it can’t stop there. We need to allow God’s grace to transform our doubt.

Jesus reveals himself to those who found faith on frailty.

What if the church changed its view of and teaching about Thomas? What if we began to picture him as a person who had the courage to admit his lack of understanding? After all, he wasn’t willing to profess Jesus as Lord without believing. What if the church celebrated Thomas’ willingness to express his honest doubts? Maybe we would see that Christian faith is a belief that exists in the presence of doubts rather than a belief that has to remove all doubt in order to exist? Maybe w would believe that faith is actually strengthened by an honest acceptance of doubts. Maybe then the church would be seen by unbelievers, or those unchurched folks we’re trying to attract to our churches, or those “Easter Christians,” not as people who think they have all the answers, but as people just like themselves. Perhaps we’d be seen as people who cling to their faith in spite of the uncertainties of life – people who are just as human and fallible as anybody else? We need to learn the benefit of doubt. We need to embrace the truth learned from the example of Thomas that doubts may not always lead to answers, but they almost always lead to spiritual growth.

Thomas may have doubted, but when he saw the resurrected Lord faith began to take roots in his heart. And once faith took root Thomas cried, "My Lord and my God!" He was then sent to pronounce to the world along with the other disciples that forgiveness had come.
When they began to build a suspension bridge across the Niagara Gorge, it all began with engineers flying a kite across the chasm, playing out the kite string until the kite reached the farther shore. Then twine was tied to the string, and rope to the twine, and wire to the rope, and cable to the wire. In due time, mighty cables were suspended from great towers and anchored on either side in the depths of the earth, and the bridge was built.

So the Christian faith, erected by the hand of God, carries you and me and generations through time to the further shores. But it all began with the frail strands of people like Peter, Mary, Paul, James and John and Thomas — doubting Thomas. What the Lord did for them he can do through them for us, if we only let him. Continue your connection with the church. Don’t deny doubt. Found your faith on frailty. Then you will see Jesus.

[1]William Barclay, The Gospel According to John (Edingurgh, St. Andrew Press, 1955), 320-321.
[2]Barclay, 321.
[3], April, 2000.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Sermon for Easter Sunday, April 16, 2006

An Awkward Ending
Mark 16:1-8

Prayer of Illumination
O God, light of the minds that know you, life of the souls that love you, strength of the thoughts that seek you: Help us to know you that we may truly love you. Help us to love you that we may fully serve you, whose service is perfect freedom. Amen.

What are you afraid of? My son, Nate, asked me this the other day. Rallying all my bravado, I confidently said, “I’m not afraid of anything.” I want to project the image that I have nerves of steel, because nothing seems to freak me out. I barely blink an eye at many of the things that scare the pants off others. If I were a character in a horror movie, I’d be the person walking calmly into a haunted house despite the slamming doors and demonic voices. OK, I may be afraid of a few things: I’m afraid of Shirley Maclaine. I’m afraid of a government-runt website called CIA for Kids. I’m afraid of emotionally scarring toys, like the Dean Martin hand puppet I saw the other day. Seriously, I have a few irrational fears and hang-ups. But nothing like some of the debilitating phobias I hear about. Here are a few: Aerophobia: fear of drafts. Porphyrophobia: fear of the color purple. Chaetophobia: fear of hairy people. Levophobia: fear of objects on the left side of the body. Dextrophobia: fear of objects on the right side of the body. Calyprophobia: fear of obscure meanings. Thalassophobia: fear of being seated. Stabisbasiphobia: fear of standing and walking. Odontophobia: fear of teeth. Graphophobia: fear of writing in public. Phobophobia: fear of being afraid.

Today’s account of the resurrection from Mark is scary, too. Imagine being one of the women who go to the tomb to prepare Jesus’ body for final burial. His dead body is supposed to be in a new grave, with a colossal stone blocking the door. When you get to the tomb, the stone is rolled away. Jesus is gone. And a man in white tells you that Jesus is gone. Verse eight leaves us with a surprise ending to the story: The women are trembling and bewildered. Imagine a chill running up your spine that makes the hairs on your neck feel electrified. Your heart is pounding in your throat, your eyes are bulging . . . adrenaline is racing. This is how the women may have felt when they reached the empty tomb. They run away from the scene in terror. Here is Mark’s strange resurrection narrative. By the way, the fear of tombstones is Placophobia .

If you followed along with me as I read, you noticed there a few more verses in Mark’s gospel. I think a nervous editor in the second century added the final verses because he didn’t think the gospel wasn’t complete without a spectacular ending. Someone added resurrection appearances of Jesus, the granting of supernatural power to the Apostles, and a final scene of divine commands. Even some of the most conservative biblical scholars agree that the gospel ends with the eighth verse which best reads like this: “Overcome by trembling and terror, they went out and fled from the tomb. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Can you imagine being afraid of the resurrection? I can. We hide from it every Easter. We hedge the celebration of the resurrection by surrounding ourselves with a secure wall of bunnies, chicks, eggs and baskets. For some people, a kind-of-cruise control Easter experience is just fine. Sit back and relax and enjoy the ride, not too deep, not too meaningful, but definitely predictable. All too often predictable becomes immoveable.[1]

Today’s text has nothing to do with the predictable trappings of Easter. Instead, we have to deal with an awkward ending to the Gospel in which people flee in terror. We hear about three women who followed Jesus throughout his ministry. They heard his teachings. They witnessed his miracles. They watched and mourned from a distance as he hung on the cross. They loved Jesus. They served Jesus. But now something happened that completely jarred them. Jesus is not where they expected him to be. He’s not in the grave. Jesus said that he would be condemned to death, turned over to the Gentiles, flogged and killed, but that he would rise three days later (Mk. 10:33-34). The disciples didn’t get it then. His followers still don’t understand as they gape into the empty tomb.

The women’s fear at the empty tomb demonstrates their inability to believe the Good News. By the end of the story, when the man in white tells them to go and tell the others what they’ve seen, they are silent. Their muteness represents a failure to comprehend who Jesus really is, and what he has come to do.[2]

At this point, the outcome of Mark’s gospel is left up in the air. The women are told to go to find the disciples and spread the message of the resurrection. They do just the opposite. Their mouths are silenced by fear. They never even meet the risen Lord. What are we to make of this?

This past Lenten season confronted me with my own failure at discipleship. It’s hard to come to grips with, and I share it only because I think that maybe some of you have felt the same way. I know I’ve done things that displease the Lord. I make choices that deny the power of Christ in my life. On a daily basis I go through my routine and I’m faced with choices: do I believe that Jesus is the risen Lord and Savior or not? Is my faith going to make a difference in my day-to-day living or not? Am I going to act and speak boldly for Christ, or will I hide away in fear and trembling because Jesus is not who I expected him to be? Some of my conversations with people reveal similar fears.

Some people are terrified to make a serious faith commitment to Christ because of the nagging suspicion that it’s not true. The gospel makes a good story or moral lesson, but it is unrealistic to believe that it really happened.

Others are afraid to get serious about the faith because they’re afraid that following Christ means becoming a “radical.” People will look down on us. We’ll be rejected. We’ll have to go around spouting indefensible views

And sadly, some just don’t care. They’ll say, “Resurrection or not, life goes on. It’s nice to hear about in Church and all, but it has no real impact on my life.”

Like the women at the tomb, we all have some choices to make. We need to decide if Jesus is who he says, or not.

I read a story of a high school science teacher who announced to his class a few days before Easter break, “The Easter story is nothing but a myth,” He proclaimed, “Jesus not only did NOT rise from the grave, but there’s no God in heaven who would allow his son to be crucified in the first place.” A student named Jimmy protested. “Sir,” he said, “I believe in God and I believe in the resurrection.”

The teacher replied, “Jimmy, you can believe what you want to. However, the real world excludes the possibility of miraculous events such as the resurrection. The resurrection is a scientific impossibility. No one who believes in miracles can also respect science.”

“God isn’t limited by science,” Jimmy responded. “He created science!” The teacher proposed a scientific experiment. Reaching into his refrigerator, he produced a raw egg and held it up. “I’m going to drop this egg on the floor,” he stated. “Gravity will pull it toward the floor with such force that the egg will most certainly break. Now Jimmy, I want you to pray right now and ask your God to keep this egg from breaking when it hits the floor. If he can do that then you’ll have proven your point, and I’ll have to admit there is a God.” After pondering the challenge for a moment, Jimmy slowly stood to pray. “Dear heavenly Father, I pray that when my science teacher drops the egg it will break into a hundred pieces! And also, Lord, I pray that when the egg does break, my teacher will have a heart attack and die! Amen.” After a unison gasp, the stunned class sat in silent expectation. For a moment, the teacher did nothing. At last, he looked at Jimmy and then the egg. Without a word, he carefully put the egg back in the refrigerator.
I guess the teacher believed in God more than he thought he did. Many people, like that teacher, deny God exists. They will argue against the power of Christ. Jimmy knew that God wouldn’t strike his teacher dead, but he also knew his teacher wouldn’t bet his life on it. Would you be willing to bet your life on your views? Because Jesus either is Savior of all, or he’s a liar.

Either he died on a cross to take away our sin, or he was a pain-loving, crazy man.

Either Jesus died and rose again to conquer death and make our ruined lives whole, or it’s all a strange bunch of fiction.

Either you run to the outstretched, nail-marked hands of Christ, or run away in fear.

You seek to obey, or you hide.

You live to serve the risen Lord, or you skulk away, afraid that his expectations will be too burdensome.

We have some choices to make, and our answers will decide the quality of our relationship with God. Will we allow ourselves to be fully-dedicated followers of Christ, or will we be spiritually hollow?

Some people wonder why Mark would end his gospel with scared women running away from the empty tomb. Who ends a book on Jesus by writing, “they were afraid”? I think Mark leaves it this way on purpose. By the end of the gospel, we still don’t meet Jesus. Maybe Mark invites us to make our own response to this awkward ending. If we want to see Jesus, then we must follow where he leads. Seeing the risen Lord all depends on our obedient response to his call.[3]

Make no mistake about it – God calls you to follow this morning. I believe that you are all here for more than an entertaining Easter service or a seasonal obligation. I believe you are here this morning because the Lord wants you to experience more out of your spiritual life. Some of you are being invited to get more serious about a faith that you’ve put on the back burner for a few years. Some of you are being called to believe the truth about Jesus Christ for the first time. Others of you are confronted with fear and unbelief and are ready to take a step of faith and follow Jesus where he’s leading you. The choice is yours. No one will force you to respond. No one is going to ask you to sign anything. No one is going to meet with you later and lay a guilt trip on you. Here’s the deal: this is between you and God. Jesus either rose from the grave or he didn’t. You decide to follow where he leads or you don’t. You commit yourself to love the risen Savior, or try to find satisfaction with self-sufficiency.

Look into the empty tomb this Easter. Jesus is not there. He rose from the dead and waits for your response. Are you eager to obey, or are you afraid to believe? Do not be afraid. Go where the Lord leads. He promises that you will see him, just as he told you.

[1]The Rev. Claire Woodley-Aitchison, tzingale/sermonb/easter.
[2]Morna Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1991), 387,392.
[3]Hooker, 393.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Sermon for April 9, 2006

Passion or Palms?[i]
Mark 11:1-11

With vacation season right around the corner, I came up with my own itinerary of CT attractions that I might drag my family to see. We will load up the camper and do a weekend tour of unique state attractions. Here’s what I think: We begin in Stratford at the Garbage Museum to learn about recycling and visit the dinosaur 24-foot long dinosaur sculpture created out of household garbage. While in Stratford we will stop in Boothe Park. In the early 1900’s the wacky Boothe brothers decided to put together a park of attractions. Buildings from all over the world were re-constructed and appear haphazardly around the park. The Boothe boys would appear in parades dressed as Uncle Sams and other interesting characters. The park also holds three log toll booths disassembled from the old Milford tollbooth, replicas of presidential birthplaces, a windmill, and a funky clock tower building.

From there we go to Waterbury to visit Holy Land, USA. For two decades, Holy Land USA has been a post-nuclear Road Warrior vision of the Holy land, perched on a bluff overlooking Waterbury. It’s a fascinating and horrifying wonder of neglect. The creator built hundreds of structures, and grottos using discarded plywood, tin siding, chicken wire, cement and fragments of religious statuary. Holy Land USA was a legitimate vacation destination for families in the 1960s and ‘70s, drawing as many as 44,000 visitors a year. It recreated a miniature Bethlehem, impenetrable assemblages of junk, creepy tunnels and blasted out buildings, stories of gang murders and a mysterious order of nuns. It is now gated up, but I here you can still see it from the perimeter gate.

By now the car will be dirty, so we will stop in Cromwell at the Wacky Car Wash. Then we head over to the Old Statehouse in Hartford to see the Museum of Natural and other Curiosities. In the early 1800’s, collector John Seward found albino critters, a two-headed calf, exotic birds, a giant lobster claw, and a pageant of taxidermy marvels. Next, we travel to Willimantic on July 4th for their annual Boom Box Parade. In 1986, when a local resident heard there would be no parade that year because the high school had no marching band, she went to the local AM radio station, talked them into broadcasting a couple hours’ worth of marching band music on July 4th, obtained a parade permit, and rounded up a bunch of friends to dress in red, white, and blue and carry portable “Boom Box” radios down the main street. It is still an annual event. We end our trip in New Haven with lunch at Louis’, birthplace of the hamburger. The burgers are made from fresh ground meat, and served with only cheese, tomato, and onion, NO KETCHUP. I suggest everyone gets there, but not in August, they are closed for the annual spoon inventory.

Of course, there will be packing to do. We will have to find a campground or two, get some good maps, save up some funds. A journey, even as strange as my little road trip, is a major event.

Today we embark upon another journey together. This week, our worship services will give us a chance to listen to Scriptures that take us from a field near Bethany to Jerusalem, from Jerusalem to the Mount of Olives, from there back to Jerusalem, and from Jerusalem to Golgotha. Finally there’s the journey from Calvary to the tomb. Each one of these journeys is a major event in itself. Each new path taken seems to draw us deeper into the darkness. Death and burial beckon us. The Holy Week services will only reinforce this reality. Perhaps that’s why many of us avoid Holy Week. We like happy endings. Let’s skip the pain and get on with the joy! Let’s wave the palms and cheer Jesus on, but avoid the pain of the passion that follows.

The Palm Sunday story begins with a donkey in a field. The donkey is of the most neglected characters in the Palm Sunday story. Donkeys are conventional beasts. They love doing things the same traditional way. The donkey is obviously a congregationalist. “Adventure” and “donkey” just don’t go together. It lives in the same field, treads the same path, and eats at the same hour-day-by-day, year-by-year. Then one day, strangers enter the field, put a halter around the donkey and pull it away. Most donkeys would resist. Donkeys can be very stubborn. It is one thing to be called to do something within the context of the life we enjoy. Journeys of faith are something else. Leave adventure to those odd folk who seem to have nothing else to do but get involved in a cause!

The handlers take the donkey to Jesus and they put clothes on it’s back. Had the donkey been able to speak it might have loudly objected that it was good enough as it was. It didn’t need dressing up. “I don’t come to where Jesus is to be changed. I come for comfort. I come for recognition, for affirmation. To be told that I am alright.”

Jesus sits on the donkey. No one ever rode that donkey before. It’s awkward for the little donkey to carry people around. Leave that to horses. In the ancient Middle East, kings could enter a city in two ways. Horses were used for war. So if the king road on a horse, it usually meant trouble. If they came in peace, they would ride a donkey, a humble act. Try telling that to the donkey. It might have done what donkeys do, reared, and kicked, and tried to throw its human cargo off. After all, carrying Jesus around is for religious fanatics, but surely not for us. We don’t come each Sunday to carry the yoke of Jesus around. What would our friends think? If we are asked whether we have given our lives to Jesus, we may prefer subtle denial.

So, the journey into Jerusalem begins and the crowds cheer and gave a ticker tape welcome (using palms instead). Maybe the donkey thought the cheers to be in honor and praise of donkeys! After all being a Jesus-carrying donkey was an extraordinary achievement. “What a unique donkey am I,” this animal might have thought. If it had attempted to acknowledge the crowds, Jesus might have been tossed aside. Instead the donkey plodded on to the place where Jesus would die.

All through Holy Week we find people drawn to Jesus. They hear him, but then they resist him, or try to change his message, or avoid what he asks people to do. Or they denounce him. The crowds who wave palms and cheer Jesus on, later cried “Crucify him!” Religious people plotted his death. Most of the disciples ran away rather than face suffering and death. They just didn’t like the way the story was working out. They feared reality. Peter denied him. He was scared. He couldn’t risk arrest. After all, Jesus put him charge. In the end only Simon of Cyrene was conscripted to be a faithful donkey and carry the cross, only the faithful and brave women and John the Disciple stood and watched the reality of a barbaric execution. Only Joseph of Arimathea was brave enough to offer a tomb.

Each of these journeys draws us into a world of darkness, of betrayal, of naked power, of cowardice and of death. Those of us who love a brave new world, inevitable progress, a comfortable pew, joy, peace, and love . . . Those of us who find illness, separation, betrayal, the use of naked force, darkness and death offensive, may be uncomfortable by this day and the days that now are before us. In 1974, a cultural anthropologist write a Pulitzer prize-winning book called The Denial of Death. Becker’s studies led him to believer that human beings are mortal, and we know it. Our sense of vulnerability and mortality fosters anxiety, even a terror, about our situation. So we devise all sorts of strategies to escape awareness of our mortality and vulnerability. This denial of death is one of the most basic drives in individual behavior, and is reflected throughout human culture. Indeed, one of the main functions of culture, according to Becker, is to help us avoid awareness of our mortality.

But Christian faith never offers an escape from reality. It draws us into the reality of this world as Jesus, who is one of us, confronts and submits to the worst humanity has to offer. Jesus dies. He really dies an agonizing and dreadful death. In that agony, Jesus dies to all the acts of betrayal, false ambition, power, authority, evil and corruption that lies within the human race and within each of us.

Today we begin a journey. It begins with palms. But those must be put down as remember the passion. For a few hours, when the last journey is over, we will be left with a dead Jesus in a tomb. There’s no Easter in the lessons today. Nor will there be all week. Unless we can walk these paths, leaving our comfort zone, our self-satisfaction, daring to walk beyond safety into the darkness of evil and death, carrying Jesus to the tomb, we will not even begin to grasp the power of the Resurrection.

[i] Based on “Palm Sunday,” by The Rev. Anthony F.M. Clavier

Friday, April 7, 2006

Sermon for April 2, 2006

An Extravagant Offering

John 12:1-11

I’m a dead man. Yeah, you heard me right. I’m a dead man. At least I was. Certified, and mummified -- buried in the family tomb. I wish I could explain to you what it feels like to be dead. I just don’t have colorful enough words in my vocabulary to paint it for you. I can tell you this: There was nothing romantic or beautiful about it. Death is an offense to beauty. No matter how hard you try, a corpse is never attractive. No embalmer’s art can change that. So, maybe your wondering how a dead man gets to stand up here and speak to you. Let me tell you what happened. This is going to blow your mind. There I lay - lifeless in a dark crypt for four days (Not that I had any concept of time passing). It was just dark...until I heard that voice–familiar, anguished, and inviting. It was like I heard a whisper in the back of my head saying, “Lazarus, come out,” and I just couldn’t help it. I got up and walked out of the crypt right to Jesus. And let me tell you, did that freak people out! I can just imagine what it must have looked like to others–this linen-wrapped mummy-man lumbering out of a dark tomb into the hot Mediterranean sun. I remember seeing my sisters, Mary and Martha, gape-mouthed and weeping for joy. Most of all, I remember Jesus’ tear-soaked, enraptured face.

Well, as you can imagine, we had a BIG party. When the power of God raises you from the dead and gives you a new lease on life, you don’t just shake hands, go out for a drink, and say, “Thanks man, I owe you one.” Especially when it all happened to someone like me. I mean, I’m not a well-known person in this town. I’m not a politician or a religious leader. Just a regular, hard-working sort of guy. But, Jesus, my friend, came to me and gave me my life back. No, you don’t let that go without having a big celebration.

All kinds of people were there. I’m kind of a people watcher myself. So I just took everything in: Jesus and the disciples, some friends and neighbors. Others were gathering outside, trying to get a peak at me and Jesus through the windows. And my sister Martha was bustling around as usual. Martha is a practical woman. She shows love by keeping busy. Always cooking and cleaning. She gets frantic about details when we have parties, especially when Jesus is here. Everything has to be just right. Usually she’s bossing me around. “Lazarus, go get some more water. Don’t forget to start up the barbeque. Make sure everyone has enough to eat.”–Things like that. She wasn’t bossing me around at this party, though. I was the guest of honor. I sat at the head table with Jesus, just watching everything happen.

My other sister Mary is just the opposite of Martha. She’s not really a detail person. I’ve never known Mary to have emotional outbursts. But you should have seen her at my party. She came out of the back room with a clay pot, about the size of a pint jar. She broke the cap off it, and the luxuriant fragrance of perfume filled the air. This was not cheap Syrian toilette water, either. The stuff cost $10,000, imported directly from India. It was the most precious thing Mary owned.

I was taking a drink from my cup when she broke the jar and poured the perfume over Jesus’ feet. I was so shocked I practically showered everyone with the water in my mouth as I choked on it (which, by the way, wouldn’t have made Martha happy. I can hear her now, “Lazarus, I swear you live in a barn. Use some manners. We have company.”) Anyway --Mary could have splashed a couple of drops of perfume in Jesus’ direction as a token of thanks. My sister Mary doesn’t do things halfway. She went and poured the whole bottle over the Lord’s feet. Not his head, like I expected, but his feet. The odd thing was, she wouldn’t even look Jesus in the eyes. It’s almost as if she didn’t want to be recognized. She just poured out the perfume and then began to wipe it with the hair on her head. You have to understand, in my world, women don’t go around in mixed company with their hair loose. When a girl is married her hair is bound up, and it’s never seen flowing loose in public again. Only immoral women appear in public with loose hair. So, here is my sister, acting like a cheap floozy with the guy who saved my life.

Now that some time has gone by, I realize that Mary didn’t really care what the rest of us thought. It reminds me of when two people are really in love–they are in a world of their own. Remember, I’m a people watcher. I see how people act when they are captivated by each other. They steal quick hand touches and eye glances. They rejoice that the world sees their love. Or have you ever seen a child who is free and uninhibited? She just loves what she’s doing at that moment, no matter who is watching. That’s Mary. At that moment, it was only Mary and her Lord.

Looking back on things, maybe Mary was the only follower who had good focus that night. I remember how irritated Judas was. Judas was always a little critical of others. Judas reminds of a joke I heard:

While traveling separately through the countryside a Hindu, a Rabbi, and a Critic were caught in a terrific thunderstorm. They sought shelter at a nearby farmhouse. “That storm will be raging for hours.” The farmer told them. “You ought to spend the night. The problem is there is only room for two in the house. One of you must sleep in the stable.” “I’ll be the one,” said the Hindu. “A little hardship is nothing to me.” And he went to the stable. A few minutes later there was a knock at the door. It was the Hindu. “I’m sorry he said to the others, but there is a cow in the barn. Cows are sacred creatures and I cannot impose.” “Don’t worry said the Rabbi, make yourself comfortable. I will go sleep in the stable” A few minutes later there was another knock at the door. It was the Rabbi. “I hate to be a bother,” he said, “but there is a pig in the stable. In my religion pigs are unclean, I wouldn’t feel comfortable sleeping near a pig.” “Oh, all right said the Critic, “I’ll go sleep in the stable.” A few minutes later there was a knock at the door. It was the pig and the cow.

The point is, nobody likes a critic. So we all rolled our eyes when Judas opened his mouth. “What a colossal waste!” he cried out. “Lady, you could have sold that perfume and given the profits to us so we can help the poor. Instead you just dumped it out.” There was nothing but silence in the room. Mary paused only for a moment before she went back to wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair.

Most people knew Judas was a crook. We never knew why Jesus let him hold the money. I guess Jesus saw something in that guy that the rest of us didn’t. Well, Judas was seeing dollar signs. In a sense, I guess I was too. I thought to myself, “Laz, Judas has a point. There are better things to do with valuable perfume than pour it on someone’s stinky feet. It’s really not rational. How are we going to live if Mary wastes our treasures? It’s not responsible to our family. Why not sell it, and give a small percentage of the proceeds to charity? We could feed a few poor people. We could buy a few things we want around the house. We could put it away and send the nieces and nephews to school.” Mary kept wiping the Master’s feet with her hair, almost hypnotically. As I watched her my thoughts were filled with a list of ten more things we could do with $10,000. Then Jesus spoke. “Leave her alone,” he said. Jesus bent down, and lifted Mary’s head up to met her eyes. Jesus looked right at her with discerning eyes and a knowing smile, but he was talking to the rest of us. “She was saving this perfume for this moment. She’s getting me ready for my death. There will always be poor people to give to. Let’s worry about them another time. You don’t always have me here.”

We had no idea what the man was talking about. We said things like, “Jesus, you’re not going to die soon. Knock it off. You’re going to bust up the party.” It turns out that as we were overprotecting Jesus, some priests were plotting how to kill him. I heard they even put a hit out on me. I guess they were a little jealous over the competition. At any rate, Jesus knew he was going to die. He raised me to new life, and the price for it was his own life.

Here I am, a man who has the chance to start everything new. Jesus gave me a opportunity to set a new life in motion. Nothing has to be the same.. You know, there are some things we can do almost any time; and there are some things that we will never do unless we seize the moment when it comes. I have so often been captured with the desire to do something big-hearted and then I put it off until tomorrow. When tomorrow comes, the impulse is gone, the passion has burned out, and the opportunity is lost. If I’ve learned one thing from being a dead man, it’s that life is uncertain. We are moved to share some words of thanks, or praise, or love, but we put it off, and who knows if that person will be around tomorrow to hear it? It’s like what Jesus said. The poor will always be around, but he wouldn’t. The night of my party, Jesus gave us the opportunity to love him. Mary knew it

I guess it’s really not about the money. It’s not the amount of the gift, but it’s what we give. Mary gave more to Jesus than a pint of remarkably expensive perfume. The most costly, the most extravagant thing she offered was her devotion to Jesus. Her love of Jesus made the costly perfume seem cheap in comparison. When I realized how I was holding back, I felt cheap in comparison, too.

I still smell that perfume in the house. Every time I walk into the front room, my nostrils are satisfied with a sweet reminder of what Mary did to show her love for Jesus. I owe my new life to Jesus. And what do I have to offer? What’s my most extravagant offering? My money? My time? My expensive gifts? Mary taught me that those don’t mean a thing if I can’t also express my gratitude through love. Mary’s perfume reminds me to do it now. The chance may never come again, and missed opportunities may bring the bitterest remorse of all

Sermon for January 21, 2018

How Far Would You Go? 1 Samuel 17 I had a sermon all ready to go today. It was a NICE sermon. You would have felt really good about i...