Sermon: Sunday, May 10, 2011: Fifth Sunday in Lent

Texts:   Ezekiel 37:1-14  •   Psalm 130  •   Romans 8:6-11  •   John 11:1-45

It’s been a watery season, this Lenten journey we’ve been on together for the last month or so, and it’s coming to an end. It began on a cold Wednesday night with a smudge of black, sooty ashes and the words, “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return;” and it continued with story after story of Jesus, and needy people, and water.

First it was Nicodemus, coming to Jesus under the cover of night, looking for a way to make sense of this popular teacher’s miraculous healings and teachings, trying to find a way to hold on to the security of who he’d always been and what he’d always known and still be open to the new thing Jesus was inaugurating among the people. He needed to understand how God could bring new life and hope to the people through someone unassociated with the Temple and its authority, but his mind was too full of its own thoughts and ideas to be open to the new thing God was doing in Christ Jesus so he could not understand what Jesus meant when he said, “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” (John 3:5)

Next it was the Samaritan woman at the well, encountering Jesus at the height of day, looking for living water that would address the suffering and alienation she’d known. She was the opposite of Nicodemus in every way – he a man of the Temple with a name, she a woman from Samaria whose name we never learn. Yet she accomplishes what Nicodemus cannot, she engages Jesus in a rich theological conversation and recognizes him as a prophet, and more, as the messiah. She realizes that the water Jesus is talking about is more than what lies at the bottom of the well, it is new life. The woman goes and tells the story of what she has experienced to her entire community and, because of her response, the whole village experiences new life with Jesus.

Then it was the man born blind and the encounter with Jesus by the pools of water at Siloam, which means “sent.” Jesus’ disciples want to know what the man is blind, where is the justice in his affliction, is it the result of sin – his or someone else’s. Jesus answers, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” (John 9:3) Jesus heals the man, who then becomes the center of a controversy, but holds his own – challenging his critics to open their own eyes and see the miracle that has taken place, he once was blind but now he sees!

And so we arrive at this morning’s set of stories. They’re getting longer, have you noticed? Nicodemus’ encounter with Christ didn’t take long to tell, but the woman at the well had such a story! The healing of the man born blind resulted in a lengthy debate, and today’s story, the resurrection of Lazarus, is the longest story yet. It seems intentional. Most of the year we read short little parables, recall brief exchanges between Jesus and his disciples, hear him teaching in concentrated bursts. But now, as we come to the end of Lent and Jesus comes closer to the cross, the stories are getting longer and longer, fuller and richer. We are led to believe that in the life of faith, stories matter. Not just the Samaritan woman’s, or the blind man’s, or Lazarus’ – but yours and mine as well. Stories matter because lives matter, and we understand our lives by examining the stories we tell about them.

Everywhere he went, Jesus transformed the stories people had about themselves. His encounter with the woman at the well changed her story – she was no longer “just” a woman attached to a series of men, she was a woman who had seen the messiah and been treated with compassionate respect. It changed her story and it changed her life.

His encounter with the man born blind changed his story. He was no longer a theological problem, evidence of someone’s sin – his or his parents – he was a witness to God’s healing power. He did not shrink from telling his story, even in the presence of those refused to believe him. He had been healed and he had been sent to tell his story. It changed his life.

Then we come to Lazarus. There is no well. There is no pool. There are only the tears being spilled by his sister, Mary and Martha, because their brother is dead. As with the man born blind, Jesus considers this moment an opportunity to reveal something about the nature of God. He says to his disciples early on, “this illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God might be glorified through it. (John 11:4)

Then Jesus goes and he listens to the most painful stories a person can tell. He listens to these two sisters as they grieve the loss of their brother.

It’s difficult sometimes, when somebody has died, to know what to say to those who are grieving. Many people feel uncomfortable at funerals or wakes because there is so much pain in the room, and so few words that seem able to do anything. Words seem powerless, everything seems powerless, in the face of death.

Yet, once you arrive, once you take off your jacket and sign the guest book and leave your card in the basket or your flowers by the casket, what happens? People begin to tell stories. They remember together the way a person lived their life; the skills that set them apart; the talents that defined them. They laugh at the memory of human foibles, and they cry as they grieve the loss of a friend, a partner, a brother or sister, a parent, an aunt or uncle, a grandparent, a colleague. In the sharing of stories, stories of hurt and hope, life returns to aching hearts.

You know that over the last few months St. Luke’s has been working with other congregations to organize a faith-based roundtable on public health, and that we’ve begun this work focused on the issue of childhood obesity. As we’ve met with pastors and lay leaders from other congregations in the neighborhood, we’ve listened to people’s stories of hurt and hope as they’ve talked about why childhood obesity matters to them. We’ve heard stories about parents who are struggling to put healthy food on the table. We’ve heard people’s anger and shame over the crippling side-effects of obesity: diabetes and high blood pressure and strokes.

The Lazarus EffectSomething happens when people get to tell their stories. Something more than the healing that comes from recalling a loved one at a wake. When people tell their stories and discover that there are others who share their story, they find a sense of their own power. When people share their stories, like women gathering to talk about the impact breast cancer has had on their lives, then questions begin to emerge, like why funding for women’s health research is so much less than other types of medical research, and then community responses begin to get developed, like a 3-day walk to raise money for breast cancer research.

When stories of hurt and hope are shared, then HIV and AIDS cease to be a source of personal shame and agony, and questions begin to emerge, like why is it that people on
the continent of Africa are being denied access to life-saving anti-retroviral pills that can literally bring people back from the brink of death and restore them to life and health, and then community responses begin to get developed, like the ONE campaign’s advocacy to make these medications available to the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.

When stories of hurt and hope are shared, when the waters of our collective tears drench our shared experience, then we stop dying alone and we begin living together. The LORD says to Ezekiel, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.” (Ez. 37:4-5)

Ezekiel and the Valley of the Dry Bones is just one of the stories we tell on the night of story-telling that is the Easter Vigil. As Christian gather on the eve of Easter, we tell the stories of God’s salvation history. We remember how God has created us, liberated us, healed us and restored us so that our faith would be strengthened that the God who has done all this in our past is the God who holds our future.

And then we baptize people. This year we will be baptizing Emily Vignaroli, daughter of Kristin and Mark Vignaroli. Surrounded by stories, we baptize people into the greatest story of them all, the one that teaches us that in these waters our own deaths are swallowed up and our life is joined with every other life that belongs to God. We die to ourselves and live for each other. We share our hurts and hopes with one another, and we find power to stand before every disease, every injustice and oppression, and proclaim that God is stronger than all of them. Using every power granted by God we, the living body of Christ, bring hope and healing to the world.

When next we gather it will be to begin a retelling of the Christian story that takes a full week. Palm Sunday begins with Jesus riding into Jerusalem and ends with all of us calling for his death. We stretch our storytelling out over the great Three Days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil, then we assembly once again on Easter morning to celebrate the mystery of the new life that awaits us on the other side of the cross. Just as Ash Wednesday was an invitation to Lent, Holy Week is an invitation to really experience the power of Easter. So I’m going to ask you all now, inasmuch as you are able, please set aside these evenings and be with your church this Holy Week. Our story is not complete without yours.

And finally, again, I want to issue one other invitation. Just as we gather each week at this table and declare that the Lord’s table is open to all, the waters of baptism are also here waiting for everyone. If you’ve already been washed in these waters then, just like the blind man, you have been sent to tell your story. But, if you have not yet been baptized, know that you have now been invited. In these waters, your hurts and your hopes, your story, is joined with all of creation. Your story matters to God. You matter to God. You matter.

All are welcome.


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