Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
Yesterday I had the honor of attending the memorial service of an old friend and colleague, Pat Lingo. Pat was the church secretary since before anyone can remember at St. James Lutheran Church in Western Springs (near La Grange). In forty plus years on the job she served every pastor but one. She was in the office all week and in the pew every Sunday. Lovingly known as Mother Superior, she embodied institutional memory and continuity. Pat worked, sang, laughed, cried, and prayed for us all even when we didn’t all get along. She was a great partner, counselor, and spiritual guide for me in my first call straight out of seminary. If you asked her how she was doing she’d be apt to say she was somewhere between “Thanks be to God and Lord have mercy!”
When Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb he stumbled out into a faith community that cared for him and loved him. They unwrapped his funeral clothes and welcomed him home with their tears. I couldn’t help but feel that old familiar warmth of Christian community yesterday at St. James. It is the same spirit that binds us together here at Immanuel. God’s family is really big. It links together people in our hometowns, former congregations, throughout Chicago and around the world. Now wherever you go you can be confident to find family. People to share life’s ups and downs and walk with us through all our losses and our grief.
Our readings today are a survival kit packed and waiting for when the time comes, as it inevitably will come, that we most need them. When our daily life is spent living in the valley of dry bones from horizon to horizon that’s all we can see. When those we love are four days dead like Lazarus. When hope dies and darkness closes in, these readings have been prepared for us by our forebears in faith who knew what we would need before we did, in order to rekindle our hope. You always have a seat prepared for you at the table. As one of God’s children you are part of a large family. You are not alone but are always perfectly accompanied by God in Christ who weeps with you and has power to call you out even from the shadows of death even after we realize what a rotten mess we’ve made of our lives.
Here in John 11, we are so near to Jerusalem. To Jerusalem, and Calvary, and the cross. In fact, the gospel says we are “two miles away,” in this place of death and mourning, at the grave and with those who gather nearby, troubled in spirit. Here, we join the family and friends of Lazarus, including Jesus. Now we are, in church time, only two weeks away from the Empty Tomb. How fitting, then, and how challenging, to read, on this Fifth Sunday of Lent, this text of the raising of Lazarus set firmly within, even entangled with, the controversy and plots that swirl around Jesus. (Sermon Seeds by Kathryn Matthews)
When we most need to hear it, the gospel opens to us like a fragrant Easter flower fresh and beautiful still dripping with the morning dew. Jesus’ words to Martha echo down through the centuries the very same declaration of God whom Moses encountered in the burning bush who declared his name to be “I AM WHO I AM–YAHWEH”. Just as God led his people to freedom, so now Jesus has made us free to live a new life. Now we are ready to see John’s gospel is full of these God statements. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12; 9:5). I am light for your path. “I am the bread of Life” (John 6:35). I will answer your deepest hunger and yearning. “I am the gate” (John 10:7,9). In me you will find the door that opens into eternity and unity with all life. “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11,14). Follow me. “I am the true vine” (John 15:1,5). I have made my dwelling place within you. “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25). “I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). God has transformed us through faith in Christ Jesus. This finally is the foundation of our rekindled hope even in the faith of death that calls and emboldens us to new life now.
Flipping through channels this week I saw that famous scene in the old movie, The Hunger Games. Donald Sutherland in his role as President Snow asked the game master, “Do you know why don’t we just kill them all? Hope” he said. “Hope is the only thing stronger than fear. A lot of hope is dangerous. A spark is fine as long as it’s contained.”
A lot of hope is dangerous to the powers and principalities of injustice arrayed against us, to the overwhelming problems that seem impossible to change, to the cynicism and indifference the world would teach us to embrace.
Why talk about resurrection in Lent if not because there’s something important about the good news that will become more difficult to hear once we’re surrounded again by bright colors, the promise of warmer weather, the joy of singing alleluia, and the festival of Easter? Here in Lent we know the promise of resurrection is not about going on living forever just as we are now except in a bigger house. Resurrection comes through transformation. Usually, we talk about these two words as synonyms. Now, in the midst of Lent, we may count the cost and know this transformation is worth everything we have. Hope is like a seed planted in us getting ready to crack open.
The poet Maya Spector puts it this way: “It’s time to break out —Jailbreak time. Time to punch our way out of the dark winter prison. Lilacs are doing it in sudden explosions of soft purple, And the jasmine vines, and ranunculus, too. There is no jailer powerful enough to hold Spring contained. Let that be a lesson. [A lesson about hope.] Stop holding back the blossoming! Quit shutting eyes and gritting teeth, curling fingers into fists, hunching shoulders. Lose your determination to remain unchanged. All the forces of nature want you to open, Their gentle nudge carries behind it the force of a flash flood. Why make a cell your home when the door is unlocked and the garden is waiting for you?” (“Jailbreak” by Maya Spector)