If You Had Been Here

Sermon for Sunday, April 2, 2017 || Lent 5A || John 11:1-45

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” So say both Martha and her sister Mary when they meet Jesus outside Bethany. They must have been saying this over and over again to each other in the four days since Lazarus’s death: “If the Teacher had been here, things would be different. If Jesus had come when we first wrote to him. If, if, if…”

Two weeks ago, one of our ten Handy Guidelines told us that how a line of dialogue is spoken is a matter of interpretation. So how do the two grieving sisters deliver this line? Is it an accusation? [angrily] “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Is it wistful? [sadly] “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Or is it faithful? [lovingly] “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Probably a little bit of each one, all rolled together in that roiling mass of anger and sadness and love that we call “grief.” No matter how Martha and Mary speak this statement, my question is this: is it true? Would Lazarus still be alive if Jesus had been there? Continue reading “If You Had Been Here”

Born Again, parts 3 & 4: Break Open and Pay Attention

Sermon for Sunday, July 17, 2016 || Proper 11C || Luke 10:38-42

bornagain34During the summer, I am preaching without a text, so what follows is an edited transcript of what I said Sunday morning at the 8 a.m. service at St. Mark’s.

A couple of weeks ago, I started a four part sermon series that was to culminate this morning. Last week, I paused during the series to talk about the events of the previous days, the violence in Baton Rouge, Minnesota, and Dallas. I still want to say what I was going to say last week, but instead of preaching a double length sermon because it’s pretty hot in here I’m going to try to condense them and do a couple minutes on for last Sunday and today. Continue reading “Born Again, parts 3 & 4: Break Open and Pay Attention”

God-Tinted Lenses

Sermon for Sunday, November 1, 2015 || All Saints’ Day Year B || John 11:32-44

godtintedlensesToday’s sermon is about practicality and belief. I don’t have time for a fancy intro about when I was in fourth grade or about how something my children did reminded me of the Gospel. We’ve got too much to do in this All Saints’ Day service for that – most importantly, getting to the baptism, which is up next. Since today’s sermon is in part about practicality, I thought I’d be practical in my time-management and just skip the intro. So to reiterate, today’s sermon is about practicality and belief.

We’ll start with Martha and Lazarus, then move on to the saints, and then mention baptism near the end. The Gospel lesson picks up after Martha and Jesus have their famous conversation, in which Jesus says among other things, “I am the resurrection and the life.” He asks Martha if she believes and she answers, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

But when they arrive at the tomb of her brother Lazarus, the oppressive reality of death threatens to overwhelm her belief. To keep from being overwhelmed, Martha’s practical side asserts itself. (In another story about Martha in Luke’s account of the Gospel, this practical side keeps her bustling around the house being the consummate hostess while her sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet.) But in our story today, this practical side asserts itself when she mentions that Lazarus’s body must smell really bad. The translation I just read makes Martha sound something like a member of the British House of Lords: “Lord, already there is a stench.” I prefer to translate these words with an earthier, more colloquial quality – say, like a West Texas ranch hand: “He’s been in there four days; he stinks!”

Whatever way we translate Martha’s statement, the olfactory reality of death is on her mind: the practical notion that the most likely scenario is that Lazarus’s smell, and not Lazarus himself, will come out of the tomb. That’s when Jesus reminds her of her belief. “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” Now I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again, but here we have another example of Jesus turning everything around. The popular axiom says, “Seeing is believing.” But Jesus, like he so often does, flips it: “If you believed, you would see…” For Jesus, believing is seeing.

In other words, our belief in the God made known in Jesus Christ gives us a particular lens through which to view our lives, our relationships, our gifts and callings, not to mention the whole of creation. In last week’s sermon, I called this lens the “eyes of faith.” Our belief enlivens these eyes of faith and activates our special God-tinted lenses. We look back through our lives and see God’s movement stitching together the defining moments and relationships that make us the people we are. We look out and see God’s presence in those whom God calls us to serve. We look beyond and discover the fullness of new life in God with all the saints.

However, our God-tinted lenses get cloudy and scratched all the time. Often, this happens when practicality overrides belief. You look back through your life and see a series of coincidences and happenstances that led you to where you are. You look out and see the need, but perhaps not the people who are in need. You look beyond and see emptiness or maybe a vague notion of the hereafter or maybe a flicker of hope staving off the dread of death. “I don’t want to get caught up in ‘pie-in-the-sky’ thinking,” we might say, “so I’ll just be practical. Who could honestly believe all that anyway?”

The answer: I do. Not perfectly, not by a long shot. Not everyday, not even a majority of the time, to be honest. But I think seeing with God-tinted lenses is like hitting a baseball: even the very best baseball players only get a hit about a third of the time.

Here’s the tricky part. Here’s why the interaction between practicality and belief is so hard to navigate: We need our practical sides in order to live the kind of life our belief in God catalyzes. Without practicality, we would never translate our belief into action. We would never actually follow through on the callings we hear from God. We might notice God’s movement in creation, we might even generate a vague notion to respond to such movement, but we’d never make a plan. We’d never figure out how many drivers we need to deliver Thanksgiving meals or what books are most appropriate for the students at our partner school in Haiti. Without our practical sides, we’d be hard-pressed to act, and our follow through would be anemic at best.

So instead of seeing practicality and belief as opposing forces, we can see them as unlikely allies. While practicality can undermine belief, practicality can also give belief legs when used to further the missions we believe God has given us. The saints we celebrate today turned their belief into action, and I’m sure they used a heavy dose of practicality to do it. Mother Teresa, for example, believed with all her heart that God had called her to the sick and dying of Calcutta – and she was also an uncannily good fundraiser.

When we baptize _____ in a few minutes, we’ll see once again the interaction between practicality and belief. We will pour water into this basin and thank God for it. We will remember that water is sacred and life-giving. Then we will give _____ a bath. I know, I know, it won’t be a very thorough bath – just go with me on this imagery here. What could be more practical, more mundane than washing? And yet, we who wear these God-tinted lenses see something so much greater than a simple bath taking place. We see a welcome into God’s household. We see the power of sin washed away. We see the gifts of the Holy Spirit awakening. We see Christ making us his own forever.

And with the washing done, the words of the Baptismal Covenant, which we are about to say, echo again the practical, boots-on-the-ground facet of our belief. The Covenant begins with the affirmation of belief and continues with the practical ways we live out our mission, with God’s help. And so our unlikely allies, practicality and belief, animate our lives as followers of Jesus Christ. We need both, and we’d be diminished if one were absent. After all, when Lazarus comes out of the tomb, I doubt he smelled like a bed of roses. I’m sure Martha’s practical prediction about his stench was confirmed. But Lazarus came out of the tomb, just the same.

Pocketing the Sunglasses

During the summer, I am preaching without notes or a text; as such, what follows is the unraveling of my thought processes for a sermon, not the actual words I spoke.

I was riding the T on my way to Mass General when I noticed a young fellow across from me pick up a pair of sunglasses that had fallen out of the pocket of the man sitting next to him. The man was reading a crumpled edition of the free newspaper that seems to germinate in subway stations and hadn’t noticed his glasses fall. The fellow looked at the sunglasses for half a minute and then spent the rest of the minute attempting to get the attention of the man with the free paper. Finally, he poked the man in the knee with the glasses, and the man pocketed them with a grateful smile to the young fellow.

The fellow could have easily put the sunglasses into his own pocket, the complimentary bounty of the inattentive man. Rather, he confirmed my sometimes flagging faith in the human race and handed the glasses back. Of course, there is a clear right and clear wrong in this situation, and to his credit, the fellow chose the right.

Now (and this is for posterity, so be honest) how many of you would have taken the glasses for yourself? How many of you would have seen the (perhaps expensive) shades and decided that the man with the paper didn’t really need them anymore? Finders Keepers, right?

Owing to what were (I am sure) fine upbringings, I hope none of you raised your hands. We spend a goodly amount of time teaching our children the difference between right and wrong. “Emily, I’m glad you’re sharing your jelly beans with your brother. That’s the right thing to do.” “Jimmy, stop hitting your sister. That’s wrong!” Distinguishing between right and wrong is easy. If you have to keep your action a secret – say, for example, you cut the hair off all of your sister’s Barbie dolls – then you’ve probably chosen the wrong thing to do. From an early age, we learn right from wrong, and we hopefully also learn to choose the right, although the actions of recent Wall Street executives disprove the unanimity of this childhood lesson.

While we spend a good deal of time on this lesson, we spend much less time teaching our children the much trickier ability of choosing between right and right. How do we decide when the choice is not between a good and a bad, but between a good and another good?

Let’s look at an example. At 1:30 in the morning, you are driving down the street and you see the light ahead turn red. You roll to a stop and look both ways. No one is coming. Do you wait for green or do you run the light? Convenience may tell you to put the car in gear and keep on going. But, respect for the law keeps you waiting for the light to change. It’s only 35 seconds after all. So, what do you do? In this case, the good of respecting the law should override the good of you arriving at your destination a few seconds sooner.

Now let’s add a few more variables. At 1:30 in the morning, you are driving down the street and you see the light ahead turn red. Your wife is in the backseat; her contractions are only a few minutes apart. The baby is coming any minute now! You roll to a stop and look both ways. No one is coming. Do you wait for green or do you run the light? Respect for the law tells you to wait, but the biological instinct to protect your wife and unborn child by getting to the hospital as soon as humanly possible tells you to go Go GO. So, what do you do? In this case, the good of respecting the law falls short of the good of getting your wife to a medical professional.

Choosing between right and right is a tricky business because both choices are good. So, how do we followers of Jesus make these choices? This past Sunday’s Gospel lesson provides some clarity. Martha welcomes Jesus into her home and then goes about her tasks. Her sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to him speak. When Martha asks Jesus to tell her sister to help her, Jesus says that Mary has chosen the better part.

Does this mean that Martha has chosen the wrong thing? Has she done something bad? Of course she hasn’t. This isn’t a zero-sum game with a winner and a loser. Martha has done the same thing that Abraham does in the accompanying reading from Genesis. Abraham bustled around preparing a meal for the three men, who tell him that he and Sarah are finally going to have a child of their own. This bustling isn’t right in the Hebrew scripture and wrong in the Gospel. Martha does the right thing: she provides hospitality for the gathering, which is arguably the highest good in the Hebrew law.

But Jesus says that Mary does a better right thing. She listens to Jesus when she is in his presence. She is not distracted or worried, but attentive to his words. This is the better good, which does not erase Martha’s attempt to do the right thing. Rather, Mary displays the fundamental action, of which Martha’s welcome and hospitality are secondary outcomes.

When I am worried and distracted by many things, how often do I actually stop, take a deep breath, and listen? Not often enough, I’ll tell you. Even when I am engaged in good things, my busyness often drowns out that voice, for which I should be listening. Choosing between right and wrong is easy, but choosing between right and right is difficult. When I have so many good things clamoring for my attention, I first must sit down at the feet of Jesus Christ and listen.