March 29, 2020 Fifth Sunday in Lent

“What If?”

Gospel Lesson:  John 11:1-45

The most terrified I’ve ever been in my life was a night in October 1997.  I was in Arlington Heights, serving my second-year residency at Northwest Community Hospital as a chaplain.  That experience not only trained me to ministry in a hospital, but also forced me to grapple with the issues of life and death.  I saw many sobering things that year, from mothers who had just lost babies, to victims of accidents lying mangled on the emergency room tables.  But I was never as frightened as the night I was the on-call chaplain when the head nurse on the 5th floor paged me to come to a room of a cancer patient under her care.

There was nothing dramatic about the scene I encountered when I got to the patient’s room.  There was no medical team responding to a code, trying desperately to save a life.  There was no distraught family in grief.  The only person there was an elderly woman, unconscious and breathing fitfully.  She was expected to die any moment.  The nurse asked if I would have time to sit at her bedside.  The nurse felt the woman deserved to die with someone by her side, holding her hand in her final moments.

Had there been family there it would have been different for me.  I would have focused on them and their needs, offering comfort in their distress.  Had there been doctors and nurses trying to save her life, I would have known what to do.  I would have stayed out of the way nearby, available for them to debrief them emotionally.  If there had been other people there, I would have been in control, giving stability in the midst of turmoil.

But there was no one in the room except myself holding the hand of a woman gasping for what could be her last breath.  I had been in the same room before with a recently deceased person.  I had experienced the still peace that enshrouded a room when a valiant person had ended a long struggle.  But the last time I had been in room with a person who might die any moment, was with my father.  Not knowing the woman, I didn’t even have memories or emotions to work through—some feelings that might shield me from the starkness of what was to come.

So, I sat in a chair next to her bed, listening carefully in the darkness to every breath, praying that another would follow.  I didn’t want to be there when death stalked in and claimed her.  After about twenty minutes, the hospital operator paged me to the emergency room to attend an accident victim.  I breathed a sigh of relief and gave thanks.  By the time I made it back to the 5th floor about an hour later, the woman had passed.  I had been spared- I thought.

There is legend from India that tells of a mouse who was terrified of cats until a magician agreed to transform him into a cat.  That resolved his fear…until he met a dog, so the magician changed him into a dog.  The mouse-turned cat-turned dog was content until he met a tiger—so, once again, the magician changed him into what he feared.  But when the tiger came complaining that he had met a hunter, the magician refused to help.  “I will make you into a mouse again, for though you have the body of a tiger, you still have the heart of a mouse.”  Sound familiar?

How many people do you know who have built formidable exteriors, only to tremble inside with fear?  We tackle our anxieties by taking on the appearance of a tiger.

C.S. Lewis penned these words: “What do people mean when they say, “I am not afraid of God because God is good?  Have they never been to the dentist?”

There’s something in us that tries valiantly to avoid confronting our limits.  But that’s not the world I live in, no matter how hard I wish for it.  The world where I live has death, injustice, pain, and grief, all forces beyond my control that puts limits on my dreams.  It’s enough to make you angry—not just at the murderers and the cancer cells, but at God.  If only.  It makes you want to cry out with Mary and Martha and the company of mourners standing before the grave of Lazarus, “If only you had been here, Jesus.”  If only.

I don’t know about you, but one day I woke up to discover Mom was no longer in the kitchen.  There was no one around to help.  And to make matters worse, I didn’t have to go looking for pain, it found me.  Perhaps it was a knock on the door, a call on the phone, a tap on the shoulder.  But before I knew it, I was cruising down life’s highway sniffing the air, wondering what was causing that awful smell, and asking why, of all the trunks in town, did the skunk have end up in mine?  I’m not quite sure from where the idea came that life would be one smooth slide down a powdery slope.  I sure didn’t learn it in the nursery.  Do you remember some of the poetry we used to hear?  Some of the lullabies?  When I was a little girl of two or three, my mother would sing some of the saddest songs.  Its as if she liked to inflict punishment on my impressionable little mind.  I’d say, “sing the one about the cat.  The one you sang when you and dad were in the ark.”

I lost my kitty, pretty white kitty, I hunted the house all ‘round.  I looked in the cradle and under the table, but nowhere was kitty to be found.  So, I called my dog Rover to hunt the field over, to help find kitty for me.  No dog could be kinder, but he could not find her.  Oh, where could poor kitty be?   So, I took my hook and went to the brook to see if my kitty was there.  My kitty was found, but alas she was drowned.  And so I gave up in despair.

It’s a wonder I slept at all!  How come the stories didn’t come out where Jack didn’t break his crown, where three blind mice got their tails fixed…and got glasses, too.  Rhymes where Old Mother Hubbard found chips in the cupboard, where the old woman in the shoe knew exactly what to do.

I suppose there are advantages in knowing from a very early age that life may not turn out the way we planned.  Perhaps those who listened closely in the nursery could begin to understand that life would be a wild assortment of the mundane and the adventurous, the sublime and the ridiculous.  The people we trust will disappoint us.  Friendship will fail.  That although life may not turn out the way we’d hoped, this is not the end of the story.

If only, if only.  If only things were the way we thought they ought to be.  Martha and Mary believed that there was hope for everlasting life in the future, when the Messiah would come at the end of time and put an end to all the suffering and pain.  But what about now?  How could they explain the untimely death of their brother Lazarus when Jesus, the Son of God, was in their midst?

But Jesus did not remove the limitations under which we all must live.  He didn’t miraculously change the nature of the human race into a species like a cow or a dog, that’s spared from wrestling with ultimate questions about mortality and eternity and the meaning of life.  He didn’t eliminate pain or grief.  Instead He brought the eternal power and love of God into the midst of it and transformed the nature of human suffering forever.

When Jesus called Lazarus from the tomb, He gave a sign of God’s answer to our painful limitations: He resuscitated the body of a dead man.  Now, what Lazarus experienced wasn’t the same as Jesus’ resurrection.  When Lazarus walked out of the tomb, he still had to die again.  But Lazarus’ resuscitation was a sign that pointed to something more significant than the resurrection of a dead man.  It pointed to Jesus’ resurrection, which occurred a little more than a week later, by the way.  It was a sign to prepare Mary and Martha and others who believed in Him that one who could raise a body from death to life again would also resurrect our souls, and not only in the life to come, but now.  “I am the resurrection and life,” Jesus told Martha, not “I will be” or “if only” but “I am.”

God’s power has to come to us on our own terms, in a way that is accessible to us.  When Jesus speaks of His glory, He’s not talking about His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, when He was adored by the crowds and welcomed as their king.  When Jesus talks about His glory in the Gospel of John, He’s referring to His crucifixion.  The glorious resurrection on Easter morning took place in the graveyard where He was buried.  We see His glory, not by running away from our weakness, by ignoring our limitations, by pretending we’re towers of unlimited power.  We only know Jesus’ glory by letting Him break into our limits and pain.

Before Jesus showed Mary and Martha His power by raising their brother from the grave, He showed them something else about Himself, something you have to know about Him or you cannot understand any of His miracles.  Jesus listened to their grief and their anguish.

Listening is not about hearing.  Its about paying attention.  Jed Harris, the producer of Our Town and other plays, became convinced he was losing his hearing.  He went to a specialist who gave him a thorough examination.  The doctor took a watch from his pocket and asked, “Can you hear the ticking?  Harris said, “Of course.”  The doctor walked to the door and held up the watch.  “Now can you hear it?”  Harris concentrated and said, “Yes, I can hear it clearly.”  Then the doctor walked out the door into the next room and said, “Can you hear it now?”  Harris said, “Yes.”  The doctor said to him, Mr. Harris, there isn’t anything wrong with your hearing.  You just don’t listen.”

Two men were talking one day.  One of them said, “My wife talks to herself all the time.”  His friend answered, “Mine does too, but she doesn’t know it.  She thinks I’m listening.”

Jesus heard the questions, colored with disappointment and despair, and then He wept with them.  He listened, He heard them and He wept.  He knew that in a few minutes Lazarus would walk out of the grave, but He didn’t come swaggering into Bethany, smiling, telling them to cheer up, minimizing their pain.  No, Jesus wept.  Even though He knew that his work was to conquer the power of death, Jesus wept.

It matters to Jesus.  Our losses, our grief, that suffering we live through—they all matter to Him.  It matters enough that He would leave his heavenly throne to share His life with us, to bear the cross, the brunt of its death-dealing force.  Jesus gives us the courage to cry as He breaks into our lives and hold us and cries with us.  And standing with us before the tomb of our sorrow, His resurrection power breaks through the limitations and sweeps us up, not in the future, not even on the last day, but at this very moment, when He give us the first fruits of his resurrection to eternal life.

I’m going to a new home one day.  I’ll pack up the trunk and drive away.  I’ll pull up in front of the gate in front of the house and hear my name and see their faces.  I’ll be home.  You will be home soon, too.  You may not have noticed it, but you are closer to home than ever before.  Each moment is a step taken.  Each breath is a page turned.  Each day is a mile marked– a mountain climbed.  You are closer to home than ever before.

The Bible seems to echo this truth.  It holds nothing back.  Its stories are terrifying sometimes, even depressing.  On the rocking chair I learned of Abraham’s lies, and of David’s unfaithfulness.  Of Jezebel’s dogs and Herod’s treachery.  And I learned of One who will never forsake us.  Bible verses whisper early and stay late, don’t they?

Perhaps I know why I slept so well after the ride on our rocking chair.  Maybe I realized the future would be wild, but worry was like the rocking chair.  It gave me something to do.  But it didn’t take me anywhere.  I think I slept soundly for another reason.  Grandma always ended the day with an old hymn.  I can still hear it while the rain and wind beat against the windowpane.

When peace like a river attendeth my way,

When sorrows like sea billows roll.

Whatever my lot Thou hast taught me to say,

It is well, it is well with my soul.

I didn’t have a clue what those words meant.  But now I know such an outlook changes everything.  When your nose is out shape.  When your life goes downhill.  Or when you find a skunk in your trunk.

Before you know it, your appointed time will come; you will ascend the ramp and enter the City.  You’ll see faces who have been waiting for you.  You’ll hear your name spoken by those who love you.  And maybe, just maybe, in the back behind the crowds, the One who would rather die than live without you will remove his pieced hands from his robe and welcome you home.  There is no need to ask “what if.”  The old saints tell us that when we get home, God himself will wipe away our tears.  The same hands that formed the mountains will caress your face.  The same hands that curled in agony will someday cup your face and brush away your tears forever.  Jesus words to Mary and Martha and to you and me are these: “Did I not tell you that if you believe you would see the glory of God?”  When you know you are secure in Him, you can afford to take awesome risks in life.  The insecure cannot afford to.  They ask a lot of “What ifs.”  Secure folks can admit their failures and are able to seek help to try again. They can change.  Remember the words of Jeremiah: ”Is anything too hard for the Lord?”  All things are possible for those who believe.  We need not look to the past and ask what if.  What if I had been a better person, what if I had said something different, what if I had loved my children more, what if I had loved my husband more, what if.  The yesterdays of “what ifs” are behind you.  Even God remembers them no more.  What is important is today.  And what if, just what if, you stretched yourself beyond your limits, what if you took a chance today, what if you invited a stranger in, what if you spent time on your neighbor’s back porch.  What if?  You might just be working on the plan of the  Master Builder who can restore your energy, your hope, your soul.  He doesn’t reform; He restores.

When I was a little girl I remember being in a park where there were rides.  Though my mother wanted me to be on the kiddie rides, I wanted to go on the scarier ones.  As I whipped around the corners in the kiddie car, I began to cry.  Finally, I caught my mother’s eye and she was smiling.  I started to laugh.  What once terrified me, became fun!  Just think how our Heavenly Father will put us on some scary rides in life, not really to terrify us, but to cause us to catch His eye, to teach us that He is in control and we can trust Him.  I’m not worried about tomorrow, because I know who holds today.

“Take away the stone,” says Jesus.  Because if there is to be a miracle, we have to bend our backs, strain our muscles and heave, because He isn’t going to do it without us.  “If you would only believe, you would see the glory of God.”  We had best remember those words He spoke to Mary and Martha.  For us at times, like them, Christ may appear to act strangely.  But it is only in looking back we ourselves will be able to confess and be ashamed that we ever doubted Him.  In the meantime, even if we don’t understand and we raise our “what ifs” and “if onlys,” hold on to your belief in Him because He can’t work out for us all he has in His heart to give us without you.

So, Lazarus came forth. What a great story.  Its all about the spiritual power that Christ can use on our behalf.  And over us rings the voice of authority, “Come forth.”  See how I love you.  If only you would.”

A closing Prayer:  Holy God, we have experienced you as the strong deliverer.  In our moments of darkness, you have been the light for our way and support for our journey.  In times of joy you have laughed with us.  From your hands we have received good gifts beyond imagining.  We praise you for each one, especially family, friends, the church and the privilege of giving and praying.  Above all, we thank you for your Son, Jesus Christ.  Forgive us, Lord, when we return so little in comparison to the abundance you shower upon us daily.  By you grace heal us and remove our selfishness and unite us as your people to follow Him in making His kingdom a reality in our world and in our time.  We are seeing the world in crisis today with a virus no one knows much about, let alone how to cure it.  We see it sweeping across your world and wonder why.  History has shown us that this is not the first time.  Even biblical history is full of terror.  We pray that you will send an end to the fear, anxiety and disease that is plaguing people everywhere.  Help us to be mindful of others in prayer and in caring.  We pray that the virus will pass over us and with spring will come renewal of life.  All we can do now is pray in our aloneness knowing, really, we are never without you.  Give us strength for the daily task of service to you, no matter how small.  Let us feel you near, Father, in whatever we have to manage.  You listen to our fears and anxiety and see our tears for all humanity.  In every circumstance where you find us, weave us together that we might be strong and courageous to confront our limits. Give us ears to hear your calling “Come forth” and know it is well with our souls.  We pray through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives in unity with You and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever.  Amen.

April 5, 2020 Palm Sunday   Holy week begins

“An Easier Way”

Gospel Lesson:  Matthew 21:1-11/Old Testament Lesson Zachariah: 9:9-11

April 12, 2020  Resurrection of the Lord

“Eyewitness News”

Gospel Lessson: Luke 24:1-12/ Old Testament Lesson:  Isaiah 65:17-25

April 19, 2020 Second Sunday of Easter

“I Doubt It”

Gospel Lesson:  John 20:19-31/ Old Testament Lesson:  Psalm 133

April 26, 2020 Third Sunday of Easter

“Walking the Walk, Talking the Talk”

Gospel Lesson: Luke 24:13-35/Old Testament Lesson: Isaiah 53:1-3