Practitioners of Hope

Pastor Ingrid C. A. Rasmussen’s sermon from 11.29.2015, the First Sunday of Advent.

Listen along here.

The gospel according to Luke, the twenty-first chapter:

25 “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

29 Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

34 “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

Word of God. Word of Life. Thanks be to God.

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Our Thanksgiving table was small this year by design. Four of us sat around a table set with my mother’s china that comes out twice a year and with goblets that require the strength of both arms. We feasted on turkey, potatoes, stuffing, carrots, cabbage, cranberries, and sweet rolls. We recognized that we had much to be thankful for this year. We gave thanks for the wide sky, the blessed sun, and the songs of the birds. We gave thanks for the joys experienced and the traumas survived and for the space that came with all of it. It was lovely. And with no wild uncle there to share his political views, it was every bit as peaceful as we had hoped.

We stood up from the table, did a few dishes, and settled into the “soft chairs” for the remainder of the evening. [Who am I kidding? We didn’t move for the rest of the weekend.] There we talked about all the refugees on the move, Jamar Clark, the 4th Precinct, and the warming world. The Planned Parenthood attack was soon added to our list. The peace and thankfulness we had so carefully cultivated around the dinner table seemed to fade away. And we were left feeling perplexed, dismayed, confused, helpless, angry, and horrified. Even in our tryptophan-induced coma—or maybe because of it—we understood the impulse Luke outlines in the gospel reading—that is, the impulse to sleep through the worries, to pour a little too much into the glass at the Thanksgiving table and bid the troubles of the world adieu.

These aren’t new impulses. We cannot blame them on the Enlightenment; we cannot chalk them up to the mistakes our parents made when we were teenagers. These are human impulses shared with our ancestors in every time and place. When the things on which we’ve come to depend for stability are in disarray, the Evangelist reminds us, we are tempted to flee—to make a run for it. And should we choose fight over flight, we may be tempted to put our heads down and to draw clearer lines. Both responses—that is, heading for the hills and walling ourselves off—have become perfectly acceptable in many circles. They are filed under the respectable categories of self-preservation and safety.

I don’t think Jesus would be surprised by these responses. If we peel back the layers of Luke’s gospel, we hear Jesus anticipating these very things. We can hear him saying, “Hey you, Peter, Andrew, James son of Zebedee, John, Phillip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, James son of Alpheus, Jude, Simon, and Judas, this is reality, and it’s hard. Don’t head for the Qumran caves. Instead, stay alert as y’all head back out into the world.” In the face of Roman imperialism, his words must have sounded oddly optimistic and naïve. In the face of American imperialism, Jesus’ words still do sound oddly optimistic and naïve.

But I don’t think Jesus was an optimist; after all, optimists aren’t born in mangers. As I thought about Jesus’ words this week, it occurred to me that Jesus isn’t touting the power of positive thinking. Jesus is proclaiming hope—a hope that is needed in every time and place, including here in a South Minneapolis sanctuary on November 29, 2015.

In a brilliant essay written many years ago, British Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says that

these days, we don’t need optimism, we need hope. Optimism is the belief that things will get better. Hope is the belief that with the work of many, things can get better. Optimism is passive. Hope is active. One only needs a certain naiveté to be an optimist, hope requires a great deal of courage. The prophets of Israel were not optimists. When everyone else felt secure, they saw the coming catastrophe. But every last one of them was an agent of hope.

Sacks continues with words as true today as the day he penned them:

By discovering the God who created the universe in love, we become practitioners of hope. We’ve seen too much to be optimists. You don’t need to be an optimist to have hope. Religious faith is not “positive thinking.” It’s not naïve optimism. It is not a matter of seeing the world as we would like it to be, and then believing that mere wishing or praying will make it so. God never promised that the world would get better of its own accord. Faith means seeing the world exactly as it is and yet not giving up the belief that it could be otherwise, if we are ready to act with others to make it so. Faith is realism that has been touched by hope. And hope has the power to transform the world.[i]

Faith means seeing the world exactly as it is and yet not giving up the belief that it could be otherwise. Maybe this is a central piece of our community’s Advent call this year as we begin anew. It’s a call to recognize the brokenness—to name the pain seated around our own tables and to name the pain seated around our neighbors’ tables. This is reality and it’s hard. But faith is the claim that it is not the end of the story. We believe that it can be otherwise. It may sound oddly optimistic, but it’s not. It’s a hope grounded in a God who takes on flesh—our flesh—both to comfort and to stir things up. And it’s through the power of the Holy Spirit that we become practitioners of this same hope.

The story is told that two hundred years ago, the Connecticut House of Representatives was in session on a bright day in May. The delegates were doing their work by natural light, as was their custom. But then, right in the middle of the debate, the day turned to night. Clouds covered the sun. Everything went dark. Some of the legislators thought it was the Second Coming, and asked to adjourn. Others called for prayer. Yet others wanted to get home to prepare for the coming of the Lord.

But the speaker of the House—a man I like to think of as a wise mainliner—had a different idea. He arose and said, “We are all upset by the [chaos], and some of us are afraid.” But, “the Day of the Lord is either approaching or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment. And if the Lord is returning, I, for one, choose to be found doing my duty. I therefore ask that candles be brought.”

Today we light one candle, stand up, raise our heads, and sing as the Spirit pries our hearts open once again. We do stand waiting for the Day of the Lord; we proclaim that God is near even now. And together, people of God, we shall do our duty—practicing hope that has the power to transform the world.[ii]

Thanks be to God. Amen.


 

[i] Sacks, Jonathan. “Optimism Is All Very Good, but It Takes Courage to Hope.” May 2010. Read the whole article here: http://www.rabbisacks.org/credo-optimism-is-all-very-well-but-it-takes-courage-to-hope/

[ii] Bromley, Robert. Abraham Davenport, 1715-1789: A Study of a Man. Westport: Technomic Publishing Company, 1976.

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Fortune Telling and Asking Bigger Questions

The Gospel according to John, the 18th chapter.

Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35 Pilate replied, “I am not Jewish, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Judean authorities. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” 38Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’

 

In my email inbox this week was a link sent by a friend to something called “Google Fortune Telling.”  The message read, “With our latest addition to Google, we are experimenting with fortune telling. Based on your previous search results and your profile, we try to make a good prediction of your future.”

“Wow! That’s creepy,” I thought. “Big Data is really getting sophisticated.” Then again, who doesn’t want to know about their future, right? So I clicked on the link and was taken to a page with the familiar Google logo and a text box in the center with the instruction, “Type your questions about your future.”

Ah, what to type? I went through a mental list. “How old will I be when I die?” “Where will my kids go to school?” “Will I win the lottery?” “Will the Vikings beat the Packers?” The options are endless, but I decided to start simple: “What will I eat for dinner?”

I typed a W, but as soon as I did, other letters started to appear across that text box, spelling out a different question: “Where can I find a safe place?”

Then a drop down menu appeared with other questions:

Will I be reunited with my family?

Will humans ever stop fighting war?

Is there a place where they will accept me?

Is there a place where I can give my children a safe future?

I was confused until a new page popped up that said:

OF COURSE WE CAN’T PREDICT YOUR FUTURE!

But 60 million refugees ask themselves every day if they have a future at all. So we used a fake Google-site to get your attention because apparently you were interested in your own future. Please take a moment to think of their future.

It was a powerful approach to get me thinking differently about the refugee crisis in our world today, to help me connect on a human level with the individuals and the families who have very real questions about what’s next for them. It expanded my perspective. It reminded me of the larger world and the larger, shared future that we are creating together. It helped me to ask a bigger question, which I’m sure we all need help with once in a while.

Those of us who worship and serve in the Christian Church know that Jesus also has a way of getting us to ask bigger questions. Our reading of the Gospels week after week, day after day, broadens our understanding and resets priorities in our lives. One theologian has said that the eternal Christ, present at creation and revealed in the life and ministry of Jesus, is the image of “creative transformation” at work in the universe. John Nunes, who was here last week, might call it instead “creative disruption” because no transformation comes without disruption, after all. Jesus has a way of disrupting assumptions, creatively challenging the status quo, in order to bring about something bigger, something new and life-giving for all.

So when Jesus stood in front of Pilate, he sought to creatively disrupt Pilate’s way of thinking, too. Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews.” That is, are you someone I need to be afraid of because of what you could do to lead a rebellion against Rome’s control here in Jerusalem? Jesus’ answer was a kind of “yes and no.” Jesus says, “Your position is by no means secure, but the things I have been talking about with my followers and with those in power is not of human origin. My purpose does not come out of worldly concerns, though it certainly affects the realities and empires of this world. My purpose, Jesus says, is about the reign of God which is so much greater than any government, so much more powerful than any human system of domination.” Jesus is at work again to creatively disrupt dominant worldviews.

Sadly, Pilate was not able to receive it, but there is a glimmer of hope for him. There’s a bit of evidence that he was beginning to think bigger, beginning to ask better questions when he ends the conversation by asking, “What is truth?”

I love that this encounter between Jesus and Pilate ends that way. It’s so open-ended. And so is life. We cannot know the future, regardless of Google’s data and how great our technology might be. But in faith, we can embrace the future because we know we will not be left alone.

After the resurrection of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel, an angel says to the women at the empty tomb, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Tell his disciples that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him. Galilee, which is a way of saying out in the world, the real world of hurt and sorrow and fear. There you will find him. Jesus goes ahead of us to the streets of Galilee and into every place in need of healing and reconciliation, into every future moment. Even if it ever seems that we’re stuck in a dead end, even when violence and terrorism try to strip away our hope, Christ opens up for us a new way. This is the other side of that creative transformation. It’s disruptive, yes. You can’t put new wine in old wineskins. But that wine is the wine of abundant life. Christ promises to meet us with grace and hope.

Today is traditionally known as the last Sunday of the church year. Next week begins Advent and a brand new year of the church’s life. A time of transition such as this can be an occasion both to look back on the past and also consider where Christ might meet us in the new year.

I want to invite you prayerfully reflect on this transition. What comes to mind for you as you think about the past year? Are there specific events? What feelings are associated with them? What was good, what was hard? Where did you feel fear? Where did you feel hope? Perhaps there are moments that you wish to pray about today even here in our worship. God is listening. Maybe God is also speaking to you through these reflections and feelings. How, in the past year, have you lived the Gospel message of peace, healing, and perhaps even bold, disruptive love? I hope each of you will take some time this week to reflect on these questions. Then, after reflecting and praying about all of this, what gift or learning can you take into a new year of service in God’s world?

This kind of reflective prayer practice is appropriate at the transition into a new year and really, at any time during the year. In faith, our perspective is broadened to see in every ending a new beginning because Christ goes ahead of us. We can’t see the future, but we listen to the voice of the One we follow.

This day is an opportunity for us as a congregation, too, to reflect both on the past and the approach of a new beginning. What will be different for us as we head into Advent and 2016? What will we bring with us from the past 12 months to preserve and continue to strengthen? Together, we need to pray about these things for our congregation’s ministry, too.

There’s so much that we share in this church’s ministry; it’s really exciting for me to think about it all. On the other hand, there are no doubt things that we need to leave behind, too—regrets and moments that we can learn from. Perhaps the church has let you down in some way this past year. I am certain that as one of your pastors here, I have disappointed you at some point, and for that I apologize. Still, I trust that as a church, the end of a year of worship and service together can be a time to be renewed in hope for the beginning of a new year. Christ goes ahead of us and will meet us in whatever the future holds.

After worship today, many of us will gather in the gym downstairs for the annual stewardship lunch. Members and nonmembers and guests are all welcome to join us. We will consider our intentions for the new year. We’ll hear about specific volunteer opportunities for serving through the church. If you’re a member, we’ll discuss with you individual giving through the church, too. If you can’t join us for the lunch, then you’re invited to turn a pledge card in through the offering today. Will this be a year when you can increase the amount you pledge to give? Whatever you decide, this congregation will continue its commitment to being generous to support Christ’s work through Holy Trinity. What practices of generosity will you bring with you into the coming year?

One thing that generosity does for us is help us get new, larger perspective on things, especially in times of fear. You may have felt some fears during the past year. Wars and attacks throughout the world and the displacement of so many of our global neighbors have got a lot of people feeling especially afraid this week. Yet the good news of Christ, in its creative and disruptive way, invites us to root ourselves in gratitude and generosity. No fear is stronger than our hope. Nothing can stand in the way of God’s grace. We can’t see the future, but we can trust in the steadfast, abiding grace of Christ.

Say Her Name: A Sermon on the Widow of Jersusalem

Mark 12:38-44

As Jesus taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Savilina lives in a rural village outside of Bukoba, Tanzania in a small, traditional Tanzanian house made of mud and thatch. Though she has not been in good health herself, she has primary responsibility for caring for several family members who live with her in that small home: her 75-year-old mother, her two children, and three children of her brother who died of AIDS a few years ago. Our Holy Trinity group traveling in Tanzania met her through a church-based social service agency in the region called HUYAWA, an acronym which roughly stands for “Service for the children.” One of the HUYAWA field assistants introduced us to Savilina and her daughter, whom the organization is sponsoring for secondary school education.

Savilina greeted our group of a half dozen Minnesotans warmly. She offered us homemade mats as we sat on the ground outside her home. She offered us simple refreshments of tea and bread to enjoy while we learned of her situation and her hopes for her daughter and the work that HUYAWA is doing for children in the community.

Afterward, back at our much more comfortable hotel in town, we reflected on how generous she had been to us. Though so poor, she had graciously offered us food when we came to visit her. It was true, but I felt uneasy. I still had questions for Savilina. Yes, she had been generous, but it seemed to me she had more wisdom to share than just a moral lesson on showing hospitality to guests. After reflecting further, I wanted to know more about her life beyond what was communicated through the translator and the lens of the social worker. I wanted to know more about what she thought of us, wealthy Lutherans from the U.S. She was kind and generous, yes, but did she also see us and the organization we were with as one of her few options left for survival? Yet we did nothing. I wish I had asked her what concerns weighed on her during our visit, while we drank her tea and took her picture.

I still have many questions for Savilina that remain with me and unsettle me. In a similar way, I have even more questions for the widow in Jerusalem who gave all she had at the temple treasury. We’re told very little about her life circumstances, not even learning her name anywhere in the Gospel. Generations of sermons and Bible studies have reduced this woman to an object lesson on stewardship. (“If she could give all she had to the temple, how much more can you give to God’s work?”) But I would like to know more about her life and hear this Gospel passage from her perspective. What was on her mind as she went to the temple that day? Was she simply doing her religious obligation and naively gave away what she had? Was she faithfully placing her entire hope in God and God’s people? Or, as a third option, was she shrewdly and prophetically calling attention to an unjust system that took advantage of people in vulnerable situations and had abandoned God’s original intentions?

I have a sense that that third piece could have been at least a part of what was going on for her that day. After all, as a worshipper at the temple, she must have known well the many passages of Hebrew scripture that remind us of God’s concern for widows and orphans and strangers. She had read the many exhortations to look out for members of the community who have no means of income, passages such as Deuteronomy 10, which says:

God is not partial and takes no bribe, executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing.

She knew the criticism of the prophet Isaiah, who said:

Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts.

They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them.

And she must have seen that this same criticism could be applied to the leaders in Jerusalem who had turned the temple into a profiteering enterprise for the benefit of themselves and the Romans. She was being asked to give all that she had to live on and then walk away quietly and die alone. Where was the concern of the priests and scribes? Was she thinking of these things that day?

Jesus was watching all of this happen. I doubt that he knew what was on that woman’s mind, either, but he certainly knew the scriptures. That’s why he had been criticizing the leaders for their pompous displays of piety and for seeking places of honor at the banquets while ignoring the needs of others. In the next chapter, he says that not one stone of the temple will be left upon another. So how, then, could Jesus commend this widow in Jerusalem as a model of generosity when the temple system was taking advantage of her and so many others like her?

Well, in fact, he didn’t commend her. He noticed her.

Jesus noticed her. He noticed her because he was accustomed to paying attention to the hurting, the small, the oppressed, the sorrowful. So Jesus noticed the woman. He noticed her dignity. He noticed her courage. And, I think, he recognized a prophetic action because by placing her two coins in the box she was in effect denouncing a whole temple system built on injustice and corruption. She was demanding that people take notice of her situation. How could they ignore this injustice? Jesus didn’t ask his disciples to follow her in what she did; he simply told them to pay attention to her. He affirmed her right to criticize what was going on in Jerusalem, and he helped others to hear it as well.

If we can understand this unnamed widow in Jerusalem as a prophet, then we can understand her to be solidly in line with Isaiah and Jeremiah and Elijah and others who spoke truth at the site of power and authority. She is part of a tradition that also led civil rights activists in 1964 to march to the National Mall and that led the American Indian Movement in 1972 to also travel all the way to Washington on the Trail of Broken Treaties to seek an end to their mistreatment. As a prophet, the widow in Jerusalem had faith in God and a trust that no system of injustice, no matter how powerful, could stand forever.

Jesus took notice. I wonder, of whom does Jesus take special notice today?

This summer, a 28-year-old African American woman named Sandra Bland was arrested in Texas for allegedly assaulting a police officer. You may have heard that she was found dead in a jail cell three days later. In honor of Bland, the African American Policy Forum and others put together  a report called “Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women.” It discusses Sandra Bland and several other examples of police brutality experienced by women of color. One of the authors of the report says, “Black women are all too often unseen in the national conversation about racial profiling, police brutality, and lethal force.” That is, the experiences of men are discussed much more often in such conversations. The report, then, is an effort to make the women who have been mistreated much more visible. That’s also why many are encouraging these women’s stories to be highlighted on social media. They have put together photos which also read: “Say Her Name: Sandra Bland,” Say Her Name: Kayla Moore,” “Say Her Name: Michelle Cusseaux,” “Say Her Name: Miriam Carey,” “Say Her Name: Tanisha Anderson.” They are asking us all to take notice.

The promise Jesus offers us clearly and passionately is that they and any of us in our times of need are consistently noticed by our God of steadfast love. There are no nameless widows to God, for God knows and values every life of this earth. We know that this is true of God as much as we know that it isn’t always true of God’s people. Through grace, we are set free to listen and learn from the perspectives of one another. Our symposium this week will be an opportunity to continue this conversation, as we seek to re-imagine our church and world from the perspective of those who haven’t always been noticed by those in positions of power and privilege. Our racism discussion groups, which we’ll discuss in the forum, are also an important pathway for our congregational learning. And we’ll continue this work of justice in many other ways, too.

For this week, perhaps it is enough for us to pay attention. Try to notice where your neighbors are hurting in ways that are often kept secret. Try to understand as much as you can. Notice the places where you yourself are longing for connection or justice or compassion. As you do so, you may find the crucified Christ is present there, too.

Nearer and Nearer

Pastor Ingrid C. A. Rasmussen’s sermon from All Saints

Listen along here.

The gospel according to John, the eleventh chapter:

32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” 38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Word of God. Word of life. Thanks be to God.

A word before I begin: It occurs to me that on All Saints, each of us exerts a lot of energy keeping the saints at bay. Somewhere along the way, we were taught to choose composure over remembrance. Today isn’t a day for resistance. Let your beloved saints come; let them fill this sanctuary; let them join our song. //

Growing up, my best friend Emmy lived two miles down the gravel road. We were the fourth generation to live on or near the family farms that had housed our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. From our first breaths, we were deeply rooted—both in our own family history and in one another’s story, as well.

We were girls with brothers as siblings so we came out of the womb loving each another like sisters. On hot summer days, one of us would phone the other around ten o’clock in the morning and ask: “Do you want to meet in the middle?” Invariably, the answer was “yes.” We’d hop on our bikes and pedal down the washboard gravel toward the paved road that stood between our farms.

Though we departed our homes at the same time, I’d always arrive earlier because “the middle” was actually much closer to me—like four times closer. Emmy contended with hills; my route was a gentle decline from the moment I swung my leg over my hot pink Huffy. After I had coasted to the middle, I’d wait, carefully watching the wide swath of prairie dissected by a single gravel road.

First, I’d see a speck kicking up dust on the horizon. In time, Emmy’s outline would become clearer. I’d see her skinny, tan legs working hard and her blond locks blowing in the breeze. She would often do a few tricks along the way—circling for the fun of it or popping a wheelie for no one but me to see. She never took a straight path, but I never remember doubting—even for a moment—that she’d keep pedaling nearer and nearer.

Soon we’d be at a distance where we could see one another wave, and then one of us would shout a greeting, and, before we knew it, we’d be so close that our handlebars touched, and we’d take a couple joyful laps around the paved road to celebrate the simple fact that we were together.

At the beginning of John’s account of the story of Lazarus’ death, Jesus is nothing more than a speck on the horizon. Had we read the whole of the eleventh chapter, we would have heard that when Lazarus got really sick, Mary and Martha phoned their bestie, Jesus. They told Jesus that they didn’t know if Lazarus would survive the night and asked Jesus to come. For whatever reason—maybe he was trying to prove a theological point or he just couldn’t bear to see his best friend bed-ridden—Jesus ignored the women’s request and stayed right where he was. His distance at the start of this story is almost as tragic as the illness that had commandeered his best friend’s body.

By the time we enter the scene today, then, Lazarus is dead—four days dead. In the wake of his death, the community undertook its best burial rituals. Women dressed in black came ready to sit and wail alongside the two grieving sisters. Prayer shawls were slung over their shoulders. That one cousin, who had never been able to sit still anyway, was sent off to get perfume and spices.

When he came back, they all gathered around Lazarus’ body, armed with strips of clean cloth, and they wrapped him, carefully tucking balsam—better known as the balm of Gilead—and myrrh and aloes and tears into the linen folds as they wrapped his feet and legs and stomach and chest and arms and hands and head. The village undertaker helped to lay Lazarus out in the tomb. And strongest among them set the stone in place. Or was it Mary and Martha who lovingly sealed their brother in the grave? After all, the human body can do incredible things in the face of death. When it was all done, they were tired and headed back to town. Another plate of lemon bars was waiting for them on the front step when they got home.

We have the privilege of seeing Jesus enter the story. He steps inside the grief-stricken scene, thick with the sorrow that only arises out of a deep and abiding love for another. His first impulse isn’t to fix—after all, he recognizes that this is the kind of sorrow that only time has a chance of healing. He drops to his knees and weeps beside his dear friends. It’s the first and only time that we hear of Jesus’ tears in the whole of the New Testament, though this crier doesn’t believe for a second it’s the only time he shed them. The Greek word used here indicates these aren’t sentimental tears; they are indignant tears. Jesus knows in that moment just how much death stings.

Our guts know this sting. Many—if not all—of us have felt it this year. Some of you, like Mary and Martha, have come face to face with the death of someone you love. Some of you have felt, in the words of novelist Joan Didion, what it feels like when “a single person missing and makes it feel like the whole world is empty.” Others of us have experienced death in other forms—the loss of employment, the end of a relationship, institutional racism, climate change, shattered dreams. I’ve heard more than a few of you wonder in the quiet of my office where God was in the midst of the grief and pain, which is why none of us fault Mary for her question about Jesus’ whereabouts; the truth is that we’ve wondered about him this year, too.

Jesus asks to get closer to Lazarus’s body. The women take Jesus to the tomb. And they stand and face the gravestone. Together. And they remember. Together. And the tears flow, as if all headed toward the same stream.

Deep grief and deep confidence can go hand in hand, which is why Jesus asks that the stone standing between the living and the dead be taken away. The women say, “Nah, he’s too far gone. It will just make things worse for you and for us.” But, for reasons we’ll never know, they roll the stone away. Jesus is finally within shouting distance of his dead friend. He yells “Lazarus.” And the gospel writer says that the dead man emerges from the tomb. Without hesitation, Jesus invites the community to step into the work of resurrection. You and I watch as the crowd gathers near to a dazed Lazarus. They remove the wraps that bind him with the very same love they had mustered when they put them on.

Atul Gawande, the author of the very popular book entitled Being Mortal, writes that most Americans prefer to practice what social scientists now call “intimacy at a distance.” We’ve have decided that intimacy at an arm’s length is safer, easier, and definitely more efficient. It occurs to me this morning that it may be the American way, but it is not God’s way. Jesus is seen moving always nearer to those God loves—the weepy, the troubled, the trembling, the suffering, and always nearer to the dying. First within eyesight, then within earshot, and, before we know it, he’s is right here, beside us, intimately breathing life even into that which we believe to be beyond resurrection.

The good news is that God practices “intimacy of proximity.” God is near, calling us into newness and inviting us to get busy removing grave clothes that bind our neighbors. If the heaviness of your grief and the hardness of your sorrow make it impossible for you to hold these promises right now, don’t worry; you can trust this community will practice resurrection for you today and in the days to come. That is the joy of being together. And should the community falter, as communities often do, I am confident that the communion of saints, intimately gathered with us this morning, will carry the resurrection tune and sing us into life and love once again.

Thanks be to God. Amen.