Monday, March 31, 2014

despair and hope--a reflection for April 6

(published in the Abingdon 2014 Creative Preaching Annual)

Psalm 130, John 11

One year during Lent, we reversed the Advent candle tradition—at every worship service during Lent we blew out a candle, until the last was extinguished at the end of the Good Friday service. Though the days lengthened outside the sanctuary, inside the darkness was growing as we took this journey through wilderness, despair, and dark valleys. By the end of the season, we longed for the light of resurrection. We had learned to trust God in the wilderness and to be honest about our distress.

Mary and Martha have learned this lesson well. The disciples may be a little dense, but Mary and Martha are honest. Their tears fall even as they say “If you had been here, things would have been different.” They don’t hold back their grief, their disappointment, their dashed hope.

How often, when we walk into the valley of the shadow of death, do we find that God seems to have left us there alone? It sometimes seems as if God has a penchant for disappearing or for hiding just when we most need to know God’s presence. We call into the darkness and get only darkness in return, and so often we give up. We stop talking to God, perhaps afraid that we shouldn’t be angry or sad or despairing or lonely, perhaps tired of receiving no answer.

Mary and Martha knew this isolation and disappointment. They called out to Jesus, and Jesus intentionally held back. But when he did show up, they weren’t shy about sharing their feelings. They already knew something we learn over and over again: God can take it. We can rail, shout, cry, and be real, because not only can God hold all of that, God rails, shouts, and cries right along with us.

It seems improper somehow, but throughout Scripture we see God’s people expressing the full range of emotions—from joy to despair and everything in between. The Psalmist even offers us words when our own fail. “Out of the deep I call to you—hear my voice!” The darkness deepens, there’s no way out…Where are you? The candles are going out, one by one, and I feel alone…and “my whole being hopes for the Lord” (v.5, CEB). Not just my sad self, not just my intellectual capacity, not just for the kids, but my whole being.

Sometimes it seems too soon to make that move. It can feel jarring, as in a piece of music that seems so dark and then moves to a brighter major key (for example, Rutter’s setting of Psalm 130 in his Requiem). But even Rutter moves back and forth between darkness and light, between cello and oboe, between lower and higher voices. We know that feeling—the vacillation between despair and hope, the Mary and Martha experience of “if you had been here” mingled with “I believe.” In many ways, this is Christian life: to hope even in the dark valley, knowing that life is indeed possible, and stronger than the darkness.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014


I keep meaning to blog, I really do. I know that "writers write" and that I need to do that, and that it's important for me to blog as a reminder that not everything in life is unbloggable.

But I keep forgetting.

I think my memory has slipped well into middle (or old?)- age long before my chronological age.

Part of the issue is that I'm trying to turn off the computer at 9pm, and lots of nights I don't get home until after that.

Part of the issue is that I keep feeling like I can't write about everything because, well, that's the reality of pastor life sometimes.

But the root of it is that I forget.

SO...remind me, ok? And if you have any suggestions for improving memory (besides, which I already play almost every day...when I don't forget), I'll take them. :-)

Sunday, March 23, 2014

moment of truth--a sermon on John 18

Rev. Teri Peterson
moment of truth
John 18.12-27
23 March 2014, NL4-29, Lent 3 (at the threshold)

So the soldiers, their officer, and the Jewish police arrested Jesus and bound him. First they took him to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people.
 Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, but Peter was standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in. The woman said to Peter, ‘You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing round it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself.
 Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching. Jesus answered, ‘I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.’ When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, ‘Is that how you answer the high priest?’ Jesus answered, ‘If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?’ Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.
 Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, ‘You are not also one of his disciples, are you?’ He denied it and said, ‘I am not.’ One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, ‘Did I not see you in the garden with him?’ Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.

Aren’t you also one of this man’s disciples?

After three years of traveling around the country together, listening and learning, and seeing amazing signs…after the discussion around Jesus washing his feet, after trying to protect Jesus by cutting off a man’s ear…after all that, the question:

Aren’t you also one of this man’s disciples?

Surely his friend, the other disciple, could hear the question and the answer. Maybe even Jesus could hear it too. Peter took his place around the fire with the very people who had brought Jesus to this place—the police and slaves. He was inside the gate, but still outside the understanding. He was in the right place at the right time, but he couldn’t quite step through. He knew who Jesus was, but he had forgotten who he was. And so the moment of truth:

Aren’t you also one of this man’s disciples?

Peter’s answer is, on the surface, simply a denial of knowledge. But below that is a betrayal of himself. Even as Jesus stands before the high priest and speaks openly, Peter hides out in the open courtyard. Jesus says “ask those who have heard me” and Peter, who has probably heard the most of anyone, says “I am not one of his disciples, I do not know him.”

And, in a sense, Peter is telling the truth.

Peter knows many things, or thinks he does. He has information about what Jesus has done, and he definitely knows what he wants Jesus to be.

But the wisdom to see past his own desire to God’s will, and to claim that as his path? Not yet.

That only comes through practice and prayer.

At this moment, Peter is in, but also out. It’s like the old saying that going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you a car: Peter is in the same room as Jesus, but he still has some work to do to be a disciple.

The good news is this: God’s grace is always at work, and never leaves us as we are. God refuses to define us by our worst moments. There is always new life possible through God’s grace. That new life may look nothing like we expect, but then again resurrection is the definition of unexpected, right? Peter’s statement in this moment may be the truest thing he’s said so far. He recognizes that he is going to have to let go of his own planned outcome in order to participate in God’s mission. First he has to admit that he prefers his own will to God’s, and in that sense he doesn’t know Jesus. With that confession, there’s room for God’s will to grow inside Peter, and it’s from that truth that he can begin to allow God’s grace to blossom in him. This moment of truth sets the stage for Peter to become the preacher and teacher and Rock of the Church that we know he will be. And Peter will practice—he’ll gather with the disciples and wait, he’ll run to the tomb, he’ll pray and be open to God’s response, he’ll preach and teach, he’ll sit with others and listen for God’s will. He won’t assume that being in the right room is enough—he’ll have to keep on letting go of his own will over and over again in order to let God work through him.

Many people suggest that Peter is sort of a stand-in for all of us. Sometimes he hits on a right answer, sometimes he gets things very very wrong. He’s a little headstrong, and a tiny bit stubborn, and incredibly eager. If we can read ourselves in the place of Peter, then I wonder about the moments we have denied knowing Jesus and inadvertently spoken the truth? When are the moments we have betrayed our own identity, and what did we do with that experience? The denial may come in the form of words as innocuous as me telling people on airplanes that I work for a non-profit, or in the form of actions that demonstrate a very different ethic than that of Jesus. It has been said that if we want to know what we truly worship, we should look at our calendars and bank statements. What do they say in answer to the question: Aren’t you also one of his disciples?

It’s a painful thing, to hear the rooster crow as Peter did. It’s easy to get defensive and say we’re trying our best, or it was too dangerous, or the world is different now. Truth-telling is hard, especially to ourselves or our friends—and it’s also necessary. It’s why we have a prayer of confession every week in worship: because we need that moment of recognizing that we are often more invested in our own ways than in God’s ways. Because the truth will set us free— free to truly be a disciple, walking beside Jesus, rather than always asking him to walk beside us. Free to grow and transform into who God created us to be.

Ultimately, the question Peter is asked is not about Jesus. It is not about what Peter thinks or believes about Jesus. It isn’t about what he has done or how often he’s heard the teaching. The question is: Aren’t you also one of this man’s disciples? It’s a question of Peter’s own identity, and a question of our own identity.

Here is who Peter is, and who you are: a beloved child of God, created in God’s image.

Peter has forgotten who he is, and covers his true self with what he thinks people want him to say. At the same moment, Jesus is being his most true self, being open about who he is and what his calling is: to follow God’s will even to the end, to love even to the end, to drink the cup and carry the cross.

It is hard to shed those layers of expectation, of what we think is the right answer, of shame and guilt when we have hit the bottom. And yet the reality of our identity is as true as Peter’s: a beloved child of God, created in God’s image, and called to walk Christ’s way—a way of truth and faithfulness and hope. How often we have forgotten.

Like Peter, we go in fits and starts, we fail while pretending we didn’t, and we accidentally reveal the truth with our actions and our words, our calendars and our bank statements. We are not always Christ’s disciples. And yet God does not give up, leaving us in our worst moments. God’s will is always for transformation, for new life, for the kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven. So why define ourselves—or others—by those worst moments? Instead, the rooster crow is a wake up call, a moment of truth, a reminder of who we really are: created, loved, called.

May we live that truth.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

baptized feet--a sermon on John 13

Rev. Teri Peterson
baptized feet
John 13.1-17
16 March 2014, NL4-28, Lent 2 (At the Threshold)

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’ Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ Jesus said to him, ‘One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.’ For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, ‘Not all of you are clean.’

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

What are some of the things you do when you first enter your house? When I get into my house, the first thing I do is hang the keys on the hook by the door, and then take off my shoes in the entryway. What do you do when you enter the house?

What about when you welcome someone to your home—what do you do when they arrive at the door?

In Jesus’ day, it would be common for a guest to be welcomed by a slave, wearing simple clothes and a towel, bearing a bowl and a pitcher to wash the dust of the day from the their feet. It was only the slaves or servants who did this job—if the homeowner didn’t have any, anyone who entered the house would wash their own feet.

This custom was of course partly because feet got very dirty in those days—they were the only mode of transportation, roads were dusty and traveled by animals as well as people. It was also partly about making a guest comfortable and showing them respect, much like we would offer a drink or a place to hang their coat.

For Jesus to kneel at the feet of the disciples, wearing a slave’s towel, doing the work of a slave, was unthinkable. He even says to Peter, “You do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand”—and then proceeds to do it anyway, even as the disciples must have sat there in open-mouthed shock. It was not possible for them to understand what was happening. Because they knew how the world works—feet are washed on entering the house, by a slave. To have the Messiah washing their feet in the middle of dinner had no place in their mental landscape, it was simply impossible.

And Jesus did it anyway, pouring water over tired feet, gently patting them dry, looking into the eyes of his friends, followers, students, brothers. In that moment, the water was about more than just entering a house—it was about entering a whole new life.  The intimacy of the moment was uncomfortable, I would imagine. The disciples cannot comprehend what is happening, but they feel the water and the towel and the look in Jesus’ eye. Something brand new is happening—they are entering not just a house, but the kingdom of God.

And Jesus says: you do not know what I am doing…do you? I have done this so you know how to care for each other—to love each other the way I have loved you. When you do that, you will find blessing in it.

What if that’s true?

What if it’s true that we don’t have to understand in order to love? Sometimes I wonder if Peter nearly missed out because he couldn’t put the intellectual pieces together…and I wonder how often we miss out because we insist on figuring everything out before we follow Christ’s call.

What if it’s true that we can care for each other in simple yet surprisingly intimate ways? So often touch is reserved for spouses or paid professionals, prolonged eye contact feels strange, and we hide our true selves because we are afraid of being seen differently by our friends. But Jesus says that people will know we are his followers by just one thing: the way we love one another. It seems, though, that the church is mostly known for its fighting, for what we are against, for our gossip and backstabbing, our arrogance and harsh words, our veneer of politeness hiding conflict, anxiety, and hurt. What if we loved each other, our real and whole selves, right here in this room, so much that people outside this room could feel it and see it?

What if it’s true that we will experience blessing when we do the things Jesus did? He put himself in the lowest place, broke every social convention, and said: servants are not greater than their master. What does that make us, we who claim that Christ is the head of the Body? And what kind of blessing might we experience in taking these words seriously—in breaking social convention, eating with outcasts and washing even Judas’ feet and feeding the hungry and touching the sick…or even just in loving each other the way Christ loves us? What blessing might come about if we treated each other as if each person could be Jesus?

John tells us that Jesus loved his disciples “to the end.” The word there is telos and it means complete, full, finished. Jesus loved them fully, completely. They hardly ever knew what was going on, they will abandon him and pretend they do not know him, and one will betray him. Yet come what may, he loves them fully, completely, to the end not just of his life, but the end of time. And then he gives just one commandment: to love each other as he has loved us. And we will be blessed if we do these things.

At every baptism we proclaim that God’s love covers us before we can understand or respond, and that God calls us into new life even from that moment. We talk about baptism as entrance to the Christian community, and many churches have the font right at the entry to the sanctuary to symbolize that we pass through those waters and become the Body of Christ. The water in the font is the same as the water in the pitcher and bowl, and through it we are invited to enter the kingdom, to use those clean feet and blessed hands to love, and care, and serve.

In a moment you’ll be invited to experience, up close and personal, the care of Christ through the hands of a neighbor. You may want to come to the front and feel the water of this new kingdom life on your feet, allowing someone to care for you, and knowing the touch of Jesus himself. You may want to come to the back and remember your baptism and feel the anointing of the Spirit on your hands. You may want to stay seated and let the hymns be your prayer. However you choose to encounter the living God in this time and space, remember that you are loved, and your call is to love, until all the world has entered the kingdom of capital-L Love.

May it be so. Amen.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

time...zones, change, free, etc

When I went to California a few weeks ago, I felt like my body never quite made the time zone shift.

Until I got home, that is, and proceeded to feel like everything was two hours earlier, which meant I was staying up ridiculously late.

And then the time change happened and plunged mornings back into darkness.

And, just to top that off, I've had something at work every night pretty much since I got home--4 (or even 5) nights each week.

I've been sleeping in and working from home in the mornings, but somehow even when I shift an 8-hour work day to the afternoon and evening, it still ends up feeling like I'm working non-stop with no free time. There's something about having the morning free that feels different than having the evening free.

I think I've narrowed it down to two main things...
1. in the morning, I'm not really off, I'm working but in my pajamas with a cup of coffee and a cat. Whereas in the evening, I'm more likely to be on the couch with a glass of wine or some ice cream and a movie or a book...not checking my email, writing liturgy, etc.
2(a). I miss cooking dinner. For some reason, eating breakfast and lunch and then going to work feels less restful and whole-persony to me than cooking and eating dinner does.
2(b). When I get home late, I still want to eat or read or watch a movie or do something like that, which means I'm not going to bed until late...which is perpetuating my general feeling of tiredness, even if I go to bed at 1 and get up at 8 or 9, it still feels weird to never cook dinner at home.

I don't know how people work that second or third shift, because it turns out I really like to make dinner. Something about that is what makes life feel normal and livable and with enough pause/rest to go to the next day.

is there a thing that makes your day feel "normal" (as opposed to "too full")? What is it?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

feelings part 2

Writing yesterday's post made me realize that I've actually been carrying around quite a bit of hurt that I wouldn't necessarily have expressed as such. Which reminded me of something I've often thought but haven't said out loud, and I'm not sure other pastors have either:

Believe it or not, your pastor has feelings, and cares a great deal, and can feel hurt and betrayed and upset and frustrated, in addition to feeling compassion and sadness and happiness and excitement.

So much of professional ministry is about hearing others' feelings, making sure everyone feels heard and supported, and offering energy for things. So much, in fact, that I think people forget that those who do this work have feelings of their own, and we are indeed affected by the things people say (to or about us, about church, about anything really) and the things people do. We pour time, energy, heart and soul, hopes and dreams into the work we believe we are called to do. We put our whole selves in. When people are unkind, it cuts, it hurts, we bleed...and we have to do most of that hurting where no one can see. We have to grieve separately, because our task is to offer comfort to others. We have to be the "bigger person" in a conflict, modeling good boundaries and healthy communication, being a non-anxious presence, which means we take our hurt or betrayal elsewhere.

Not that that's good, necessarily--people need to know that they have been hurtful. But the full expression of feelings is generally not what people expect of their pastor. They expect the full expression of the good half of feelings, and a hint of sadness if it's appropriate, but anger and hurt? not so much. We say we want authenticity, but my experience is that we only want that to a point...

So, just a PSA: we care deeply, we have feelings, and we are affected by things said and done (or not done).

**note, this is true not just of pastors but of everyone, so: how about we be kind?**

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

feeling, thinking, and love

Recently, I had my feelings hurt by some people who, I'm pretty sure, would be appalled to know that they hurt me. (at least, I'd like to think so!)
It took me probably a week to recognize that there was a problem and that this was it.
It took me at least another several days to come up with a way to say it that doesn't sound weird. I'm still struggling with the construction "I had my feelings hurt" seems so passive, but then to say "my feelings were hurt" seems so second grade, and to say "some people hurt my feelings" seems so accusatory...
I think we can see why it took so long for my brain to process that my feelings were hurt.

I'm a thinker. I think about things. Some might say I obsess, but I prefer "think." Sounds nicer, less crazy.

Sometimes I think about things for a long time before I feel them. Sometimes I think about things so I don't have to feel them. And sometimes, when I stop thinking for just a moment, I'm surprised when feelings are right there ready to step into the gap.

Last weekend, I went to a David LaMotte concert. I've seen David in concert a number of times over the years (OMG, I think it's been 11 years since the first, and had him at my previous church to do a workshop and concert on my birthday once, and we've had some conversations over the years, and once I even rented his family's cottage in Montreat for the Youth Conference (it's a great place to stay if you need somewhere to rent in Montreat--great location, very homey, reasonably priced).
David has a way of putting together words, and music, that doesn't leave room for thinking...which meant I spent quite a bit of the evening with a couple of tears in my eyes.

And at the end of the concert, he offered a benediction, with the refrain "You Are Loved" between each line.

I had no idea how much I needed to hear that last week.
(**don't get me wrong: I know I'm loved. I have family and friends and church people who love me. There was just something about the moment that took it from thinking to feeling, is what I mean. So if you're one of those family or friends or church members starting to feel indignant because surely I should know that you love me, don't worry: I know. thanks, and love you too.**)

and then, after the concert was over, the pastor and musician of the church where the concert was held invited me to join them in having a late dinner with David at a local mexican restaurant. I wiffle-waffled for a few minutes (it was late and I was an hour drive from home), but decided to go. I got in the car and pulled up the name of the restaurant on the map, and drove there. And I waited. and waited.
and waited.
I was listening to a podcast, so I didn't notice quite how long it had been (about 10 minutes, it turned out), but I started to have that slight creeping sensation of "they decided on somewhere else and I didn't get the memo, guess I'll just go home" sadness. I brushed it off, telling myself I was insane, and pulled up Facebook while I waited...and there was a message from David, wondering where I was and giving me his phone number so I could find them.
I had, of course, picked the first place on the map-list, but it turned out there were two restaurants with the same name, and they were at the other one.

But more than that, the people had noticed and cared and reached out. When I arrived they were glad to see me, and we had a great time talking and listening--and there was real listening and responding and asking and wondering and laughing. And the difference between that and the other recent experience was like night and day. It was as if these people were living that benediction. And for a moment, I felt first, before I could think about it.

You Are Loved.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

unbound--a sermon for Lent 1, March 9 (John 11)

Rev. Teri Peterson
John 11.1-44
9 March 2014, NL4-27 (At the Threshold 1)

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
 Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’
 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’
 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 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.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’
 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 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 for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. 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.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ 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.’

Here we are, at the beginning of Lent, and smack in the middle of John’s gospel. Lent is a sort of turning-point season: a time for repentance, which means turning around. It’s a time when we let go of things that keep us from fully following Jesus, and pick up the cross and walk toward Jerusalem. This story, in the center of John, is also a turning point. This is the moment when Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem, and the disciples know it is the beginning of the end: “come,” they say, “let us go that we may die with him.” This is the act that puts him on the radar of the empire, the act that most frightens the religious leaders, and that sets in motion a plan to, as one of the chief priests will put it, “let one person die for the people.”

There are a few things we need to know as we embark on this journey to Jerusalem through the lens of John’s gospel. Because we are reading in order, things will feel a bit odd this season—John spends half the book—the next 10 chapters—in Holy Week and Easter. So we are spreading out the stories of Holy Week over the whole course of Lent, rather than cramming half of the book of John into two days at the end.
Through these days of walking toward the cross, we’re going to hear a lot about “the Jews.”  Remember that when John says “the Jews” he’s talking about the people in positions of power—the leadership of the Temple and political system. Nearly everyone in the story is a Jew in the way we use the word—Jesus was Jewish, the disciples were Jewish, the gospel writer and the community to whom he wrote were Jewish. There is a history of using John’s gospel to fuel anti-semitism, because we have so misunderstood the phrase “the Jews.” So whenever you hear it, think “the religious leaders” and you’ll have a better picture. Because those are the people that John describes as spying, manipulating, and constantly opposing Jesus and his message—not the entire Jewish people, but a few people with power in the system.
And there’s going to be a lot of coming and going. Those of you who were here Wednesday night may remember a key part of the reading was Jesus saying “I am the gate…you will come in and go out and find pasture.” Every story we will hear this season is a story of coming in and going out and finding pasture. Be on the lookout for who is entering and exiting, where and how and why.

Today we are faced with the most closed of all doors: death. Here at the beginning of Lent, in the very center of John’s gospel, a story of a tomb shut, locked, and sealed. In the tradition at that time, it was believed that the spirit of a person finally departed on the third day after death. So on the fourth day, when the funeral was over and the finality of death was starting to settle in for Mary and Martha, Jesus comes to visit.

The fourth day. The first day that it was really real—that there was no chance Lazarus was just sleeping, no chance this was all a bad dream. Both Martha and Mary meet Jesus with the same words: if you had been here…

How often have we used those words? Lord, if you had been here…Lord, if you had come when I asked…Lord, life hurts and I asked for help and I feel like you left me out here to suffer…Lord, it’s too late, the grief is here to stay now.

The door is shut. The tomb is sealed.

And right there, in the middle of the road, with the shadow of death blacking out the sun, Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

Remember that Lazarus was still very much dead at this point. No one, least of all Mary and Martha, have any idea what’s about to happen. And Jesus makes these two claims in the middle of that darkness. He promises resurrection, which makes sense, since this seems to be a story about death. But he also promises life, and the word here is not a future life, but a present life, full and abundant and eternal and connected to the holy, but now. So he talks about both the future and the present, to people who can barely see their way to lunch, let alone present or future life.

It’s clear that no one understands how he can be talking like this, because when he tells them to open the tomb, everyone is appalled. Surely he can’t be serious. The smell of rotting flesh will overpower them all, not to mention that it’ll be traumatic for Mary and Martha to have to go through this all yet again. And let’s not even get into the fact that the religious leaders are here questioning every move and taking notes for the Pharisees. The crowd stares at the closed door, words of life ringing in their ears, unable to imagine any possibility on the other side.

I wonder how often that’s exactly what we all do? Sometimes in the face of physical death, yes, and more often in the face of uncertainty or change or darkness in our lives. Everyone experiences those dark nights of the soul at some point, whether as an individual or as part of a community. We look at the door and cannot imagine what might be on the other side. We see that it is shut and locked, and we give up hope. Or we see that it’s open just a tad, but we’re too afraid to give it a push and check out what’s through there. We look, but we’re paralyzed by the choices, the possibility, the risk. It seems the only way forward is to do what we’ve always done—to shut the door against the unknown and grieve our losses, let Jesus’ words of grace hang in the air and get lodged in our brains but never quite make it to the heart of everyday stuff.

But Jesus stands there, at the locked door, and says “I am the resurrection and the life.” He stands there and says “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” He looks at the tomb and says “open it.”

Can we even imagine hearing those words?

As I was imagining what it would be like to hear Jesus say “open the door,” I realized that I usually imagine it from Mary and Martha’s perspective as those who wander in the fog of grief. I know that fog well, as I know many of you do. But what if we, the church, are actually hearing those words from the other side of the door? The sound is a bit muffled, and we’re having trouble seeing, and moving is a challenge, but something is going on…something we don’t understand. And then the door is opened and Jesus calls to us: Lazarus, come out! Presbyterians, come out! PCOP, come out! Christians, come out!

Imagine how scary it must have been for Lazarus, to wake up in the dark, the scent of death still hovering, the shroud covering his face and binding his hands and feet. He moved slowly and uncertainly, tripping over bandages and unable to see clearly. He moved toward the voice—the voice of the shepherd who calls his sheep by name—and found himself at the doorway into life, a doorway he could never have imagined, a doorway that led to inconceivable risk for both himself and his dear friend. A doorway into something that has never existed before, with no instruction manual for what to do next, only the presence of Christ standing in the middle of the road with promises and tears and hope. Lazarus stood at the threshold, still wrapped in bands of death, and had to make a choice to step through.

And Jesus said: “unbind him and let him go.”

May we, too be unbound.