So this sermon ended up long as I tried to walk the line of it being too much about me but also the vulnerability that connects because we all have these same thoughts and struggles and I think the willingness to admit that out loud is relationally important.
Video to this text can be found here (they are slightly different but basically the same).
If you had been here…none of this would have happened.
Jesus… if you could just have been here… if you had cared enough to be here… none of this would have happened.
That had to have been hard to here. Jesus, who loved him greatly, has a lot of places to be, and ministry to do. And this friend, in hurt and grief, looks at Jesus – who had been doing that ministry elsewhere – and says, “If you had just cared enough to be here, none of this would have happened.”
And Jesus probably agreed.
Earlier this week on Tuesday I woke up with this disquieted and discomfortable (yes I know the word is uncomfortable but this word makes grammar people uncomfortable so it better speaks to my sensibilities at the moment) sense of self. Have you ever woken up and just felt wrong? Not healthy wrong, but your sense of self is wrong. I don’t know if I am making any difference in the world. I do not know if I’m getting any of the things done that I want to accomplish. At any given time, I don’t know if I’m where I need to be to keep “all of this from happening.” I don’t even need Martha to look at me and tell me that… the reflection in my mirror is saying it: if you had just cared, Andrew… none of this would have happened.
This isn’t the only time we become aware of Jesus’ failings. When Luke tells the story of Jesus’ rejection in his hometown he recounts that when Elijah saved the widow’s child in Sidon there were many languishing in famine and dying but Elijah was only sent to, and saved, one of them. ‘I may work miracles, but I don’t raise all the dead.’ Even when we reach the end of this story we are reflecting on today there is only one Lazarus that is raised from the dead… so many other people that Jesus… failed (?)… stay dead. Jesus understands what it is like to have to choose places and people to be present to in his powerful personhood. And he knows what it is to look in the mirror knowing that for thousands and millions of others, “if I had just been there… none of this would have happened.”
For six years I have been the pastor of this church. I think every pastor knows when they come into a new call that they are not going to grow the church. But every pastor secretly thinks that they could…. And that they will. I woke up on Tuesday morning feeling disquieted for many reasons. One of those was because on Monday night doing our responsibility in caring ways the Session removed 38 people from membership. People who had really removed themselves from membership years ago. It took our membership number down to 302 people. Now, Andrew in a good moment knows that number means very little. But Andrew in a bad moment, when he looks into the mirror and thinks about where he could have been and what he could have done to keep “all this” from happening, says to himself, “wow, when I came here it was a 375 member church, and then it was a 350 member church… and then 325… and then 302. And it’s just not what I thought would happen 6 years later…. Does anything that I do matter?”
(Don’t worry about me… that was, as I said, a discomfortable moment… a self-doubt moment.)
I went on Tuesday afternoon (part of my role as the President of the Board of CATCH, housing homeless families, is to serve on the Executive Personnel team) and met with executive staff members and we had lunch to assess our ministry at CATCH. CATCH does great work towards the goal of ending homelessness. But it feels as if there are more people experiencing homelessness this year than last year. Did we fail? Did we succeed? With more money coming in because we have done good and trustworthy work… we served not a single person more than the year before… did we fail? Are we making a difference if the problem we are trying to solve that IS solvable seems to be getting worse before our very eyes? Does what we do matter?
I work with an interfaith group and we talk about and practice being there for each other, the things that unite us as spiritual communities are as many as those that divide us, and we CAN focus on what unites us. But as you come together as an interfaith community in the wake of 11 people being killed in a Synagogue as the gunman declares that he wants to kill all the Jews… when the same things happen in Christian churches, and mosques, and people of color because far too many of us are driven to kill that which we disagree with than defend each other… it makes me wonder if what we do matters. Or am I in all the wrong places at all the wrong times.
I think that is what was going on when I woke up on Tuesday feeling all discomfortable. It wasn’t simply about fatigue or a poor nights sleep. It was futility. And I feel that sense of walking uphill. Trying to swim upstream. The fact that we are called to be a light in the darkness, but the darkness seems to be winning. Wouldn’t it be easier if I decided I really don’t care? If I went on about my life and focus on me and my enjoyment: eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.
I think it would be easier. But it wouldn’t be true. And it wouldn’t be good.
And the end of the day, when I am not in the “that mood” I remember that a hundred families aren’t experiencing homelessness because CATCH is out there working uphill. I remember that for every 11 people shot the vastly greater majority gather around the world in solidarity for people they don’t even know – but they love – to remind each other that one person does not define our country or world by their hate. And whether my ego thinks that ministry over six years would lead to 450 members and not 302… it is wonderful to be here with you. And find people who empower me and remind me why it is I do what I do.
Bonnie Lind, who is here today from Portland where she moved a couple of years ago, gave me one of my favorite stories to hold onto for my life. We had a session meeting to change worship times and styles… remember that? And the motion changed in the meeting to an idea I honestly didn’t like and didn’t think would work. And I kind of freaked out after the meeting and I had just closed on my house and was completing my first year here and I called up Bonnie Lind who was the chair of Personnel at the time and I said, “The church is going to die this summer! And I just bought a house!” And she said something to me like, “Andrew this church has been here for 135 years… you are not good enough to kill it.” Ok, she didn’t say it quite that way, but she reminded me that I’m not alone, and that is not simply about whether or not I show up – in fact, my showing up is almost the least important – because there are all manner of leaders here who will and do show up. And we will work through this together… to keep all this from happening, or to keep all this from being worse than it would be without us. She put me at ease.
A couple of years after that the Personnel Committee had turned over completely and was made up of several of you who I won’t name right now – really I won’t – and the whole committee at that time was about as different politically from me as any four people we could have chosen at that time could possibly be. And I had done something that caused some community consternation with the church on an issue in which none of those four people agreed with me. And I confessed to them… ok, I did this thing, and it may blow up around us. And you know what? Not even one of them said, “Andrew what were you thinking?” They said they didn’t agree with me, but they respected my right to say and do what I did and moved right on to what we needed to do to protect the church. And in that moment, I realized that they, and I, would charge hell with a bucket of water for each other even though they are wrong about all their political opinions.
Because it’s not just me that has to show up. In fact, I do a pretty poor job of it… alone. I am grateful I am not alone… to keep all this from happening.
Yesterday we hosted a small conference and a Presbytery meeting. And I never really agreed to host the conference… it just sort of happened. Hosting a Presbytery meeting, which is our obligation, turned into to hosting a Friday night and all Saturday event almost 3 times larger than what we thought we had signed up to host. I regularly think about our church as one that is wrestling above our weight class. We are a church that holds ourselves to a higher standard, a church hitting goals that churches with 302 members don’t usually even attempt. And about 18 of you all came out to help us host. And let me tell you that you didn’t meet a normal standard of hosting, you didn’t meet a 302 member church standard or the high standards I try to hold us too… you met the Kingdom of God standards for radical hospitality all throughout the weekend, and I was so overly proud to serve this church at that moment. It was just a meal and meeting… but it was the hospitality work of keeping the light on and being a home and holding back the darkness – even if it was only for seven hours.
Jesus wept…. that his friend died. Jesus wept that he wasn’t there. Jesus wept that he knew that no matter that he was the very son of God he would still fail people’s expectations of him. Jesus wept that as much heart as he might have… every single one of us are finite beings who can only do so much. Jesus wept… and it’s powerful.
And then Jesus looked into the tomb in all his power and said, “Lazarus, come out.” And he did.
What the hell do we do with that?
Because wouldn’t that be awesome if we could do that?!?!?! Talk about your All Saints Sunday…we could really whip up some members. We could get the 4,000 past members of the church and we wouldn’t have pews enough for them.
What do I do with this scripture ending…. Because I can’t, we can’t, do that… Or can I? Can we?
Jesus says, “Unbind him.” That is way more important to him than the ‘Lazaraus, come out’. Sure, I don’t have the power of God to raise Lazarus from the dead, but Jesus then gave me a role in the story. Unbind him so he can live. And there are people all around us who are living their lives bound by oppression, bound by finiteness, bound by depression, bound by societal structures that don’t offer them the same opportunities they offer me… bound by so many things. To which Jesus cannot go to all them, and be there for all of them, Jesus said it himself. And so, Jesus found us and told us to unbind them so they can live.
There are people in our world who are targets of hate, there are minorities denied rights, vulnerable left unprotected, unrepresented, and targets of hate. And it’s our role to go to them and help unbind them that they can live.
A friend of my working in law enforcement reminds me that in a country that has great consternation about how our country polices itself there are some good men and women working hard by their presence to unbind life from death and they are having to do it with our scorn and hatred and so they are killing themselves literally and figuratively. Our job is to go to them and in solidarity unbind them so that they can unbind others so that those others can unbind us so that we can live. And that? That we can do. And that has value, and worth.
So, whether you look in the mirror and tell yourselves you are not doing enough, or avoid the mirror so you don’t have to hear your own inner dialogue, “thank you.” For in every moment you have been there for me, or for someone in your pew, or a stranger you didn’t even know even in a small forgettable act you unbound them and enacted the power of Jesus to give them life. And there is no better calling them that.
Unbind them, that they may live. This is the word of our Lord, thanks be to God.