Sermon for Year A, The Fifth Sunday After the Epiphany
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
April 6, 2014
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
A story, borrowed from someone’s Facebook status.
A monk on his journey home comes to the banks of a wide river.
Staring hopelessly at the great obstacle in front of him,
He ponders for hours on just how to cross such a wide barrier.
Just as he is about to give up his journey,
He sees a great teacher on the other side of the river.
The monk yells over to the teacher,
“Oh Master, can you tell me how to get to the other side of this river?”
The teacher ponders for a moment, looks up and down the river, and yells back,
“You are already on the other side.”
We’re further along than we know.
Things have happened and we aren’t completely aware of them.
Perhaps we need a little guidance -- a little help.
In the case of Lazarus:
Yeah, that’s a good description.
That’s something that’s definitely shaped like our lives,
And Jesus is the something in our lives that we didn’t expect and certainly can’t control
Who turns absolutely everything on its ear and boggles our minds.
Like our friend the monk on the banks of the great foaming river,
Lazarus is “already on the other side.”
Which makes no sense, because just one fast minute ago --
Well, see, from the perspective of Lazarus, just one minute before he was sick and in bed.
That’s the last anything he can remember.
Now he’s standing up somewhere, blinking in the harsh light of day.
He may look down to see that his feet are standing on somewhat familiar ground,
But once the story is told to him about how everything happened today,
He will never be able to see the world the same way again.
The power and the glory of God have been revealed in his very body.
The effect of the Spirit of God, working through Jesus, has forever changed things,
“Flipped the script” for good,
Until tomorrow, when the whole thing will happen again.
That’s the Lenten pattern.
Lent 1: Jesus is famished in the wilderness and is tempted by Satan --
Tempted in the way we all are, for power and prestige and pleasure, tested in our egos --
And he says, No, Satan, begone! That’s not why I came. Flipped the script.
Lent 2: A Pharisee named Nicodemus comes by night to Jesus,
And they have the strangest conversation about being born and Spirit and wind and light,
And before they stand up to part ways, Jesus begins to win Nicodemus over
To understanding that “the light of God has come into the world.”
Nicodemus comes in the first place -- I think --
Because he is tired of being handed all the pat answers and stock phrases
About who and what God is. He’s tired of performative religion, and empty ritual.
He’s gone all the way down, and he’s found himself asking that age-old question,
Is this all there is?
He’s tired of it, and he wants to go deeper, and to find a connection to something that’s real,
That’s realer than real.
It’s not a polite or quiet exchange that they have.
But by the time they leave, Jesus has completely reversed his understanding.
Lent 3: Jesus has an amazing conversation with a woman at a well
In the heat of noonday -- the opposite of “by night.”
He looks right into her life and he tells her everything about herself --
Not as some cheap parlor game, but because he wants her to understand who he is.
She is absolutely astonished, and she gets it,
And she does the right thing, which is to run and tell everyone,
Come and see this man! He can’t be the Messiah, can he?
And many do come and see, see the Messiah, over the course of two whole days,
And I’m sure, because it says so, that he flips the script,
Not just for her, but for everyone who comes and listens.
Lent 4: A man born blind is healed.
It’s almost a toss-off: Jesus sees the guy and says, Hey -- would you like to be healed?
Of course! the man says, and so it is.
A lifetime without sight, cured with a little spit and dirt and washing-up.
His whole world turned on its head in an instant.
The religious professionals in the crowd, they don’t get it:
“You can’t work on the sabbath. That’s not right.”
They order an investigation and fluff their feathers.
The man who’s gotten his sight back says, Give it up, guys!
This is way over your pay grade.
The flipping-of-the-script. All expectations reversed.
Everything they knew, every system they relied upon,
Had been profoundly and permanently tipped over.
You didn’t need a faith-based superstructure --
You didn’t need a religious-industrial complex to make everything right:
You just need whatever it is that this man Jesus is giving away!
By now, anyone reading John would say,
Okay, this Jesus is clearly the guy, right?
This is the one for whom we have longed! Jesus is the Messiah indeed!
Let’s follow him and do what he says and work really hard
To make this kingdom of God a reality over all the face of the earth.
But death. Lazarus. That’s a barrier no one could imagine crossing.
Lazarus was dead. In the tomb four days, which is code for that time --
It means, Good and dead. Gone, forever. Bucket done kicked.
The man is a doornail. We’ll never see him again. Goodbye, sweet Lazarus.
Resurrection from the dead? Reanimating the flesh of a corpse?
That’s flipping the script. That is subversion of expectation of the highest order.
Nothing will ever be the same. Nothing could, because of this thing that has happened.
Something died with Lazarus in the tomb,
But unlike Lazarus it didn’t come out when called,
Because it stayed dead.
Where people truly encounter God, growth is inevitable. Change is inevitable.
Things die in order to make room for that growth.
You can’t avoid it; it’s the great pattern of all life in the universe.
Things are resurrected and made whole and new again,
And other things must die for good in order for that to happen.
It’s what Paul means when he writes to the Galatians:
I live no longer -- not I, ... but Christ who lives in me.
What’s more: it’s only from the perspective of standing outside your own personal empty tomb
That you can look back on what has died and bid it good riddance.
On his deathbed he clings to those things for life;
On this side of death, they mean nothing to him.
It’s what Paul means when he writes to the Philippians
That “everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value
Of knowing Christ Jesus [as] Lord.
Paul says, “For [Jesus’] sake I have discarded everything else,
Counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ.”
We counted up what we had, and it wasn’t much anyway.
Then we died. Our old self-indulgent appetites and ways died in Christ, to Christ:
The old self, the old ego and patterns and habits, shed, like a cicada discards its shell:
Bye-bye, shell. It sure was fun, but I’ve got better things to do.
The deathbed can’t hold a candle to the resurrected life!
This has to happen in each of us -- each in his own way, as God’s Spirit directs and chooses.
BUT by God’s grace it can’t only happen at an individual level.
Resurrection is also, equally and forcefully, a corporate reality --
The reality of whole communities of people who believe
And place their whole faith and trust in Jesus Christ
And -- in their own way and in their own time -- are resurrected.
Something dies so something can live. Ancient truth.
Let me ask you: what dies in a church, a church like St. Thomas,
When we decide to take a risk and begin to place ourselves more fully
Into God’s hands for resurrection?
Well, lots of things die -- lots of scripts get flipped -- and let me be provocative about this.
The concept of membership dies, just for one.
Members die. What’s resurrected instead are disciples.
So also does the idea of member subscription die --
The notion that my monetary stewardship is a fee for religious services rendered.
What’s resurrected is a lively new facet of understanding
Of which money is only a part, yet a critical one,
That I seek to give back to God everything I possibly can that God has given to me.
Old patterns and habits and church clichés and forms of recalcitrance die, and they stay dead,
And they don’t come out when called.
What’s resurrected are whole new ways of seeing life.
Christian formation ceases to be about making experts
And instead people are suddenly burning with the desire to know God better -- plain and simple.
Programs stop focusing on themselves as an end
And start steering people toward “signs and wonders.” Signs and wonders.
The fear of evangelism dies in the tomb, and it stays dead.
What resurrects from it is the power of consistent invitation to “come and see” the Messiah
Like the woman at the well did once she was convinced.
Consistent invitation: the power of an invitation wrapped in a first-person story.
The power of saying,
I want you, dear neighbor, dear friend or family member, to know why God is important to me.
Dead and gone is the idea that you can just come and go and passively receive church.
What resurrects is following Christ....
Now, does any of this frighten you?
I guess I could only say that that would be an honest thing to admit, if it were true.
Fear is natural; yet as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.
Because what I’m describing is the difference between being permanently laid out in the tomb
And coming on out into the open air to be greeted by Christ.
I choose to live! Life an abundant life! And I want you to, too!
In Christ, my brothers and sisters, each and every one of us has a vibrant ministry.
Let me say that again: In Christ, you have a ministry. You.
But it’s like they say: Something’s gotta give. Something’s gotta die.
And then ... behold! Resurrection!
You know, I wonder if, when the Master told the monk
That he was already standing on the other side of the river --
I wonder what he did with that.
I wonder what went through the mind of Lazarus
After he got caught up on everything that had happened in the past week.
I wonder if they ever came to truly own the truth for themselves.
Well, in any case, here we are.
And thanks be to God: we’re further along than we know. AMEN