Sunday, April 13, 2014

“Freeing God from the Veils of Invisibility” (John 11:1-45)

Have you ever noticed that the opportunity TO LOVE someone—to extend yourself for the good of another—happens every day?

*Perhaps you’re entering a store, and the door is quite heavy, too heavy for another person to move, so you open it.

*Perhaps someone texts you on your cell phone by accident, and it’s an important text, and so you alert the person texting that they need to correct the number so they can reach the person they really need to reach.

*Perhaps your child needs you to listen to their story about their bad day, so you drop what you are doing and look at them, and really listen.
*Perhaps your friend needs a ride to the airport and you rearrange your schedule to take them.

*Perhaps you’re aware that a group of persons who are in the minority are being unfairly treated, and so you find some leadership in the community who are addressing that injustice and join them in their effort to raise the community’s awareness.  That might include a letter to the mayor and the city council. 

*Perhaps there’s a wedge between you and someone and you have a hunch it’s time to resolve the issue.  The other day a friend was telling me about his need to forgive someone so his doctor would quit lecturing him on his blood pressure.  “I called this person up,” he said to me, “And I said to him that I’m worried about talking about this issue, but if he and I can’t come to some kind of understanding, I might not live to see my 55th birthday, and I’d really like to see my 55th birthday.”

Writer and teacher Robert Benson tells a story in WEAVINGS, Journal of the Christian Spiritual life about the day there was a knock at the door of his home---the man on the other side was quite the character:  graying hair in dreadlocks, baseball cap on backwards, T-shirt with the sleeves cut off, dungarees that were too long and rolled at the ankles, and work boots.  The character said, “I noticed you have some weeding that needs to be done, and I thought you might want me to do it.” 
Benson and his wife said yes. 
A couple of hours later he knocked on the door, asking if someone could make him a meal.

Benson and his wife said yes.

The character worked for several hours and did a good job.  Then he knocked on the door again.  “Can you give me a ride home?”

Benson and his wife said yes.

They learned that the character’s name was William or Billy, and that he slept outside, often under the picnic table at the youth building of the church across the street, he had a cousin in the neighborhood where he was allowed to sleep when it was cold but they charged him twelve dollars a night.  He was illiterate, though he had a high school diploma and went to college on a track scholarship at a local university.  He had a shed where he kept tools and such.  He had a niece that lived nearby and he stayed there sometimes; it was the place where Benson and his wife dropped him off.

They decided to keep the relationship going, offering him work in the garden one to two days a week, and some coffee and breakfast and a ride.  Benson and his wife were getting tired of the yardwork. 

In time Billy knocked on other doors in the neighborhood and he used the Bensons as a reference.  The Bensons allowed him to store his tools on the side of their house.  

Sometimes Billy showed up late and on the wrong day and sometimes Billy stilled played the numbers and still needed a meal or two most days.  Some days he wanted twelve dollars.  Some days Billy stashed stuff that he had rescued from trash piles along side of his garden tools—before he took the trash to local yard sales.  “Billy was a mess,” Benson writes,  “always had been and always would be.  Some of it was his fault, and some of it was not.”  But as Christian persons who sat in worship and heard, “When did we see you naked or alone or hungry or thirsty or imprisoned?” read from Matthew 25:31-46, Benson and his wife knew that they had to look Billy in the eye –and meet his need.

He was their neighbor. 

Eventually, thanks to the neighborhood, Billy’s life began to change for the better.   In time Billy would smile and say, “I have family.”

The whole life of Christ teaches us that showing mercy to others does indeed makes  life better for others.  But I don’t simply want to make such a broad, sweeping statement…I want you to help me identify person in the scriptures who are better for the time Jesus took for them: invite the congregation to speak…  

Mary and Martha’s life was greatly improved for having known Jesus, and so was their brother Lazarus—although he did stretch them a little bit in today’s story when he didn’t respond immediately to Martha’s request.  (The scriptures want us to understand that Lazarus was REALLY dead, that it was against this backdrop that Jesus stepped in and not simply an illness that had depleted Lazarus of his strength, but not his life.) By returning Lazarus to Mary and Martha they remained financially stable at a time when women couldn’t own property.  By returning Mary and Martha to Lazarus, he got to spend more time with family.

He would die again, of course.

But the point is this:  wherever love is present God is present and people are blessed—we enter into the highest form of life that is possible---we enter into God.  Giving and receiving love is the greatest experience we can ever have (Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth). Jesus came that we might have the highest quality of LIFE. I believe he called it “abundant life.” 

That’s what Jesus means when he says 25 "You don't have to wait for the End. I am, right now, Resurrection and Life. The one who believes in me, even though he or she dies, will live. 26 And everyone who lives believing in me does not ultimately die at all. Do you believe this?"   By believe Jesus doesn’t mean have an opinion about who he is.  Jesus means TRUST him as in go about YOUR life like I go ABOUT mine.  And we all know how Jesus did his life, don’t we?  Jesus did his life as God would do his life—with great love.  

When we don’t go about our life the way God would go about our life, we keep God hidden.  When we go about our life the way God would go about our life, we free God from being invisible to the world.
As the church, the body of Christ, we are called to make God visible to the world.  So if we aren’t living like Jesus—restoring people to community, feeding the hungry, connecting to the Spirit, meeting the needs of our neighbors—it’s no wonder that people have given up on the church and look elsewhere for help, and for hope.  It’s no wonder that some people might exclaim that God is dead.

If people say “I can’t see God,” we who call ourselves the body of Christ are most to blame!  And yet we struggle, sometimes, to move love beyond a trait we admire, a little prayer for the welfare of others, the people we know, or a Bible study.

 I am reminded of the story that broke in the newspaper this past week about the archbishop in Atlanta, Georgia who used funds earmarked for charity to build a mansion.  “I wasn’t in the right frame of mind,” he confessed, “I simply was thinking we needed separate sleeping quarters and large spaces to entertain.  The world has changed.”  The ”world” he is referring to is the current Pope’s spiritual alignment with austerity.  “We’ve got to do more for the poor,” the Pope said to his faithful flock months ago.  Moving his leadership towards an austere life is one of many steps towards integrity; sincerity.  People are watching; listening as the current Pope brings the holy Spirit of God into the light—unveiling God.

Mary, Martha and Lazarus act together in John’s story to remind us that people suffer and look to us for help.  People long to see God.  “Be here for us,” they cry like Martha, “be here for us.”  Jesus acts to remind us that love is of God, that love shows up, that love feels the pain of others, and that love is a powerful source of healing.   Love changes people’s lives.

Jesus also acts to remind us that a life motivated by love is indeed the greatest life we could ever know!  It is the life that is remembered; cherished; blessed.  

And love isn’t always about the big things; spectacular things; loud things... 

Twelve dollars.

Rakes and hoes stashed on the side of the house.

Help with a heavy door.


A ride home.

Someone to listen.  Someone to advocate.

“Love,” Jesus teaches us through the healing of Lazarus, “acts like love in everyday life.” 

Let us prayer:  Gracious God, may we who call ourselves Central Christian Church live our life together the way that you would live our life together so that our community might see you and love you.  Amen.

(This sermon was shared by Reverend Dana Keener on April 6, 2014 at Central Christian Church in Billings, MT.)

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