Can’t Celebrate Easter Without a Carrying a Cross: Remembering Mary Magdalene Feightner

Mary-Feightner-1492072139Here in the mournful darkness of this Saturday vigil, still in the shadows of Good Friday, we gather together with bated breath.

For Easter is coming! New life is being born! Resurrection morning is dawning! Something wonderful has been lost, but something magnificent is being gained.

However, I believe it is very important for us to realize on this Holy Saturday, that before we can experience new life, before we can celebrate resurrection, before we can sing alleluias, someone needed to pick up and carry a cross.

And the sad thing is that very few of Jesus’ disciples understand this. They don’t understand it today, and they didn’t understand it 2000 years ago.

Although Jesus continually taught that to gain life, we must be willing to lose our lives, that Easter would not happen without some self-denial, resurrection would not come without some self-expenditure, new life would not be born without some sacrifice, and the light of Sunday morning cannot dawn without the darkness of Good Friday, when the time came for the disciples to follow Jesus all the way to the foot of the cross, most all of them very selfishly fled to save their lives. One would even betray Jesus. Another would deny that he even knew Jesus. Nearly all would desert him. In spite of Jesus’ continual call to pick up a cross and follow him, most of the disciples turned their backs on him in his darkest hours.

However, there were a few disciples who got it. There were a few who were willing to carry a cross, to live and to love selflessly and sacrificially. There were a few who faithfully followed Jesus all the way to Golgotha.

Although the intrinsic sexism of this world’s history has caused the majority of people to overlook these faithful disciples, all four gospel writers did not.

In Luke 8 we read these words: Afterward [Jesus] journeyed from one town and village to another, preaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. Accompanying him were the Twelve and some women…Mary, called Magdalene… Joanna…Susanna, and many others…”

And on Good Friday, when none of the male disciples could be found, in Mark 15 we read: “There were also some women looking on…among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, Joses, and Salome.

In Matthew 27 we read: Gathered at the foot of the cross: “among them was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.

In John 19:25 we read where all the male disciples fled, “But standing by the cross of Jesus were His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.

The problem with Christianity today is that there are too few Mary Magdalenes in the church who understand that authentic faith, true discipleship, involves a cross. There are too many Christians in our world who believe they can have Easter Sunday without Good Friday, who believe they can experience new life without death to self, who believe they can sing alleluias without sacrifice.

What this world needs, what this community needs, what the church needs more than anything are more disciples like Mary Magdalene and Mary Magdalene Feightner.

Like the Mary Magalene before her, Mary Magdalene Feightner understood that when Jesus called people to be his disciples, Jesus was always quite clear that there would be a cross involved, a cross that they would voluntarily need to pick up and carry.

I will never forget the last time I spoke with Mary. It was here, in this place, just this past Sunday. After the service was over and the congregation was dismissed, I was finishing a conversation with some people down front here who were asking about joining our church. I looked up and saw Mary walking down this aisle. I met her right here to greet her. I said, “It is so great to see you Mary.” And it was so good to see her. For each time I saw her she was always beautiful, stunning really, dressed to the nines, and always wearing a tremendous, welcoming smile.

Mary responded not in a manner people usually respond to such a greeting with “It is good to see you too!“ but rather “How is it going with that Air Force Class Central Christian Church adopted?”

I said, “It is going great! We had a good time trap shooting with them!”

And instead of replying, “Great, glad to hear it!” not allowing me to rest on any laurels, she replied: “Well, what’s the next event you have planned for them?”

Like Mary Magdalene, Mary Magdalene Feightner understood that to find true life is to lose one’s life, to truly live to truly deny one’s self, to always put the needs of others ahead of one’s own needs, to love and to welcome and to accept as Christ loves, welcomes and accepts.

It is no secret that Mary made it her mission for nearly the last thirty years of her life to give all that she had to welcome Air Force pilots and their families into our community.

It was obvious that Mary learned from her own personal experience, as she compassionately and empathetically understood from how difficult life could be for enlisted service men and women having to move and make a new home in a new community every few years. She knew the hardship on families: the time the kids get settled in school, make new friends, it’s time to move and start all over.

This is why Mary made Vance Air Force Base her base. They were here pilots, her families. She didn’t invite businesses or organizations or churches like ours to adopt these pilots or to do anything that she was not willing to do herself.

And she never did it for the recognition, for any reward, and certainly not to have the foyer of the auditorium named in her honor—the foyer, the first place pilots enter when they come to Vance, and the last place they leave after they earn their wings.

The night of the naming ceremony, her sons Ray and Mark will never forget having to tell Mary that they were going to the base, because Governor Mary Fallin was speaking, just so their mother would get dressed up and go.

Although Mary earned much recognition, Mary Magdalene Feightner did not volunteer her time for any award, any accolade, I believe she did it because she understood to find one’s life, one must first lose one’s life, as her work for the base was purely selfless, always tireless, and truly sacrificial.

It has been said by many who are associated with Vance: “Mary didn’t know she was 81 years old.” Because even during the most fragile part of her life, she selflessly gave all that she had. For example: staying out on the 103-degree tarmac for the Thunderbirds last summer until she passed out, sacrificing her personal well-being.

This was just Mary. No matter what Mary did, she gave her all and always put others first, whether as a banker in a man’s world working her way up from a teller to a loan officer to a Vice President, as a substitute teacher in the Enid public school system, as a Grace-Care Volunteer helping the elderly with basic needs, as the Secretary-Treasurer of the Northwest Oklahoma Banker Association, as a successful fund-raiser for the YMCA, the American Cancer Society, the March of Dimes, the United Way, or as Secret Shopper for Subway and Pizza Hut.

She did it because as a genuine disciple of Jesus, when it came to loving others, she didn’t mind that a cross might be involved. For Mary, people were worth the sacrifice. Thus, you could often find Mary in Enid wherever you find people. Whether she was picking up side gigs peddling Straight Talk phones at Wal-Mart or Kobalt tools at Lowes, she just wanted to where the people were, because she genuinely loved people!

She loved others, perhaps especially the Vance Air Force family with the same love that she had for her own family. By a living example she taught her sons a staunch work ethic, the importance of networking and social skills, and yet how to be a good listener. But, perhaps most importantly, she taught them how to accept, welcome, and love people.

Mark’s wife Diane will always cherish the way she used to welcome her and Mark into her home while they were in college. She said no matter what time of night it was when they arrived, she could always count on Mary being there to greet them at the front door.

Ray’s wife Kim and Diane testify, although somewhat reluctantly, of Mary’s unwavering devotion to her family, as according to Mary, Ray and Mark simply can do no wrong.

And each of her grandkids, Zachary and Kylie, Mason, Morgan and Madison can attest, at Gurnie’s house there were never any rules. Three scoops of ice cream? Who says you can’t have four?

I think it is interesting that Mary Magdalene is remembered and mentioned by name by the gospel writers more than any other apostle. And perhaps more than any other Partner in the Sky in Enid, Mary Magdalene Feightner will perhaps be most remembered by our community.

However, her great legacy is not why we are gathered here this afternoon in a Christian church. And her many contributions to this community is not why it is so appropriate that we have gathered here on this Holy Saturday, between the darkness of Good Friday and the light of Easter Sunday.

For tomorrow morning, Christians all over the world will gather and read or hear the following scriptures.

Some will hear the words Mark 15:47: “Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses were looking on to see where Jesus was laid.”

Matthew 28:1 reads: “Now after the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the grave.”

Mark 16:1 reads: “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might come and anoint Him.”

John 20:1 reads: “Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb, while it was still dark, and saw the stone already taken away from the tomb.”

Out of all of Jesus’ disciples it was Mary Magdalene who not only sacrificially followed Jesus all the way to the foot cross, but she followed him all the way to the grave.

I don’t believe it was a coincidence that Mary Magdalene Feightner was here in this place to worship Jesus last Sunday morning. I don’t believe it was happenstance that she walked down this aisle on her last Sunday on earth, with her mind and heart not on herself, but on others. Like the Mary Magdalene before her, Mary Magdalene Feightner followed Jesus to the very end.

Because tomorrow Christians all over the world will read and hear those wonderful words that we are all anticipating on this Holy Saturday. From Mark 16:9 we read: “Now after He had risen early on the first day of the week, He first appeared to Mary Magdalene…”

We are gathered here in this place, appropriately on this Saturday between Good Friday and Easter to celebrate someone who, because of her faithful discipleship, because she voluntarily carried a cross, because she sacrificed and poured herself out to this community, because she selflessly followed her Lord all the way to the end, Mary Magdalene Feightner has now experienced the good news of Easter in a way that we can only imagine.

And this Easter, out of all the disciples that have gathered here this day, “He, the risen Lord and Savior of the world, first appeared to Mary Magdalene Feightner.”

In John 20:18 with we these most hopeful words: Mary Magdalene came, announcing to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”

Yes, she most certainly has. Thanks be to God.

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Claiming the Body of Jesus

cross

Sermon preached at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church for the Ecumenical Good Friday Service, 2017 in Enid, Oklahoma.

John 19:38-42 NRSV

After Jesus is crucified, John speaks of two individuals who emerge from the shadows, exposing themselves, risking their anonymity, putting their reputations on the line, by claiming the body of Jesus.  The first is Joseph of Arimathea, a disciple of Jesus who had previously hid his faith in secrecy for what John calls “fear of the Jews.”  He was one of the Jewish authorities who never openly confessed their faith in Jesus because of fear of losing their political power and position in the synagogue.

And the second was Nicodemus. You may remember Nicodemus from John chapter 3. He had previously come to Jesus secretly by night, showing some interest in Jesus, but never making a public profession of faith.  However, now on Friday afternoon, in claiming the body of Jesus, the faith of both of these men is clearly exposed and made very public.

And as we read John’s account we notice that by coming out of the shadows, openly claiming the body of Jesus, these two men do much more than risk their anonymity and their reputation in their community.  They also put at risk their religion.  For touching the dead body of Jesus made them ceremonially unclean which meant that they would be unable to celebrate the Passover and the Sabbath with their families.

The extravagant amount of burial spices which weighed about a hundred pounds that the men bring to anoint Jesus’ body, tell us that these men also put at risk their riches. Along with the expensive spices, the linen burial clothes they used to prepare Jesus for burial were usually something worn only by people of wealth and prominence. The pristine condition of the garden tomb also underscores the extravagance of Jesus’ interment.

So in this story we see two persons who come out of the shadows risking reputation, religion and riches to claim the body of Jesus.

The question which should come to our minds is why?  Why risk anything for someone who is dead?  Why would Joseph and Nicodemus risk their reputation, their status in the community; their religion, their standing in their family; their riches, and their wealth for a lifeless corpse?

What was it that led these men to risk so much?  Well, one might ask: What would have happened to the body of Jesus if these men had not claimed the body of Jesus?  Well history tells us that after a Roman crucifixion, the unclaimed bodies were often left hanging on the cross to be picked apart by birds. And other times, the unclaimed bodies were simply thrown into the trash dump outside of town.

So these men, living in secret shadows, loving Jesus from afar, simply said, “enough is enough.”

We can no longer conceal our faith.  We can no longer mask our love.  We can no longer sit back and do nothing. We can not bear to let our Lord and our Savior’s body be defiled by being picked at by birds or thrown into a pile of trash.

We must do something.  Even if it means putting at risk every thing that we cherish, everything that we hold dear.  Even if it means risking our reputation, our religion (the way we have always done it anyway), all of our riches, we must act.  We can no longer stay in the shadows. Our love for our Lord demands that we claim his body:  that we remove him from the cross; that we prepare his body for burial, that we seal him in a rich man’s tomb.

It was love, pure and simple and powerful which caused these men to act on the behalf of Jesus by claiming his body risking reputation, religion and riches.

The irony here is that it was the same love which caused our God to act on our behalf.  The story of Joseph and Nicodemus is the story of our God.  Out of a high and holy place, our God said: enough is enough.  I can no longer love my creation from afar.  I can no longer watch my creation suffer and perish.  I can no longer keep myself from risking my all, from empting myself, from becoming a human being.  I can no longer keep myself from offering my creation all that I am and all that I have. I can no longer keep myself from pouring myself out.  I can no longer keep myself from loving my creation even to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Joseph and Nicodemus claimed the body of Jesus because they were filled with the divine love of God.

The question for us is this:  How long are we going to continue to live in the shadows?  How long until we open our hearts to the story of God’s love; to the divine love of God which wants to fill our souls, to be so overflowing with the love of God that we have to cry out: “enough is enough!   I can no longer sit back and do nothing, I must act. I can no longer love my Lord and my Savior from afar.  I must claim the body of Jesus, the body of Christ, for myself even if it means putting at risk the things I most hold dear.  Even if it means risking reputation, religion, and riches, I must share this pure and simple and powerful love with everyone I know. I can no longer let others suffer alone. I can no longer sit back and allow injustice to continue. I can no longer ignore inequality. I can no longer turn my back on those who are marginalized and ostracized. I can no longer keep my faith private.  I can no longer remain silent. I can no longer keep myself from giving all that I have and all that I am to the ones who are lonely, thirsty, cold and hungry.  Enough is enough!  I must claim the body of Christ!”

Well, what are we waiting for?  Are we afraid of what we might lose from risking so much?  Let’s look at what Joseph and Nicodemus lost by claiming Jesus’ body.  They really did not lose a thing.  Instead of losing their reputations, their good names, their names are remembered by the gospel writers and by you and me two thousand years later as the ones who risked everything to claim the body of Jesus.

How do we want to be remembered?  As someone who lived only for one’s self; accumulating a lifetime of reputation, religion and riches?  Or would we rather be remembered as one who because of so much divine love welling up inside of our heart, we risked it all to claim the body of Jesus?   By doing whatever we can to serve our Lord in our community and in our world.  By giving all that we have and all that we are to our Lord by loving others with the complete, divine love of God.

A Living Prayer of Thanksgiving: Remembering Margaret Lambke

Margaret Lambke

Thirteenth century German theologian and philosopher Meister Eckhart is often credited with the following quote: “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is ‘thank you,’ that will be enough.”

If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is ‘thank you,’ that will be enough.

I believe it is enough, because I believe that the simple prayer, “thank you,” indicates that one understands that all of life is a wonderful, free gift of God’s amazing grace.

I have said before that I believe there there are basically two types of people in this world: People who get the concept of grace and people who don’t get it.

People who fail to see the grace of it all are usually not what we call “good” people. They act as if they have somehow earned their life, done something to deserve their life. They walk around with this air that the world owes them something. And they grow bitter and even hostile if life doesn’t go their way. After all, they deserve better.

And because they feel as if they have earned it, their lives are usually self-absorbed. Selfishly, they do only what they want to do, even if that means doing nothing at all.

Then there are those like Margaret Lambke who get it, who truly understand the sheer grace of it all. They understand that all of life is gift. It is unearned and undeserved. It is mysteriously and utterly precious. And these are who we generally call “good” people.

Filled with gratitude and joy, they live their lives abundantly, enthusiastically, lovingly. Every moment—whether that moment may seem extraordinary or ordinary, miraculous or mundane—every moment, because it is gift, because it is grace, is relished, appreciated and even celebrated.

It is not hard to understand how people like Margaret make the best parents. Margaret absolutely cherished being a mother, and later a grandmother, and great grandmother.

Debbie and Conie, this is because, for your mother, you two, and later your families, all of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, were gifts of God’s amazing grace, all unearned, undeserved. And she got it.

This is why she remembered, looked forward to, and loved to celebrate every birthday, every anniversary or every life event in your families.

I loved that you will always remember her many voicemails. I think you told me that you could receive over a dozen from her in one day.

“Hi Hon, it’s me, I don’t need anything. Just calling to check on you.”

I believe Margaret called you and left those voicemails as a way of saying: “Thank you.” Thank you for being you. Thank you for being my family. And she called each time her heart was suddenly filled, overflowing with gratitude for you. This is why she called twelve or sixteen times a day!

I believe this immense gratitude which flooded her soul was the exuberant energy behind everything that she did.

There’s no telling how many times she heard someone say to her: “Mar Mar, please sit down. Mar Mar, please rest a while.”

But like the energizer batteries a little pink bunny, the gratitude that overflowed inside of her compelled her to keep going and going and going.

Gratitude is what propelled her to immediately step up and raise her hand whenever anyone asked for a volunteer. Gratitude is how she managed a gift store, helped Jim with bookkeeping in his pharmacy, served as president of PEO, volunteered with mobile meals, played some tenacious tennis, planted and maintained beautiful gardens, made homemade candies and baked her famous Mar Mar bread. Gratitude is what compelled her, no matter how busy she was at the store or with her volunteer work, to always be there for her family. Gratitude propelled her to get in her car and drive to Colorado when she learned Debbie was a little homesick to to drive to the school to give a ride to Conie and the rest of the cheerleaders if they needed one. And gratitude was the reason that no matter how busy she was, she was always a leading candidate for “Mom of the Year.”

Everything she did, every project she undertook, every holiday decoration she created, every Easter egg hunt she hosted, every extra goodie or appetizer she prepared, every Sunday school class she taught, every breath she took, was a prayer of thanksgiving to God for the gift of her life.

“Mar Mar, please sit down!” she would often hear. But the immense gratitude she possessed for Jim and Debbie and Conie, her friends and family, drove her to keep at it, keep working, keep volunteering, keep cooking, keep decorating, keep loving, and keep praying with all that she had that simple but beautiful prayer: “Thank you.”

I am certain this is why it has been so especially painful to watch Margaret these last few years since she suffered a broken hip and the subsequent unsuccessful surgeries. To witness this one who never missed a beat, never slowed down, and never sat down, has been very difficult, to say the least.

And now to think that this one who was so full of life, abundant, exuberant, tenacious, is no longer living with us, well, it can be almost too much to bare.

Conie and Debbie told me that one of their mother’s favorite scriptures was John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

It is easy for me to understand why this passage of scripture was special to Margaret. For there is such amazing grace revealed in these beautiful words.

God gave, God gave. Do you hear it? Do you hear the gift? Do you hear the grace? God gave God’s only son, why? For the world earned this gift? For the world deserved this gift? No, for God so loved the world!

So that everyone who believes in this gift, believes in this grace, so that everyone who truly gets it, so that everyone who truly understands that if the only prayer that you every pray in your lifetime is “Thank you” that is enough, so that everyone whose entire life is a prayer of gratitude, they will never perish but have eternal life.

Eternal life. Life without ceasing. Life forever. For people who fail to get it, who fail to appreciate the gift of temporal life on this earth, this is not good news. However, for people like Margaret, for people who truly get it and appreciate it and celebrate it, that life itself is grace, for people who have lived life fully and abundantly and tenaciously and enthusiastically, then this is the best news of all!

And I believe this good news can bring much comfort and peace to those of us who are grieving today.

But I also believe that Margaret taught us that we can find even some more comfort this day.

For you see, Margaret herself was a gift. Margaret was grace. This world didn’t earn her, nor deserve her. We didn’t earn or deserve 8 minutes or 8 days or 8 years, and we got 88 years. Jim you got all but 20 of those years. 68 years of marriage. That is grace.

Knowing Margaret, I believe she is eternally grateful for that. And I believe she has taught us to be eternally grateful to that.

Garth Brooks sings a song entitled “The Dance.” One line of the song goes: “I could have missed the pain, but I would have had to miss the dance.” Our grief today only means that we have received and lost something wonderful. The only way to never grieve is to have never received or appreciated that gift. But as Margaret taught us with her life, to never appreciate it, to never get it, is to never truly live. As the song goes, the only way to miss the pain of loss is to miss the whole dance of life.

So Jim, Conie and Debbie, as I told you last week, every time you remember your mother and shed a tear, be grateful for those tears. Because those tears only mean that you have been graced by God. Those tears only mean, that you like your wife and your mother, also get it.

And because you get that you have been graced by God with the gift of Margaret, because we all get it, may we live out our remaining days on this earth as Margaret lived all of her days, by being a living prayer of thanksgiving.

Crown of Thorns

Matthew 21:1-11 NRSV    nerve gas

Palm Sunday—it’s the spectacular day we celebrate the King of Kings’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem!  And in this world of so much suffering and pain, oh how we need a day like today!  Oh how we need to hear that Jesus Christ, our ruler and our king is coming through the gates to finally set things right, to take complete control of things. Oh how we need a day to reassure ourselves that no matter how bad life gets, no matter how distressed, fragmented and chaotic life becomes, and how hopeless it seems, Christ is large and in charge! “He’s got the whole world in his hands,” as we all like to sing.

Ok. Now, as we Disciples of Christ like to do, let’s get real for a moment. Let’s honestly think through this. Is the truth that “He’s got the whole world in his hands really that comforting?”

Although none of us good God-fearing, Bible-believing, church-going folks like to admit it, is this truth of God’s supreme providential power more than a little disturbing?

Think about those times you were reminded by someone, albeit with good intentions, that “God is in control.” When Lori and I lost our first child two months before the due date, people came up to us and said, “Don’t let this get you down. Just remember that God doesn’t make any mistakes.”

After the doctor gave you the news that the tumor was malignant, people came up to you and said, “Don’t worry, God knows what God is doing.”

When people learned that you were going to lose your job, they reminded you, “It is going to be alright, for God in control.”

At the graveside of a loved one, your friends and family lined up between you and the casket and whispered: “God has a reason for this.”

And very politely, we nodded. We even thanked them for their words with a hug or a handshake. But then, a short time later, after we dried our tears and came a little bit more to our senses, while we were sitting quietly at home or while we were out on a long drive, or maybe sitting in church, we began to reflect and to ponder those well-intended words. We began to think to ourselves: “If God is really sitting on some providential throne in complete control of this fragmented fiasco called life, this disastrous debacle called the world, then, really, just what type of ruler is this God? Just what type of king sits back and allows so much evil to occur in their kingdom, especially to people we are told the king loves.

The king of kings makes his triumphant entry—what is supposed to bring us great strength, peace and comfort, instead brings us frustration, anger and doubt.

Hosanna, the King is coming to save us—what is supposed to bring us assurance and hope brings us misery and despair. And we become tempted to join all those who will laugh and ridicule Jesus by the end of this week: “Umphh!  King of the Jews! Some King!”

I have said it before, and I do not mind saying it again—If God is the one who willed our first baby’s death, causes tumors to be malignant, gets us fired from our jobs, takes our loved ones from us, and sits back allowing such atrocities as the snuffing out of lives of little Syrian children being with nerve gas, then I really do not believe I want anything to do with a god like that!  I think I would rather join the millions of people who have chosen not to be in church on this Sunday before Easter.

But the good news is that I am here.

And I am here to proclaim with a confident voice God that God is not the type of King who decrees the death of babies, pronounces malignancies, commands layoffs and orders our loved ones to be suddenly taken from us. There is no doubt about it, Christ is King.  But thank God, Christ does not reign the way the kings of this world reign.

The reason I believe we allow ourselves to be tempted to give up on God in the face of evil is because we often forget that our God reigns not from some heavenly throne in some blissful castle in the sky. But our God reigns from an old rugged cross, on a hill outside of Jerusalem, between sinners like you and me.

I believe we oftentimes become despairing and cynical about God, because we forget that our God does not rule like the rulers of this world.

The kings of this world rule with violence and coercion and force. Earthly rulers rule with an iron fist: militarily and legislatively, and with executive orders. Worldly kings rule with raw power: controlling, dominating, taking, and imposing.

But, as the events that took place this week in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago remind us, Christ is a king who rules through self-giving, self-expending, sacrificial love. Christ is a king who rules, not from a distance at the capital city, not from the halls of power and prestige, but in little, insignificant, out-of-the-way places like Bethlehem and Nazareth, and Waukomis and Enid.

Our King doesn’t rule with an iron fist. Our King rules with outstretched arms.

Our King doesn’t cause human suffering from a far. Our King is right here beside us sharing in our suffering.

Our King possess what the late theologian Arthur McGill called a “peculiar” kind of power.

God’s power is not a power that takes. It is a power that gives.

God’s power is not a power that rules. It is a power that serves.

God’s power is not a power that imposes. It is a power that loves.

God’s power is not a power that dominates. It is a power that dies.

And as Arthur McGill has written, this is the reason that it is “no accident that Jesus undertakes his mission to the poor and to the weak and not to the strong, to the dying and not to those full of life.  For with these vessels of need God most decisively vindicates his peculiar kind of power, [a] power of service whereby the poor are fed, the sinful are forgiven, the weak are strengthened, and the dying are made alive.”[i]

Christ the King did not take our first child. The day our baby died, our King came and cried with us in that hospital room.

God did not cause the tumor. The day the doctor said the word “cancer” was a day of anguish for God as it was for us.

God did not create the layoff. The day you were told that your job was ending, God stayed up with you and worried with you all night long.

And God did not take your loved one.  When they died, something inside of God died too.

What we all need to learn are very different definitions of “king,” “rule,” “reign” and “power”—very different because they define the holy ways of the only true and living God, rather than defining our false gods and their worldly ways.

When life gets us down (and if we live any length of time at all in this world, it most certainly will), we need to remember the great truth of this day—The king has arrived. The king has entered the gates. And this king is has come to take his place on his throne, on an old rugged cross.  Do you see him reigning today? Do you see him bleeding, suffering, sacrificing, and giving all that God has to give from from the cross?

God does not make mistakes. God knows what God is doing. God is in control. God is king. But God’s throne is not made of silver and gold. God’s throne is made of wood and nails. God wears not a crown of jewels. God wears a crown of thorns.

This past week, I visited with Marion Batterman whose doctor just told him that he was dying. He said, “Pastor, my doctor gives me no hope. They said that my lungs are just about gone.”

I said, “Marion, I am so sorry.”

“Oh don’t be sorry he said. “Because my hope is not in my doctor! My hope is in my Lord!”

“So Marion,” I said, “Even when your lungs stop working completely…”

Marion finished the sentence, “I still have hope!”

No, he was not delusional. His mind was not clouded with medication. Marion was at peace, because his King reigns from a cross.

Marion was filled with hope, because his King is not far away from him seated a celestial throne removed from his agony. His King is seated at his very side suffering with him.

His King is not above his pain. His King is experiencing every bit of his pain.  His King is not willing or decreeing his death, his king is experiencing his death.

His King is not slowly taking his life away from him. His King is giving the King’s eternal life to him, pouring out the King’s holy self into him, and promises him every minute of every day to see him through his dying.

After he described an intensified intimacy that he now shares with his Lord, he then said something miraculous. With this hopeful joy in his smile and eternity in his eyes, he told me that he was a blessed man.

Think about that for a moment.

A man, barely able to breathe, nearing the end of his life, told me that he is blessed.

Aren’t we all?

[i] Arthur McGill, Suffering: A Test of Theological Method, 61-63.

Loosening the Bonds of Death

Lazarus

John 11:32-44 NRSV

John 11 is a great example of why I love the Bible. I love the Bible because the Bible is honest. The Bible is real. The Bible does not hide, cover up or try to sugarcoat the difficulties and even tragedy of life in this fragmented world.

I love that, because this world in which we live is sometimes incredibly painful. We live in a world surrounded by poverty and economic pain. We live in a world where the rich take care of themselves while taking advantage of the poor.

We live in a world where so-called “Christians” in the church are some of the meanest and most evil bullies we know. We live in a world where our loved ones suffer with all sorts of dreadful diseases. And we live in a world where we are continually reminded our own mortality.

Thus, I love John 11, for here in this very honest chapter, there is no denying the harsh reality of this fragmented existence we call life, especially in dealing with the most tragic aspect of this life: the death of a loved one.

Too many Christians, for many reasons would rather treat the tragedy of death as if it does not exist. We don’t want to talk about it.  And when we do, we try to deny the harshness, the sheer austerity of it. We do not even like to call it “death.” We would rather call it “passing away.”

We say things like: “there are worse things in this world than death;” however, in death there still exists an inescapable starkness that cannot be denied or ignored. When we are honest, we would admit that death is the most difficult thing about life. Losing someone we loved is the worst of all human experiences. We try to comfort ourselves by saying things like, “at least our loved one is no longer suffering.”  “At least she is now finally at peace.”  But if we are honest, just a second later, we find ourselves questioning why she had to get cancer and suffer in the first place. Why did they have to die as young as they did?

And we like to comfort ourselves by saying that he or she is in a far better place. But then a second later, we question why he or she would not be better here with us, at home, surrounded by family and love.

Yes, in John 11, there is no refuting the stark reality of death. Notice that Martha is absolutely horrified when Jesus commands the stone to be rolled back from the tomb. Her horror reminds us of something that we would rather ignore: the body was beginning to decay. The very sound of the words of verse 39 “Lord, already there is a stench, because he has been dead for four days” seems inappropriate to read from the pulpit. Dressed in our Sunday best on a beautiful spring morning, we don’t want to hear that!

But this is reality. This is truth.  And sometimes we simply do not want to hear the truth.

And sometimes we just think it is our Christian duty to be an example to the world, to the weak, to the unfaithful, how to be strong, how to put on a brave face and hold back the tears.

But notice in John 11 that there is no holding back.

Mary, the brother of Lazarus, weeps. The mourners who had gathered at the cemetery that day weep. Even Jesus himself weeps. The harsh reality of death and grief is evident everywhere.

We are told twice that Jesus “was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” Is there really a difference there? That is like saying that Jesus was grieving and mourning.

Just looking at the tomb of Lazarus caused Jesus to burst into tears.  Even Jesus, who we believe is manifestation, the very embodiment of God, the creator of all that is, who became flesh to dwell among us, does not remain calm and serene as one unmoved and detached from the fragmented human scene. Jesus himself is deeply disturbed at death’s devastating force. There is no denying it or escaping it or muting it. Neither is there any dressing it up with euphemisms like “passing away” or “gone on to be with the Lord.”

John 11 also points out why Jesus grieved. In verse 36 we read: “So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him.’”

It has often been said that the only way to miss pain in life is to miss love in life. Garth Brooks sings a song entitled “The Dance.” One line of the song goes: “I could have missed the pain, but I would have had to miss the dance.” Grieving only means that we have loved as our God has created us to love. The only way to never grieve is to never love. But to never love is to never truly live. As the song goes, the only way to miss the pain of loss is to miss the whole dance of life.

So, I believe John 11 gives each of us permission this morning to grieve. May we grieve long and deeply. May we never dare to run away from it.  May we never treat it as it was some stranger that we could send away, or deny that grief, because someone who doesn’t know any better thinks grieving means our faith is weak. Let us grieve what is lost. Grieve honestly, lovingly and patiently. Let us grieve until our cups are emptied.

However, (and here is the good news for all of us this day) as the Apostle Paul reminds us in his letter to the Thessalonians that those of us who call ourselves Christians should not grieve as others do who have no hope.  As Christians, our grief is real, but our grief is different. Our grief is not despairing, because as Christians, we possess hope because Jesus, who himself was not immune to grief and even death, always brings resurrection and new life.

Those of us who are not immune to grief and death need to again to hear Jesus’ prayer which came in a loud voice.  “Lazarus, come out.”

I heard a preacher once ask his congregation, “You do know why Jesus said, ‘Lazarus, come out’ and not simply ‘come out’ don’t you?  Because if he did not call Lazarus by name, if he did not say specifically, “Lazarus, come out, then every tomb in Jerusalem would have opened up that day!

We need to hear this voice and see this very real and foul, decaying corpse walking out of the grave, still wrapped in burial cloths, coming, at the voice of Jesus, to life.

And then I believe we need to hear again, and hear again loudly Jesus’ words: “Unbind him, and let him go.”  “Unbind him, and let him go.”  Lazarus is loosed from the bonds of death. He is freed from the shackles of his past. He is let go into a brand new future, liberated and set free.

Then, I believe we need hear John and Jesus himself tell us over and over that this event reveals the glory of our God. What we have in this story is much more than the resuscitation of one dead corpse by one man.

Always for John, miracles are much more. Miracles are always signs that point us to something greater. Thus this miracle is the revelation that the God in whom we serve and trust and love, this God who is not unmoved and detached from the human scene, is always a death-overcoming and life-giving God.

The good news that we need to hear is that this God is still working in our world today unbinding, letting go, loosing, freeing. God is here enabling us to confront death and grief, us to acknowledge it, to look it straight in the eyes, to see all of its harshness and starkness, and then be liberated from it.

And if God is here liberating us from the shackles of death, then there is nothing else in all of creation from which God cannot set us free.

From evil bullies bent on crushing our spirits.

A job that is draining the very life from us.

A relationship that is killing us.

Fears that paralyze us.

Disease that is destroying us.

Economic hardships that never seem to end.

Depression that never lets go.

One of the great things about being a pastor is how I have the awesome privilege to witness this good news all of the time.

Someone loses their job. They come to me believing it is the end of the world. But a year later, working a new job, they share with me that losing that job was the very best thing that could have happen to them.

Someone else comes to me and says that their marriage has fallen apart. And that they are partly to blame. They said they thought life as they knew it was over. But a few months later, they tell me that they are beginning realize that although they cannot go back to the good old days, they have plenty of good new days ahead.

Someone comes to me sharing their deepest fear: the fear of being known for who they really are; the fear of rejection and ridicule. Then I see them a short time later, and they tell me how they have been surprised by unconditional love and unreserved acceptance.

People call me to share their doctor’s grim diagnosis. They say that they had just received a death sentence. But a short time later, I visit with them, and they tell me that they are beginning to understand that being alive and whole have very little to do with physical well-being.

And then I have visited with countless people as they are facing what is certainly their final hours on earth, and I hear in their voices, and I see in their eyes a faithful awareness that there is nothing at all “final” about them.

Thus, like Lazarus, in this incomplete and fragmented world where death, divorce, disease and hate entomb us, we can be loosed. We can be freed, and we can be unbound.

We can come out and let go and celebrate the good news together: where there is incompleteness and brokenness, there can be wholeness. Where there is tyranny of the mind, there can be freedom of the heart. Where there is an imprisonment of the soul, there can be a liberation of the spirit. Where there is grief and despair there is hope. And where there is death and even decay, there is always life.

Let us pray together…

O God of New Life, may we be a church that shares this good news with all people, honestly and truthfully and faithfully. May we weep with those who mourn. May we be deeply moved with those who are afraid. And may we be deeply disturbed in our spirit with all who are suffering. Stay beside them. Befriend them. Accept them. Love them…until they are whole, liberated and fully alive now and forever through Christ our Lord. Amen.