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Imagining The Destination and Not Knowing the Way

GOSPEL: John 14:1-14
Jesus said to the disciples:] 1“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 5Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Today we enter into the second half of the season of Easter. We had been staying still, soaking in the the moment of resurrection, the stories of Easter beginning with the women at the tomb, then the disciples hiding away in the locked room, and then the two walking down the road to Emmaus. Coming back to that resurrection day because of its singular significance for us as a touchstone of faith. 

But then last Sunday we heard about the Good Shepherd, the Christ who leads us through the dark valleys, who shows us the way to the other side of the dangers that await us in this world, and it wasn’t just a comforting image to think about. Good Shepherd Sunday moved us from the immediacy of the first Easter morning and the immediacy of our pandemic lockdown, moves us onto the next step of this collective journey were are on as citizens of a pandemic world and as followers of Jesus.

This middle Sunday of the Easter Season moved us along the story, and put us into the second half of the Easter Season… to the part of the story of faith about becoming an Easter community and Easter people… it sounds great, but just like for the disciples, it is also scary for us. 

Today, we hear a familiar passage from John, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places…” This conversation between Jesus and his disciples comes to us from Maundy Thursday. Jesus has already raised Lazarus from the dead, and rode into Jerusalem hailed as a conquering Messiah. This conversation is first heard in moments before Jesus is eating the Last Supper with his disciples and friends. He is about to be arrested, put on trial and sentenced to death. This conversation happens in the shadow of the cross and just around the corner from the resurrection. 

And yet, Thomas (who will later demand to see the resurrected Jesus for himself) is wanting more information. He remembers following Jesus for the past 3 years, not really knowing where Jesus was going or what surprises might befall them, where the end goal might be. He is certain that he and the others won’t find their way on their own. 

Philip then comes out with it, he wants Jesus to show them the way, to fast-forward to the end and to show his followers the Father. 

The disciples, even after all they have seen of Jesus, all the miracles and healing, the exorcism and his preaching… they still have no idea where Jesus headed. They don’t know what Jesus is up to. They don’t know where they are headed, and they certainly don’t know how to get there. 

And yet the disciples seem to keep imagining the end goal, the destination, the point of arrival. They watched Jesus being greeted by hungry crowds wherever they traveled and they imagined celebrity. They watched Jesus debate and argue and put the religious authorities in their places, and they imagined power and influence. They see Jesus ride into Jerusalem like a king, and they imagine a throne room, a general commanding armies to victory. 

This whole time, the disciples have been thinking of the destination, imagining that possibilities of what this journey following Jesus bring them to, reward them with, change their fortunes to. 

This coming Friday, it will be 2 months since we last gathered in person for worship. Back then we were hopeful of being back together by Easter Sunday. How naive we were. We are now 5 Sundays on from Easter, and even with lots of conversation in the news and on social media about re-opening our world, we know that things aren’t just going back to the way they were before. The way ahead is mostly unclear with a lot of ideas and possibilities, but little certainty. Might we be still be tuning into the worship on Facebook for Canada Day? Will our Back to Church BBQ be a zoom gathering? Will will be lighting virtual candles for All Saints? Will Christmas Eve worship involve singing silent night from our respective front porches (if it isn’t too cold)?

We have come into a time where making plans is nearly impossible and every decision we took for granted before is now a calculation about risk and need, about timing and importance. Knowing what will happen and what will be possible for us next week or next month is simply beyond us. 

And so we stumble along, day to day, hour to hour, waiting for clarity and a path forward.

But more importantly, we hold onto some idea of a destination. We imagine the world as it used to be, or perhaps an even better version than that. We want to arrive at the moment when public gatherings and sharing public space are normal, unthinking activities again: Haircuts, grocery shopping, visits to the dentist, going to the movies, chats at the office water-cooler, dinner out with friends, backyard Barbecues with neighbours, airline flights where the biggest hassles are crying babies and people who insist in putting their seat back into your knees. And of course we imagine gathering together as a community of faith, greeting one another with handshakes and hugs, singing together again, sharing the peace, gathering at the table of the Lord, sharing coffee and cake after worship. 

“Jesus, we don’t know where this is going, how can we know the way?”

“Just show us the vision and we will be satisfied.” 

It isn’t surprising that this text is so often used at funerals. There is comfort in our visions of the destination. The great house where there is a room for us, the vision of our loved ones being welcomed into eternity is something to hold onto in the midst of crisis and grief. 

Yet, as Jesus speaks over the Last Supper to his disciples about the dwelling place of God with many rooms, he isn’t wanting us to imagine a giant mansion in the sky. In fact, it isn’t about the destination of our imagining at all. 

Where Jesus is going is to the cross. And the dwelling place of many rooms is not so much a mansion, but the opening up of creation itself… the opening up of us ourselves. The dwelling place of God will now be among mortals we hear at Christmas and incarnation. It fulfilled at Easter and in the resurrection. The creation that chose selfishness and therefore death in the fall, is about to be reunited with the creator who is making room within Godself. The creation that was once closed to new life will now be the home of God, and we will be welcome into the life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 

And the way to get there is not to imagine the destination… But rather through the One who is the Way, the One who shows us the Father, the One who will face separation and isolation, who will go over the brink of sin and death… this One… 

This Christ is our Way. 

This Christ our Truth. 

This Christ is our Life. 

This One is where we are going, this One brings us into God’s way. 

As the disciples moved on from the day of the empty tomb, they moved into a new Easter world. A world where the Good News of Christ’s death and resurrection defined their community, defined their purpose, and defined their lives. They moved into a world where they didn’t always know what might be next for them, yet where God had opened God’s new dwelling, God’s welcome right there, wherever they were. 

And as we wonder what is next for us and when we might get to our imagined destination, Jesus reminds us that God has always been our way. 

That the place that Jesus has always been going to has been to us. 

Meeting us in the Word and showing us the Father. 

Welcoming us into the dwelling place of God in the waters of baptism. 

Showing us the way at the table of the Lord, and transforming us into the Body of Christ. 

Sure we don’t know when we will get back to work, or school, or shopping malls, or football games. And we don’t know when we might welcome our family and friends again into our homes and to our dinner tables…. 

But as the Body of Christ we have always been going to the same place… always to New Life in God. 

And how do we get here, what is our way?

Today Jesus reminds us again, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.

Unexpected Shepherds and the Good Shepherd

GOSPEL: John 10:1-10
Jesus said:] 1“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out… (Read the whole passage)

The early church understood the 7 week season of Easter to be like one great day of celebration. Time kind of gets mushy in Easter, unlike other seasons of the church year where we are so often counting the weeks as they go by. And while many comparisons to our pandemic isolation have been to the season of Lent, there have been also similarities to Easter. Disciples hiding out in upper rooms, sticking to small groups and avoiding crowds, time becoming mushy and hard to keep track of. We just might be living the most authentic Easter season of our lives. 

Today, we are four weeks into the season of Easter, nearly a month since first hearing about the women going to the tomb early on the first day of the week. And yet, today is the first time that we are moving on from that first day. We divert somewhat to familiar images of the pastoral Jesus. Psalm 23, and John 10. Shepherds and sheep. Comforting images of the love and care of God, poured out for us. 

The church that I grew up in had a stained glass window of Jesus the Good Shepherd, a blonde hair blued-eyed Shepherd lovingly gazing at the lamb he is holding in his arms. An imagine imprinted on my mind, that often surfaces on this fourth Sunday of Easter, or when I hear psalm 23. 

And there is a certain amount of comfort and safety that we imagine into the image of the Good Shepherd, especially in times of struggle and hardship… such as in this moment in time. 

In John’s Gospel, Jesus gives us another comforting image of the Shepherd, who is known by the sheep. The Shepherd who lays down as the gate to the pen to provide protection for the sheep. 

Yet, Jesus isn’t talking his disciples or the hungry crowds about the Shepherd, but rather the  Pharisees. The Pharisees who have just criticized him for healing the Blind man… a story that we heard only a few weeks in Lent. Jesus is speaking to those who bear responsibility for caring for the sheep, caring for the community. To the religious and community leaders who are balking at any change to the social order, even if it comes in the form of  healing a blind beggar in their midst.

As Jesus describes the familiar voice of the shepherd, he also describes the voice and motives of the thieves, bandits and strangers… labels he is applying to the religious leaders. Jesus suggests that not everyone charged with the care of the community is tending to that charge as they should. They are instead more concerned with the status quo, with keeping the power and control in their own hands and out of the hands of others…. Whether it is Jesus wantonly offering God’s love and care, or a blind man becoming self-sufficient. These are voices and leaders who are calling the sheep into danger for their own gain, their own selfish purposes. 

Does this sound at all familiar?

As we enter into week 8 of lockdown and staying at home, the calls to #OpenforBusiness are starting to get louder and louder. Here in Manitoba, we are beginning the slow yet still ambitious move of opening up some businesses tomorrow – hair cuts and restaurant patios and select other businesses will be aloud to open. Even as public health officers tell us it is isn’t exactly safe yet.

This pandemic moment has taught us a lot about the voices that we listen to, the voices who call us sheep to follow. And what is clear is that there are those in our world too, charged with caring for our communities who might not have our best interests in mind. 

And while Jesus declares that the sheep know the voice of the Shepherd, I am not so sure that it is easy for us to recognize. In fact, perhaps what is clear is that most of the voices out there are seeking something from us other than our wellbeing. Our votes, our dollars, our consumption, our attention, our productivity and labour… even our willingness to be sacrificed for the sake of profit and maintaining social order. And all with promises fo green pastures, still waters, prepared tables, and cups running over. 

Knowing the shepherd’s voice is one thing, hearing the shepherd’s voice at all is another. And if the Pandemic has made something clear, it’s that shepherds and their voices are not heard as often as they should be. 

So as Jesus declares that the sheep know the shepherd’s voice, we might be asking, do we really know it?

_______

We always hear Psalm 23 on Good Shepherd Sunday, but there is of course a reason far more common for us to hear this most familiar of psalms. 

Over the years, as I have presided at many funerals, I have often read Psalm 23 as I lead mourners into worship. Pall bearers and casket, followed by grieving family. And in that moment, we enact that what the familiar psalm describes. We walk together into the valley of the shadow of death.

You see the Good Shepherd does not promise us that everything is green pastures, still waters, and abundant tables and cups. Rather, the Good Shepherd is honest about the world, about the dangers and risks. The Good Shepherd tells us that the there are dark valleys ahead, there is the shadow of death in store. And there is no going back, no staying in the green pastures. There is only forward into our future.  

However, the Good Shepherd also promises to lead us through the valley of the shadow of death. 

Jesus promises that the sheep know the Shepherd’s voice not because the sheep are good sheep, but because the Shepherd is a Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd whose only concern is the well being and care of the sheep. The Good Shepherd who knows the sheep. The Good Shepherd who gathers and collects the confused and lost sheep, wherever we are going – green pastures or dark valleys. 

And as we navigate this shadow valley of pandemic, there have been voices emerging from the fray, voices whose only concern has been our health and well being. Shepherds who didn’t know they were shepherds only a few months ago. 

Often in this pandemic the voices of Chief Public Health Officers have cut through the fray of the voices out there calling us to follow. And these unexpected shepherds have surprised us by being singularly focused on our health and well-being…  voices that are seldom heard among the leaders of our world. Shepherds that tell us the truth, that do not promise all green pastures and still waters, but who warn of the valley of the shadows of death ahead. 

But Shepherd voices who also promise to lead us through. 

To lead us through the dark valleys to whatever lies in wait for us on the other side. 

To go with us all together. 

And this promise is of course the promise of the Good Shepherd. 

In this pandemic moment, our whole world feels as though it is gathered at the back of a church about to walk into the dark valley. Yet today, the Good Shepherd promises that we do not go alone, that the Good Shepherd will see us through, that the shadows of death will not be the end of our story, that there is life on the other side.  

This is the only voice, the only promise that really matters. 

And so on this fourth Sunday of Easter that on the surface it feels like we have moved on from Easter morning, the promise of the Good Shepherd takes us right back to the empty tomb, right back to glimpse of the other side of the shadow of death. 

The Good Shepherd comes to us in the middle of Easter because the Good Shepherd is an Easter Shepherd, a shepherd whose voice knows the sheep, whose voices knows us and knows what we need, a shepherd who has been through the valley of the shadow of death and promises us see us through, to the other side and into New Life. 

Not Knowing Our Own Easter Story on the Way to Emmaus

GOSPEL: Luke 24:13-35
Now on that same day [when Jesus had appeared to Mary Magdalene,] two [disciples] were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him… (read the whole passage)

Even before the Pandemic, I was a pretty voracious reader of news. Local, national, international, political news, as well as articles and opinion. And of course as a pastor and blogger, I have been reading and writing about the issues facing Christianity and the church today as well.  

A lot of us these days are news junkies, I am sure, consuming as much as can about every bit of news. And so as this pandemic lockdown extends longer and longer, we know that the question of when and how things are going to start opening up is starting to bubble to the surface. Even as case numbers increase in some jurisdictions, in those experiencing any kind of plateau, the question of returning to “normal” life is front of mind, whether is it governments, business, schools, leisure and of course churches. There are countless articles to read about opening the world back up, not post, but mid-COVID-19.

Yet, plans to re-open while there is no treatment of vaccine for COVID-19 involve slow, socially transformative steps. Everything about the way we interact will be on the table, from how many of us can be together, where we can be together, and how we will need to adjust some of the basic things we long took for granted like handshakes. 

As we arrive on the 3rd Sunday of Easter, I cannot help but feel like we have been hearing a similar story in the gospels. The story of a community that experiences a traumatic, life-changing event – the death and resurrection of Jesus. And this event requires the slow yet undeniable transformation of a community, there is no going back to normal for the disciples and followers of Jesus. Rather, the Easter season story is one of a community transformed by the Holy Spirit for the new reality of an an Easter World. 

For the 3rd Sunday of Easter, we go back again to that first Easter Day, the day of the empty tomb. 

After the women had gone to the tomb and Jesus met the disciples behind locked doors, two disciples are on their way to Emmaus, a town near to Jerusalem. 

On the way, these two are met by another traveller. This travelling companion seems not to know about what has just happened over the past week in Jerusalem, yet then proceeds to explain to them how the events of holy week fit into the Scriptures. These two disciples don’t recognize that the one travelling with them is Jesus. 

It seems a bit absurd that these two wouldn’t be to recognize their teacher and master. Was Jesus wearing a disguise? Were they blinded by their grief? Did God close their eyes to seeing?

I think there might be another explanation, one that relates to us and this moment in time. 

Human beings tell stories, in fact stories are how we understand the world. Stories and narrative help us construct meaning. Stories are the vehicles for us to make sense of things. It is why we go back a rehearse in our mind the events of an experience that we cannot make sense of, it is why we rely on eye witness testimony so heavily, it is why we are enraptured by good movies, books, tv shows, songs, artwork or a good story teller. 

So these two disciples on the road to Emmaus didn’t recognize Jesus because they didn’t understand the story of Holy Week yet, they couldn’t see Jesus because they didn’t know or understand the story of how he could be walking with them. 

Not understanding our story yet is the reality that we are living too. As this Pandemic unfolds it has thrown us for a loop because we simply don’t have a story to understand it by. Even as unspeakable tragedy has occurred in Nova Scotia this week, this pandemic story has changed the way we understand that story too. Usually and unfortunately we know the story of mass shootings, and we know how to respond too well. But in a physically distancing world, we cannot follow the same narratives, road side shrines, prayer vigils, neighbours and communities coming together. 

COVID-19 is story that we haven’t figured out how to tell yet. And if Jesus were to try and walk with disciples sorting it out here, he would only find mostly empty streets, empty churches, empty public spaces. This pandemic has given us more questions than answers, even as we are in the middle of living through it. 

As the disciples walk the road the Emmaus, they too have more questions than answers. But rather than just coming out with who he is, Jesus takes the disciples back to the beginning, back to the stories they do know. The stories of God’s people. To the scriptures, the stories of faith. Stories told to children from the moment they are born. Stories told in homes and in the synagogue, stories that help to mark the passage of the days and the years, stories that gave frames of meaning, symbols, images and metaphors that helped them to understand their lives and their world. 

And just as the prophets foretold the coming of Messiah, just as John the Baptist preached out the wilderness, just as Jesus himself preached in the towns and countryside while doing miracles, Jesus begins with the stories they know already. And then Jesus interprets the stories in light of the promised Messiah. 

Yet, still the disciples don’t recognize Jesus. 

So finally when they reach Emmaus, Jesus takes the disciples back to Maundy Thursday. To the breaking and blessing of bread, where Jesus had been revealed to his disciples anew in the ancient familiar meal of faith – the passover meal.  

And all of sudden, these two disciples have a story to tell. They have seen this moment before. They have seen this One breaking the bread before. They know this stranger, they recognize the Christ. The Christ who has come to give them a new story of faith to tell. A story that begins at the Last Supper, that descends to arrest, trial and crucifixion and seemingly ends on cross. But now a story that continues on the Third Day with empty tombs, appearances behind locked doors, and revelations in the breaking of bread. 

Jesus has tied all the events of the last week to their familiar stories of faith, and Jesus has given these disciples a new story to tell, a story that makes sense and meaning of crucifixion, death, resurrection and new life. Just as Jesus brought the two stories of his crucified body and resurrected body into one in front of Thomas last week, Jesus brings together the ancient stories of faith to the story of the crucified and risen Messiah.

The story of faith that we have been telling for 2000 years since: Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again. 

The story that Jesus is taking us back to in this moment, even in the midst of our crisis, our inability to make sense of things and to understand this moment. 

The story of faith that is grafted onto our bones from the moment we are born and then reborn in baptism. The story that is told in homes and at church. The story that helps us mark the passage of days and years. The story that gives us the frames of meaning, symbols, images, and metaphors that help us understand our world. 

And Jesus reminds us that this story of faith has room for us and our pandemic uncertainty. 

The story of the Messiah includes disciples locked away in their homes, fearful of the outside world, unsure of how recent events will change our communities forever. We might not have been here before, but the Christ who meets us on this journey has. 

Jesus walks along side us in our confusion and uncertainty, reminding us that our familiar stories of faith still have room for our unknown stories of our present. And Jesus promises to see us through, to see us all the way to the new reality that awaits us on the other side of this pandemic. 

And Jesus takes us back to our beginnings, to the familiar story of breaking bread that we know so well, that reminds us that Jesus is present and known to us, even when we don’t fully understand what is happening to us and where we are going. 

And so as we search for our story to tell, for the story that will tell us how we move on and move out of lockdown, Jesus reminds that there is a story that we already know. It begins with the breaking of bread, and continues through suffering and death, but surprises us again and again with an empty tomb, new life and a risen Christ. 

A risen Christ who met those struggling disciples on the road.  

A Risen Christ who comes and meets us today. 

We finally understand the Hosannas

GOSPEL: Matthew 21:1-11

…8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, 

 “Hosanna to the Son of David!… (Read the whole passage)

There is something somewhat alien about the gospel lesson today. 

Crowds. Big gatherings of people. Mobs and masses lining the road that leads into the Jerusalem. People touching each other, jostling for a better view, putting their clothes down on the road. Our COVID-19 captivity is only a few weeks old, but this scene from the triumphal entry does not match the world that we know. 

I am still preaching to a camera in an empty building. You are all not sitting in your normal pew, but gathered around screens big and small to worship. And people closer to home are joining us for worship from across the country and across international boarders. 

And likely none of us have seen a group of people standing close together if we have seen a group at all. 

Today we enter into Holy Week, the most important week of our liturgical year and in our life of faith as the Body of Christ. It is also one of the most ritualized times for the church. We usually gather with palm branches and process into the sanctuary, and we hear the passion story from Matthew to begin our Holy Week observance. On Thursday we usually gather to remember the Last Supper by sharing meal together. On Good Friday we usually go to Golgatha with the same hymns and readings each year. And on Sunday, we usually welcome the news of the risen Christ with the same easter breakfasts, sunrises services, trumpets and celebratory Easter hymns that we have sung for lifetime. 

Except it won’t exactly be like that this year. 

This year we will do some of those things, adapt others, and postpone more until we can meet again in person. 

Yet, despite out isolation and our inability to congregate, despite the lack of crowds, there is also something about Palm Sunday that is more familiar and understood than ever before. 

I think today we get the Hosannas. 

So often we mistake the Hosannas for Alleluias. Exclamations of Praise and Thanksgiving. But Hosanna does not mean “praise the Lord” or something similar. Hosanna instead means something very different. 

Hosanna means save now. 

Salvation Now. 

Save me now. 

Hosanna. 

And doesn’t that change the whole moment?

Crowds lining the road, calling out to the one riding into Jerusalem, and asking for, begging for salvation. Hoping that this Messiah, this saviour is the one who will come and fix their problems, end their troubles, defeat their enemies, take away their helplessness. 

Even as we are relegated to our homes, to physical distancing and isolation, we know what it is like to cry out next to our neighbour for healing, hope or salvation. We have been crying Hosanna online, in emails, in phone calls and texts. Crying Hosanna because we feel helpless, because the thing that we have been told to do fight this pandemic is nothing. Stay home, stay small, pull back from regular life. A helpless, small feeling indeed. 

Before this pandemic moment, I had always assumed that everyone lining that road into the city knew what each other meant. It always seemed that those crowds were asking for salvation from the same thing. 

But if there is anything that the anxiety, worry, fear and uncertainty that this COVID-19 global health pandemic has revealed, it is that we can all be calling for salvation at the same time, while having very different and varied ideas about salvation means and looks like. 

In fact, the thing that brings us together, that probably brought those crowds together on that road, is the collective action of calling out as one body. Even as what salvation looks like for each voice may mean very different things.

In a helpless situation – COVID-19 today, oppression by a foreign and powerful empire 2000 years ago – we all search for something to hold on to, something that we can do to stop feeling helpless, something that gives us even the smallest sense of control. 

For us these days, it is calling for masks, finding loopholes to leave our homes, demanding the government act to protect jobs and businesses and economic sectors. 

For more COVID-19 testing, for more data and projections, for closing borders. 

For keeping borders open, for more health care staff and beds, for places other than hospitals for COVID-19 patients to be sent to. 

For flights home for Canadians abroad, exceptions to disembark quarantined cruise ships, exceptions to visit the elderly in care home.  

For closures, lock downs and shelter-at-home orders to keep everyone everywhere physically distanced. 

And on and on and on. 

We are all crying out for something, all shouting Hosanna these days. But Hosanna from or for what? Well, that depends on who you ask. 

And those crowds with palm branches lining the road into Jerusalem had equally chaotic and contradictory reasons to shout Hosanna, expecting salvation for different reasons and to come in different ways. 

So today, we get the Hosannas maybe more than we ever have before. We get something now that most people throughout history understood and felt every day of their lives… that the world is more dangerous and more precarious place than we have known for the past 70 years in North America. 

A world were most people feel pretty helpless against the dangers of the world. 

And today, Jesus just rides a donkey right into the middle of it all. Jesus just rolls on in to the chaotic, unsafe, and terrifying world that God’s people seem to be living in, that we seem to have fallen into like a bad dream. 

Just as Jesus rolled up to the river Jordan. 

Was driven on into the desert.

Met Nicodemus in the middle of existential crisis. 

Strolled up to the Samaritan woman at the well. 

Happened upon the blindman. 

Walked the road to Bethany with Mary, Martha and eventually Lazarus. 

Just like he has always done, today Jesus is entering straight into the middle of human messiness and suffering, chaos and loaded expectations, desperation and struggle, sin and death. 

Just just rides right into the middle of it, with a mob wanting him to fix it. Fix it all. 

Hosanna – save now. 

And Jesus heads right on in to do that. 

Right to the middle of the pandemic of sin and death. Right to the middle of the mobs demanding action from the leaders and rulers, right to the leaders and rulers brushing their problems under the carpet or on to the cross. 

Just heads right on in. 

Even as we brace ourselves for the worst weeks of this crisis ahead of us. 

Jesus is riding right into the middle of our pandemic. 

Jesus is crossing borders in trucks loaded down with much needed medical supplies and equipment. 

Jesus is standing at grocery store check outs for hours on end, even as angry customers refuse to physical distance properly.

Jesus is teaching students from virtual classrooms, meeting with patients over the phone, giving concerts on Facebook live, taping messages of hope to windows, ringing bells at shift change. 

Jesus is rolling into a quarantined hospital rooms with a reused N95 mask on.  

Jesus is keeping vigil in an outbreak ridden personal care home. 

Jesus sitting at the bedside of the dying, when no one else is allowed to be present. 

Jesus is heading into the middle of pandemic and chaos, straight to betrayal, arrest and trial. 

And Jesus is on his way to the cross. 

To the thing that no one had in mind when they cried Hosanna. That none of us has in mind when we cry Hosanna. 

No one but God. 

And there in the middle of our Hosannas, Jesus will confront the thing that fuels all our fears, the thing that puts us one edge, the thing that we are utterly helpless to prevent. 

Death. 

Jesus takes our Hosannas right to death. 

And the thing that we fear, the thing that is underneath all our varied Hosannas. 

Well Jesus will deal with that thing.

Jesus will confront and transform death into something new. 

Something unexpected. 

Something found in empty tombs, in upper rooms, and long walks between cities. 

Something that that we cannot see yet from Palm Sundays on crowded streets, or crowded Facebook pages and live streams.

Jesus will transform death itself into the answer for our Hosannas.

Jesus is riding into the middle of Jerusalem, into the middle of pandemic, right into death itself.

And will bring our Hosannas and us with him.

And will bring all of it and us to new life. 

* This sermon was prepared in collaboration with my partner in life, ministry, and parenting, The Rev. Courtenay Reedman Parker

Lazarus, COVID-19 and the Thing we are All afraid Of

The sermon starts at about 23:00 mark

GOSPEL: John 11:1-45

1Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4But 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.” 5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. (Read the whole passage)

Sermon

Today is the final Sunday in the season of Lent. This means we stand on the precipice of Holy Week. And unlike the predictions of some world leaders out there, we will NOT have full churches on Easter Sunday. 

In fact, the calendar may say that Lent is ending, but it feels like our wilderness journey is just beginning. The school and public services closures that were predicted to last weeks, are now being planned for months. Business are shuttering their doors, the economy is suffering even as the government plans significant supports for businesses and employees alike. 

And then there is the truly grim news, reports of more and more confirmed cases of COVID-19. Followed by equally hard to hear news of deaths resulting from the illness.

Our Lenten journey began in the wilderness with Jesus, then moved to the nighttime with Nicodemus. Then into the daylight with the woman at the well, followed by the blindman last week. 

Today, Lent gets a little more real. We have been headed here since Advent and Christmas, but we have been able to skim over the real issue for weeks. The themes and images of Lent:  desert and fasting, existential questions in the night, social isolation at the well, a community in chaos around the blindman who could now see… they have all skirted the real issue. The real issue that we face today and that will confront us through Holy Week. 

It is of course the thing that the whole world has been thrown into chaos over. It is the real thing that all the social distancing measures are about, the real reason why we are trying to flatten the curve. 

In fact words the words Coronavirus and COVID-19 have become euphemisms, words that hide the real thing we are talking about. 

Jesus says it out loud to his disciples as they plan to go to to Bethany. 

“Lazarus is dead.”

Death. 

Once you make the connection it is unmistakable. Nearly every time you hear the word coronavirus or COVID-19 in the news, replace it with the word “death” and you will be able to see what the panic and fear is about. 

But it isn’t just physical death. It is the death of what once was, of what we used to be. The world has changed, and we can feel it. Things won’t go back to what the once were, this won’t be just a little 3 week enforced staycation… this is a game changing moment for all of us. 

I once heard an Old Testament scholar describe his experience of receiving a cancer diagnosis. As he sat in his doctor’s office and received the news, it felt like the soundtrack of his life was turned off. All of his dreams, hopes and plans that filled the world around him just disappeared. And there was nothing, silence, emptiness. 

Modern people he said, “fill the sky with ourselves.” We loom large in our own little existences. And God…God is far away. 

Yet, for the ancient people of the Old Testament, they didn’t see themselves in the same way. They were small. God was big, God filled the world.

And yet these days our soundtracks have been turned down, if not off completely. We have been compacted into our homes. Our hopes and dreams and plans put on hold, or (Hashtag) #cancelled. 

We are being made small by a thing that we cannot see, but that we know is there. 

As Jesus makes his way to Bethany, Martha comes and meets him on the road. And her soundtrack had almost certainly been turned off by the grief she was experiencing. Her life put on hold by the death of her brother. But perhaps more significantly, I wonder if her experience of God was turned down too. With her brother dead and buried, the God of Life that was supposed to fill the world probably seemed distant or not there at all.  

Martha says something that many of us may probably feel. 

“If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

She wants to go back. Back to the before time, back to when the soundtrack was on. She wants her brother back, she wants her own life back. And she knows that Jesus, that this one sent by God, could have done something. 

Jesus and Martha talk, Jesus promises her bother will rise again, but Martha doesn’t hear it the way Jesus means it. She knows the promises, but they seem far away. Something for later, not something that matters in the present moment, not when there is a fresh body in the grave. 

Then Jesus meets Mary on the road. She too knows that Jesus could have done something, yet she seems more resigned to the moment, there is nothing left for her but grief. And so Jesus joins her as he can, weeping with her even knowing what he is about to do. 

There is something so very tangible about this scene from the Gospel of John. Those who have grieved a loved one already know it. But as we all face the uncertainty of pandemic, as the days and hours slow to a crawl and the world becomes more and more silent… we know in a new way what that walk to Bethany was like. 

We might want our soundtracks to fill the sky again, or we might be resigned to our unknown fate with nothing to do but weep. 

But we are are walking to Bethany today, and will keep walking for the foreseeable future… 

Yet, even as God feels far away or gone altogether… Jesus does not abandon us to the silence. 

Even as we feel small and compacted, surrounded by silence and fear, Jesus doesn’t leave us to wither. 

But Jesus doesn’t just show up at the end. 

Jesus walks the Bethany road with these grieving sisters. 

Jesus walks our down our road of social isolation and pandemic with us. 

And Jesus speaks the promise of God to Martha, the imminent promise of new resurrection and new life… even though she cannot hear or comprehend it. 

“I am the Resurrection and the Life”

Words spoken to Moses in burning bush, words spoken to disciples fearful of the storm. 

And Jesus weeps with Mary, because the experiences of this life cannot just be glossed over with a happy ending. They change us, and so God weeps with us, God sits with us, feels with us, loves us in the midst of all the things of this life. 

Jesus doesn’t just skip to end, but walks the road with these sisters, with his disciples, with us. 

And only then, once they have walked the road Bethany, once they get to tomb, Jesus shows Mary and Martha that the promises of God are not far off. 

And still, as Martha protests because she can still smell death in the air. 

And still, as we can hear and see the news, as we feel small and helpless… 

Jesus shows us that the promises of God are not far off. 

Jesus has stone rolled away.  

Then with the same voice that spoke over the waters of creation, 

the voice that speaks over the waters of baptism, 

with this voice Jesus calls the dead man from his grave. 

“Lazarus, come out!”

And out walks death itself.

“Mary and Martha, come out!” 

Except it isn’t death. 

“My beloved children, come out!”

It is life. 

And the promises of God are revealed.

This isn’t going back to the before time. This is the new thing that God is making after. 

This is the promise that is revealed on the third day. This is the empty tomb discovered by the women early on the first day of the week. This is what comes at the end of the walk to Bethany. 

And we are still on our walk to Bethany. 

We are still looking back to the before time. 

Yet Jesus declares that I AM’s promise of resurrection and life are closer than we can comprehend. 

And we are weeping, resigned to an unknown future. 

Yet, Jesus weeps with us, neither abandoning nor forsaking us, but showing us God’s love poured out for us.

And today, Jesus promises, that our Bethany road, our COVID-19 road, our road of life will come to an end too. 

And Jesus will call out to us, 

My children, come out!

And we might see and hear and smell and feel like death. 

But New Life will surprise us, the God of Resurrection will surprise us, 

By filling our skies anew, not with our own hope, dreams and plans,

But with the grace, mercy and love of God that meets us on the way.

Amen