Sermon
March 17, 2002
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
Write to Rev. Moran

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Scripture Readings

John 11:1-3, 17- 29, 33-45


Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her
sister Martha.  Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and
wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters
sent a message to Jesus, "Lord, he whom you love is ill."

 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four
days.  Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away,  and many of the
Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother.  When
Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed
at home.

Martha said to Jesus, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have
died.  But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him."

Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again."

Martha said to him, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on
the last day."

Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in
me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in
me will never die. Do you believe this?"

She said to him, "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of
God, the one coming into the world."

When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told
her privately, "The Teacher is here and is calling for you."  And when she
heard it, she got up quickly and went to him.  When Jesus saw her weeping,
and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in
spirit and deeply moved.

He said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to him, "Lord, come and see."
Jesus began to weep.

So the Jews said, "See how he loved him!"  But some of them said, "Could not
he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?"
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a
stone was lying against it.  Jesus said, "Take away the stone." Martha, the
sister of the dead man, said to him, "Lord, already there is a stench
because he has been dead four days."

Jesus said to her, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see
the glory of God?"  So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and
said, "Father, I thank you for having heard me.  I knew that you always hear
me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that
they may believe that you sent me."

When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!"

The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and
his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, "Unbind him, and let him
go."  Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what
Jesus did, believed in him.

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Sermon: A Place Where Tears are Understood

This morning there are really two separate and distinct observations I'd
like to share with you about our lesson from the Gospel of John, the story
of the raising of Lazarus.  The first concerns the way the writer of the
Gospel talks about the Jews, and the second concerns the meaning of the
story as part of a sequence of stories we have been reading from this Gospel
in Lent about people coming to faith.

There is a certain level of animosity toward "the Jews" that is unmistakable
in John, and to the ear of the modern listener it seems that this must have
been about the difference between two religions, Christianity and Judaism.
But at the time of John, there were not yet two religions.  The followers of
Jesus were Jews and understood Jesus as the end of a Jewish story, not the
beginning of a Christian story.  No, I think the animosity you hear in John
is not due so much to religious differences as to regional differences.

It wasn't very long after the death of Christ that the Romans sent armies
against Jerusalem to put down widespread revolt.  Eventually they laid waste
to the ancient site of the temple and the spiritual center of Jewish
religious life.  On the way to that happening, many of the inhabitants of
Jerusalem left the city and migrated out to other cities and towns with
Jewish populations.

The culture and attitudes of Jews from Jerusalem was different from that of
Jewish people who lived at a distance from the world of the priests and the
kings.  The folks from Jerusalem had lived in the greatest Jewish city in
the world and felt they knew what Judaism was all about.  When they arrived
in their scattered places of refuge, they were probably a little shocked at
how the locals understood and practiced their religion and law.  And
possibly nothing shocked them more that the influence this story of Jesus
was having in the towns distant from Jerusalem.

So they asserted their authority and strongly resisted this influence, and
in reaction it became a part of what we now call the Christian story to show
how these big-city big-shots had been a problem since the very beginning,
and were not to be trusted or believed, especially when it came to
understanding the meaning of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of
Nazareth.

I think we all can understand and relate to this kind of regional tension
and friction.  I've experienced it personally in a number of settings -
beginning with my very first church on Staten Island.  For Staten Islanders
the world as they knew it came to an end the day the Verrazano - Narrows
Bridge opened connecting Brooklyn to the Island.  Oh!  Those people from
Brooklyn - and Queens!  I was reluctant to admit my proud heritage!  All
problems came to the Island over that bridge, and life was never the same.

Then, I moved to New Jersey.  Do you know what people in New Jersey think of
people from Staten Island?  Then we moved to Vermont!  I remember when we
still had Jersey plates and a Rutlander came rolling out of one of those
saloons along Route 4 - maybe after a few too many maple syrups - and
crossed the street in front of me and banged on the hood of the car yelling
"Flatlander!"

Luckily, being the new minister and spouse, the people in our town gave us
the benefit of the doubt and then when our children were born native
Vermonters, well, that made us feel pretty native too.  In fact, Eileen and
I used to go shopping at the Grand Union in Rutland on Route 7 just before
you turn up to Killington, and we'd see those Connecticut license plates in
the parking lot and glance at each other with that knowing look that we'd
inevitably get in line behind someone with smoked salmon, a six pack of
spring water, and a complaint about the cost of the Sunday New York Times.

We knew we were no longer outsiders when we got invited to dinner at a real
Vermont homestead - this wonderful farm up in the mountains where they
raised their own sheep, beef, chickens, and turkeys - they milked cows and
churned butter, - the husband with the big mountaineer beard and the wife
who gathered her own wool and knitted all the winter-ware, the wood stove,
the sugar shack, the post and beam construction.  Of course it came up -
where are you from - and we said, in a low voice, "Well, we moved here from
New Jersey."  It turned out our Vermont farm wife was from Connecticut, he
was from New Jersey, and they moved to their Green Mountain home after
living for years in Manhattan.   So much for finding a couple of real
natives - but we did find some great friends in Susan and Michael Mackey.

So that's how John talks about the Jews - John is a Jew, but his community
really resents these people coming in from Jerusalem and telling them that a
real Jew does not believe this business about Jesus.  And it is a very sad
story how that regional dispute turned into a toxic relationship between two
religions that should have always respected each other as brothers and
sisters.

Now the second observation is how the story fits into the series of stories
we've been reading from John the past weeks of Lent.  Each of these stories
is about people who have encountered Jesus and have come to some level of
faith - there was Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night to learn about
spiritual birth, the woman at the well who learns about living water, and
the man born blind who is given sight and after various confrontations with
the Jewish authorities comes to faith and worships the Lord.

Today's reading tells us of Mary and Martha, two sisters who already have
faith, but whose faith is about to be deepened by the experience of the
death of their brother Lazarus.  Actually, Mary and Martha are more the
point of the story than Lazarus, the one who is brought back from death.
For Lazarus does not receive the gift of eternal life - this is not
resurrection in the same sense as Jesus resurrection - it is more a
resuscitation.  Lazarus will die again. It is Mary and Martha, who through
their faith will receive eternal life in the experience of the death of
their brother.

This story illustrates that having this eternal life in Christ does not mean
the believer is free from all pain and suffering, grief and sorrow - as the
story indicates, Jesus wept.

I was listening this week to Dr. Wayne Dyer in one of those shows public
television seems to always roll out during pledge week.  He is the author of
Manifest Your Destiny: The Nine Spiritual Principles for Getting Everything
You Want, and he said, "Every problem is an illusion in our mind."  I don't
think that's true.  There is a real world and in it we have real problems
and real pain. Our faith in and experience of eternal life does not devalue
this real pain or even solve it as if it was a puzzle to be solved.  Faith
does not make pain go away, it doesn't indicate that suffering is an
illusion, it doesn't make tears a sign of weakness.

In fact, as a wise Irishman once said about his church:

If this is not a place
where tears are understood
then where can I go to cry?
(Ken Medema)

Faith does not preserve us from the experience of grief, but grief can
deepen our faith - that is the lesson of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.

I mentioned earlier our friends Michael and Susan from Vermont for a special
reason.  When I read a commentary that said this lesson teaches how faith is
deepened through the experience of death, my thoughts went to them because
seven years ago on St. Patrick's day their college-age daughter Jessica fell
asleep in the woods near their home and died of hypothermia.  I wondered if,
in the real life suffering of a parent for a child, faith was deepened.  I
wrote them and asked, and, frankly, their answer was yes and no.

As a couple both have been involved with The Compassionate Friends, a
support group for parents who have lost children.  Michael answered:

The grief journey is a very individual process. For me the Compassionate
Friends credo makes sense. With regard to faith it states, " some of us have
found or faith to be a source of strength, while some of us are struggling
to find answers.

There is no quick answer as it is a journey that continues. But as the credo
says" we reach out to each other in love and share the pain as well as the
joy, share the anger as well as the peace, share the faith as well as the
doubts and help each other to grieve as well as to grow.

You should not say, it was God's plan, God only takes the best, God needed
more angels, I know how you feel, you have other children. etc.


Susan wrote:
I am still in awe of how much my faith in God, in heaven, and my certainty
that I will be together again with Jessica someday has been the same for me
from day one.  I don't feel my faith was tested, nor my belief in a good
God.  My test was just getting up in the morning to face another day without
her.  My test was trying to still the fear that Liam would be taken from us,
a test I was sure I would never pass.  My test was wondering if I wanted to
continue on this earth because the pain was so hard to endure.  Somehow I
truly believe that because I talked to God so much in those days, and
because I cried at Him, railed against Him and let Him shoulder every
emotion that I had, that He somehow gave me His answers in allowing me to
get through the days.

When we went to Jessica's funeral it was very hard to see her in her casket,
but it was even harder to see the place of sorrow where her parents stood.
If anyone has risen from the land of the dead, it is those who have stood
where they stood that day and have made their way back to the land of the
living.  Their strength has been a source of faith for me, and it is in the
light of their journey that we can come to appreciate the kindness of Christ
both in his tears and in his promise: "I am the resurrection and the life."
May God bless us with faith, now and in the hour of our deepest need.
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