Knowing God

the Seventh Sunday after Easter
May 24th, 2020

Today’s readings are:
Acts 1:6-14
Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36
1 Peter 4:12; 5:6-11
John 17:1-11

If you don’t have a Bible handy, you can click on this sentence to find these readings.

I brought a prop in today for my sermon. You all know I’m kinda a fan of Lord of the Rings and Tolkien, and this is the first book of Tolkien’s I ever read. It’s the Hobbit. It’s an old version of the Hobbit. You have to be real careful opening it. I’m not sure if you can hear online, but you can hear it cracking when I open the cover. And I’m not sure if you can see it, but the corners are all bumped up. The green of the cover has worn away, and you can see the cardboard underneath. And this is all a testament of years upon years upon years of reading this book.

I first read the Hobbit when I was in middle school. And I loved it. It was full of adventure, of dragons and dwarves and wizards. It excited me and moved me. I absolutely loved it.

Then I read it again in high school, and again in college, then again while traveling abroad, and each time, I learned something new about the book. It was still about dragons and dwarves and wizards, sure, but I saw that the journey of Bilbo Baggins was also about trust, about hope, about friendship and pushing on even when fear told us to run away. Bilbo’s journey spoke to my own fears, my own hope, my own life, just as all good literature does.

And then I read this story – this same story from this battered copy – to Gwendolyn. She was just born, and I had that aching parent-feeling that I wanted to share something with her that was meaningful to me. And you know what? This book that I had read time and time again, it still had room to grow. Reading it to my daughter, it became not just about me and about my hope, but spoke to the hope I had for my child, the fears and worries I had (and, if I’m honest, that I still have) as a father. It helped me understand those fears and face them.

I wonder if you’ve ever had a book like that? Some story that has followed you through your life, teaching you and guiding you. Or, maybe it’s not a book. Maybe it’s a recipe, something that your grandmother taught you to make, or that you made with your father on Saturday mornings. Or maybe it’s a sport. Maybe it’s football or baseball or soccer, this game that we as a country can come around, cheer for our team, and stick with that team through thick and thin. I remember my father-in-law’s devotion to the Mets, who lost so often but you know he tuned in to each game anyway, because they were his team since he was young. Whatever they are, these are things we grow with, that we learn to understand more and more fully, that seem to grow as we grow, even though they’re the same old game they were yesterday.

The world is deeper than we imagine. Beneath the surface of all things there are worlds to explore. This past Thursday, in our Greek and Latin Bible study, we read the Lord’s Prayer in Greek. Now, I know this prayer. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know this prayer. My parents taught it to me before my brain could start making memories. I could rattle the thing off in my sleep. But when we slowed down, when we read this prayer word for word, stopped and pondered over each and every part of speech, we found that this prayer, that we all know so well, was new and fresh and beautiful. “Hallowed be thy name”, what does that mean? What does it mean to ask – to truly ask – for God’s kingdom to come on earth just as it is in heaven? And that most simple and common thing, bread, that we slop mayonnaise on or cut the crusts off of, that simple, simple thing bread – what if it could be the gateway to eternal life? What does that say about other common things, like the smell of cut grass, or the rain falling in the evening, or our neighbor, for whom God has as much hope as God has for you?

Jesus tells us that eternal life is prepared for us. And just when we might be reveling in this, our hand to our brow, “Wow, I mean, wow, that’s amazing! How can this be?” Jesus comes right in and says, “Yeah, so this is eternal life: to know God. To know God.

But is “knowing”, is “knowing” just a one-time thing? If you were to ask me, “Do you know the book the Hobbit?” I’d be like, yeah, I know it, I’ve read it. But is just having read the book really knowing it? You might ask me, “You know what baseball is?” and I’d say, yeah, sure, the game with the bat and ball, right? But then if you were to ask someone like my dad, who has loved the game since Mickey Mantle played, who coached kids to not just play it but to love it, who could imagine the crack of a bat or the smell of the field just as easily as I could imagine Bilbo Baggins playing at riddles with a dragon – he knows baseball.

“Knowing” isn’t just a one-time thing. It’s a lifetime spent in love. It’s a lifetime of turning the pages of a book and reading those words we know again and again and again. It’s sitting down with someone who we’ve seen so often that we could draw their faces with the most intimate detail, but who continue to surprise and delight us, to frustrate and test us, and who love us with a love that reaches beyond this world and back.

Jesus tells us that eternal life is prepared for all. And that eternal life is this: to know God. To learn more and more about the love, the hope, and the life that is at the center of all reality. To continue to get to know the creator of all things; to hang out with the one who died for us, who was raised for us, and who lives, even now, praying with a never-giving-up heart that we’ll stick around; to bring that love to others, to become love ourselves – these are just some of the ways that we can know God better.

And God is there, saying, come on, let’s sit down and grab coffee together and talk. Let’s go out for a walk beneath the blue sky that I created, because the sun is warm and the air fresh, and there’s just so much to talk about and to learn about each other. And hey, I heard your neighbor’s not doing well; let’s go see if we can cheer them up. And this isn’t just some vague call, some voice that comes and goes like the wind; this is the lord of life, God Almighty, the creator of heaven and earth, inviting you, you, to turn yet again, yet again, to love.

Gates, Bread, and Jesus

May 3rd, 2020
the fourth Sunday of Easter

Today’s readings are:
Acts 2:42-47
Psalm 23
1 Peter 2:19-25
John 10:1-10

If you don’t have a Bible handy, you can click here to access these readings.

       As I mentioned this morning already, today is the first day that we’ll be praying morning prayer instead of celebrating the Eucharist. Our liturgy this morning probably looks pretty much the same so far, and it will until after our prayers. Then we’ll say the Lord’s Prayer, wave goodbye, and sign off. It’s a pretty short service.

       And it can feel, I think, like it’s a too short service. That it’s not long enough. I know, I know, Episcopalians often joke about how, if a Sunday service is too long, or if a sermon is too long, we get all antsy. We mumble and grumble and say, “Come on, come on, I’ve got to get to lunch!” But when it comes to praying morning prayer on a Sunday, after the dismissal, often we all sit in our pews for a bit and wonder, “Wait a sec. Something’s missing.” Something big is missing.

       For Episcopalians, and I’m sure for other Christians who celebrate God in the historic liturgy, it’s not really about length; it’s about robust worship. Even if we don’t sing, we love music, and music that is deep and soul-searching. Even if the sermon should be only ten minutes, we want a good, thought-provoking sermon that hits the heart as much as the head. And we’ve come to want, to expect, to hope for, the Eucharist. Whether the service is too long or too short, whether the prayers of the people are straight from the Book of Common Prayer or prayed in the Spirit, really, we Episcopalians want to make sure that the Eucharist is celebrated. And we hope for it every week.

       This isn’t how it always was. Back before our current prayer book, a time when some of you might remember, we celebrated the Eucharist once a month. And back even earlier, folks celebrated it four times a year, or just once a year. And that’s all just fine, but over the years the Church has come to realize that there is great joy in meeting Jesus in the Most Holy Sacrament week after week after week. There is great spiritual depth, an open well of life, a hope, and a joy that exceeds anything in this world, in reaching out our hands and receiving the Body and the Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ each and every week.

       I remember the first time I received Communion in an Episcopal Church. It was in Athens Georgia. My good friend Joseph had suggested we go. I had read about the Eucharist while studying medieval literature, and I had seen in while at a Roman Catholic friend’s funeral in high school, but I had never participated in one, I had never been part of one. And so we joined my friend and went.

Now, the first part of the service, the part we’re praying this morning, I knew – readings, prayers, I got that; the kneeling and standing was new, but that’s cool. But then the priest, Father Edwin, sung the sursum corda, and my heart began to sour, just like those words sursum corda mean: lift up your hearts! In just the prayer I saw hinted the beauty of heaven, and that was even before I went up with everyone else, knelt at the altar rail, and received the Body and Blood, and, as we Episcopalians believe, literally tasted heaven. And my thought at the end of it all was: This is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. I want to do this forever.

       Jesus is the most beautiful thing we will ever see. And that’s not to say that sunsets and springtime flowers and the faces of our spouses and children and the good love of someone giving up their lives for those around them, that these things aren’t beautiful. But the source of their beauty, the source of all beauty and goodness and love, of hope and truth, the source of all that, the very Gate of Heaven, is Jesus, who we meet in the Most Blessed Sacrament. For the Eucharist is not just something we humans made up because we like making up ritual. It’s not something we created with our own hands, but that we received from the hands of God in Jesus Christ. For the Good Man said, “Take, eat, this is my Body, given for you!” And our Scriptures remind us, “And Jesus was made known to them in the breaking of the bread!” and “The Bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the Body of Christ?”

       And now, on this fourth Sunday of the Easter season, now your priest has said, hey, let’s take a break from all that. This Eucharist, a gift from our Lord Jesus Christ himself, yeah, let’s take a breather from it. Even though you yourselves haven’t been literally partaking in the Bread and the Wine but have, with Lisa, prayed a prayer for Spiritual Communion, even so, just sticking to morning prayer may seem for you like we’re stopping worship, not just easing off the gas but stopping the car and stepping out the door. What gives? What do we do now? How do we wait until the last Sunday of the month (which, I’ll note here, is the festival of Pentecost, the very birthday of the Church), how do we get along without it?

       I will answer this question with a story. Back after college, I spent two years in Japan teaching English. And while I had studied Japanese before, all I could really do was ask for simple directions, talk about the weather, ask for the time (and understand the answer); you know, stuff you learn in a class. I could hold simple conversations, but, man, when it came to reading, on the whole, I was completely illiterate. I went from studying literature in college, reading stuff like Shakespeare and knowing what the man was saying, to not knowing how to find a sign for the bathroom. I mean, I could catch a glimpse of things in English, sure. And there was an English bookstore in Kyoto, and I’d go there and devour whatever I bought. But for the most part, I was illiterate. The world around me was full of symbols that I didn’t have the first idea of how to read.

       And it was horrible. I’m a reader. It’s how I understand the world around me and the world within me. It’s the bread for my butter, the burger for my ketchup. I imagine that folks who play sports might feel this way when they’re injured and laid up in bed. Sure, they can watch a game on the television, and that’s great, but it’s just not the same. They want to be on the field, hearing the crowd roar, pushing their bodies to the limit and then finding they can push themselves more. That’s how I felt about reading, and about not being able to read.

       Now, I’m not sure if this is how it works for people who play sports, but for me as a reader, being illiterate for a while – changed me. When I returned here to the US, at first I read things voraciously. I took a good friend to a bookstore with me and asked him, “Give me anything you think I should read.” He gave me $150 worth of books. And that was fine. I didn’t care. I wanted to read.

       But something else began to happen. I began to hear my language differently. This language that I had spoken ever since I was a little toddler, I heard it with new – with renewed – ears. Where once I had found it just kinda ho hum, now I found it to be beautiful. I read good old Shakespeare, who I thought was sometimes just confusing to be confusing, but now found him to be full of wisdom and heart and humor (though still a bit confusing). I even saw signs on the side of the road and marveled at the beauty that they were in English. My language had been a tool before, just something that I’d used to order a pizza or tell a stupid story or, mea cupla, insult someone. Now I saw it to be just what it is: a gift. And I wanted to use it as a gift.

       This is, at least, my experience, and I offer it to you as we think about Holy Communion. For now, we cannot receive the Eucharist, we cannot celebrate the Sacraments as they ought to be celebrated: the Sacraments, those most holy gifts of God. We’ll be praying a different prayer, something from our prayer book tradition in which we turn our hearts to God. For somewhere in the world the Eucharist is being celebrated, and that celebration of the Heavenly Banquet, which is the heart and soul of each celebration of the Eucharist, is eternal. It knows nothing of place and time because it looks to Heaven, not to Earth. But the Eucharist won’t be celebrated here at St. James at that altar behind me. And that’s okay. God is still with us. The Eucharist isn’t the only way to God – Jesus is the Gate, and Jesus is all throughout the world, walking in the forests, sitting there with you at home, in the open hands of the poor who are begging for food, in our own open hands, giving, giving, giving.

       And it’s okay to mourn the fact that we aren’t celebrating here, that we’re just praying Morning Prayer a while. It’s okay to mourn something like this. But while we mourn, while we long for and miss and feel weird about just praying Morning Prayer, let’s reflect on what the Eucharist means. What does it mean to us? What does it mean to the Church? What does it mean to our lives as Christians? What does it mean to you, being given a gift from God each and every week; and what does it mean to you, unable to receive that gift fully during our time of quarantine? And what will it mean to you when, finally and at long last, you can come to this altar, hold your hands out once more, and have those hands filled with the very stuff of Life Eternal?

God sure asks a lot of questions

the third Sunday of Easter
26 April 2020

Today’s readings are:
Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17
1 Peter 1:17-23
Luke 24:13-35

If you don’t have a Bible handy, you can find these readings here.

       While in seminary, our professors asked us to do a number of activities to help us give better sermons. One of these was the elevator speech. We had to explain the Gospel – the whole thing, you know, God’s whole plan for salvation and the joy and the life, all of it – in just two minutes. That’s it, that’s all we got. And if we went over time, the professor would fold her arms in front of her chest and give us a look, and we knew that time was up. Two minutes flat, that’s all we got.

       Now, two minutes is actually the perfect time. Two minutes is long enough to move past the short, quippy phrases like “God loves you” and “Jesus live, died, and was raised to life so that we might have eternal life.” These are so very true, if you’ve only got two minutes, you’ve got to go a bit deeper. And two minutes is too long to recite St. Thomas’ Summa Theologica. Two minutes is both too short and too long. You’ve got to fill that time with something, but you can’t fill that time with everything.

       And so what this practice did, what these two minutes did, is that it drew out our personal connection with the Gospel. How has God spoken the Good News of Jesus Christ into my life? How has God made his love important to me, essential to me, something that I’ll turn and follow and life within for the rest of my life?

       In our class, we have a great variety of little elevator speeches. Some of us talked about mission, how we were moved to go out into the world and help the poor, the suffering, and the lonely. Others talked about hope, and how they were brought out of depression and doubt into a fuller life. Still others talked about a love of the Sacraments, of the beauty of the liturgy, of how they were and are fed in the Eucharist more deeply than a good burger and a hefty salad, fed down to their bones and even deeper. And all of it was true, so awesomely true, because it was a bunch of little pieces of the Church and God’s life in his Church.

       Now, this wasn’t the assignment, but what if the teacher, right in the middle of our practiced, finely honed elevator speech, what if she suddenly asked a question? Or what if, during my sermon on a Sunday morning, one of you suddenly raised your hand or stood up and said, “Hey Father Tim, wait a sec! Go back, I’ve got a question about something you just said!” My first Japanese professor did this during tests. It was awful. Once, I remember when we had a spoken test about giving directions. We had a huge map and the professor would assign us two places, say the post office and the bank. It was our job to go home, write up the directions with our very, very limited Japanese, then recite it in class. And so we’d come into the class, fearful we’d get something wrong, and start giving directions when prompted. But then, suddenly, the professor would yell, “STOP! There’s traffic that way. You have to go a different way.” And here we were, our well thought out plans in ruins.

       Back then, we students thought our professor was just teasing us, but what he was really doing was seeing whether we had memorized the language or if we could use it. He wanted to get down below our heads and into our guts. Did we actually know the language, or did we just memorize some words for the test.

       This same sort of thing is what we have in our gospel reading today. No, there’re no elevators, you didn’t miss them, nor is a Japanese professor asking the disciples to give him directions to the post office. What we have are two people, walking together, talking about what they know, and someone coming in and pushing them deeper. We see not just a teacher but God himself, in Jesus Christ, entering into his own story and saying, “Stop, wait, explain this to me again, what does this really mean?”

       Now, God often talks to us, and often God’s word is (like Jeopardy answers) in the form of a question. Especially when we’re stressed out about something, when we’re stuck with some problem, or we’re worried about something, God’s word to us is so often in the form of a question. I remember the first time I was to give a sermon, I was super stressed out. My heart was in my throat, butterflies in my stomach, the whole works. And then this question just came before my mind, “What are you so afraid of?” And it stopped me. It took hold of all the grief and worry, this question, and it focused me, “What are you so afraid of?” I dunno, God, why don’t you tell me? But the question just repeated: “What are you so adraid of?” ‘I dunno’ wouldn’t cut it. I needed to actually answer the question. And when I started to, I realized a lot about myself and my worry about looking like a fool in front of a bunch of people. God didn’t just change my heart like *snap* that; he walked with me through my anxiety, and has continued to do so, until now when I don’t mind looking like a fool in front of a bunch of people. God healed my heart with a question.

       And those questions in our lives, they’re so beautiful. For these two disciples on the road to Emmaus, this question that Jesus asks, “What things”, which in the Greek is just this single, simple, graceful word “Poia?” “What?” This question, spoken into their grief, their confusion, their worry and concern, probably their doubt and their hope mixed together like a string Christmas lights in a box, this single question unraveled it all and drew them to tell their story, to tell this stranger who was really God, but they didn’t know it, to tell this guy what touched the deepest regions of their hearts. And this question led them to more than just telling their story, but also to living a life of hospitality by inviting this stranger to stay with them; and also to seeing Jesus, seeing their Risen Lord with their own eyes, in the breaking of the bread.

       God asks us questions all the time. Sometimes they’re challenges: “What are you doing?” or “Do you really want to say that?”; sometimes their questions of praise, “Isn’t this beautiful?” And we might be shy about answering and say, like Isaiah, “Well, God, you know.” You know whether I should be doing this or not. You know how beautiful it is (you made it!). You know what’s in my heart, right? But God doesn’t want his own answer, just like our teachers don’t want to just give you the answer so you can just leave off doing your work and find something fun to do. No, God asks because God wants you to answer, to delve down with him into your own heart, to look out into the world and see that beauty, to live that hope, to enter into communion and love with your neighbor. God asks those two disciples on the road to Emmaus what happened to Jesus not because God forgot but because he wants to hear their story, because telling stories helps us understand ourselves, understand our world, and understand God more fully.

       Nor do our answers don’t have to be in words. For these two disciples, their answer was the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And that was perfect for that question; but often God’s questions don’t lead us to spoken answers but to living our answers. To speak for myself, God once asked me, “Isn’t this beautiful” about Oregon, and this led me to live a life of ministry here, to go out into the forests and mountains and beaches of Oregon and to take my children camping here to show them how to live in such beauty. God twice asked me, “Isn’t this beautiful” during the celebration of the Eucharist, once in Athens Georgia, once in Eugene Oregon, and that led me on a path towards ordination. God’s questions have changed my life. They’ve healed me and brought me to a place where, I pray, that I can help heal and give hope to others. God has asked questions to make my life more jam backed with life.

       Where have God’s questions brought you? When has God asked you a question, stopped you dead in your tracks, turned you to look with eyes wide open at something, or someone, or yourself? How did you answer? How are you living a life of that answer even now? How can you, how can we the Church and the whole nation and whole world, be more often to hearing God’s questions and living God’s answer?


It’s Easter, but it’s not. And that’s okay.

the second Sunday of Easter
April 19th, 2020

Today’s readings are:
Acts 2:14a, 22-32
Psalm 16
1 Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31

If you don’t have a Bible handy, you can click on this link to access these readings.

It is good to be here at our church building this morning, but I have to say: it’s not the same without all of you. It reminds me of when I came into church during the week. Nowadays I work from home, but before our quarantine, I would come to the church each day at around 8:30, and the first thing I’d do was come in here and pray. It’s always quiet here in the morning, even if people are already up and about outside. It’s quiet and cool and comforting, and it’s the perfect place to pray in the morning time. The new sun pours in through the windows and really brings out the beauty of the pews, or casts sleepy shadows in little nooks. And, depending on my mood, I’d either sit down in the glow of the sun or hide myself away in the dark, then turn to God.

But then there’s Sunday morning worship. There’s still the peace and the quiet, but there’s something else. There’s this sense, this sense of something much more than just me and God praying in the quiet of the morning. For on Sunday mornings we all gather together to pray and to worship God, to sit in the morning sun or tuck ourselves away into little dark corners because we wake up a little more slowly than others. There’s the sound of the organ and our voices lifted in song. There’s our Scriptures and prayers read with different voices, not just one, for the Spirit breathes our Scriptures through the community. And there’s the creed, confession, the peace, and all of it leading to the most beautiful Sacrament, the Eucharist, Communion, the Lord’s Supper, where we are brought in view of Heaven itself, where we feast with the saints and angels and Christ himself, for all eternity. Ahh, the glorious Eucharist!

But things aren’t like that now. It’s nice to sit all comfy in the sanctuary like I do during the week, but it’s not the same. And, I know from watching Holy Week from a chair in front of a computer screen, praying at home isn’t the same as sitting here in these pews, listening to my voice from just a few feet away, praying with people sitting right next to you. It’s not the same, and I have to say, it shouldn’t be. And that’s okay.

Easter was hard for a lot of people. Holy Week and Easter were tough. For us Christians, there’s always this sense of relief at Easter, as if we were holding our breath the whole forty days of Lent and can finally breathe again. Helene tells me that it’s like that first sip of coffee in the morning, or even the smell of it while it’s brewing, that first sip that settles the heart and mind in something real and grounded. Or maybe it’s also kinda like shopping on an empty stomach. Have you ever tried to do this? It’s a bad idea. You’re surrounded by all this food that you can’t eat yet, and your stomach is doing flips. Everything starts to look delicious, and, if you’re like me, you buy things that you never buy otherwise, just because they look good. Then you bring it all home, unpack it (still hungry), and make yourself something quick, or maybe sneak a handful of chips, but that first bite – ahh, delicious! Easter is that ‘ahh, delicious’, that first sip of coffee, that dog wagging his tail for you when you get home, that cat ready to sit in your lap and snuggle in, birdsong in the morning, the feel of an old worn book – your favorite – cracked open again for the umpteenth time.

And we probably didn’t get any of this for Easter. It isn’t the same, and it shouldn’t be.

And that’s okay.

In his sermon for Easter morning, our presiding bishop Michael Curry reminded us of something very important: even if we don’t feel like it’s Easter, it’s still Easter. If you haven’t listened to his sermon, you should, it’s wonderful. For bishop Curry reminds us that Easter is bigger than our traditions. It’s bigger than Easter lilies and ‘Hail the Festival Day’ and white vestments. It’s more than just you and me, more than St. James, more than even the Church itself. And that doesn’t mean that those things aren’t important – goodness how important they are. But all these things – lilies and music and vestments – they find their meaning in Easter. They only mean something, and mean so much and are so beautiful, because of Easter. And Easter happens, our salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ, it happens whether we celebrate it with lilies or celebrate it sitting in front of a computer screen. God loves you, no matter how you show your love.

And we forget this. It’s easy to forget. We love all the trappings of Easter and of Holy Week so much that we feel that, without them, how can it really be Easter. I remember, once, during my first year in Japan teaching English, it came around to Thanksgiving, and all the Americans were like, what do we do? We couldn’t get a turkey, we didn’t have stuffing or mashed potatoes, and there was no cranberry sauce shaped like the inside of a can. And even worse, on that day when family gathers from every corner of the country, we were literally halfway around the world, alone, knowing that our families were gathered. It was tough.

And so we scrambled around, searching for something, anything, to make our Thanksgiving just like it was at home. And we failed miserably. You know, the only turkey that ended up on our table was little, plastic-wrapped chocolate in the shape of a turkey. Instead, some of us gathered, ate our rice and fish, and felt sorry for ourselves for being so far from home. It wasn’t Thanksgiving, and dog gone it we we were going to feel really bad that it wasn’t Thanksgiving.

Sometimes we are like St. Thomas. Thomas the doubter. Thomas whose grief and horror at Jesus’ death is so painful that he says, “Unless I see the marks of torture and death on my Lord’s body, I will deny everything.” Unless I have it broken, in other words, I don’t want it at all. And so Jesus comes and says, Thomas, get over here. This is my Body broken, but it is still my Body. It is still my Body.

We are still the Body of Christ. We are in different houses, these pews are empty, and none of us took home Easter lilies last week, but we’re still the Body of Christ. We’re worshipping online, and it’s not the same, but we’re still the Body of Christ. We’re not celebrating Communion and receiving the Bread and the Wine, but God still loves you, without a doubt God still loves you. For God can’t do anything but love, for God is love.

We Christians are ‘both/and’ kinda people. We’re ‘already but not yet’ sorts of folks. You may have heard of one cookie now, two cookies later; we’re two cookies now AND two cookies later sorts of people. We are no strangers to making due with what we’ve got while still longing for how things should be. We work to bring the kingdom of God into this world, to heal the sick, to befriend the lonely, to seek out and find the lost, just as our Jesus Christ did when he was here walking around, just as Jesus Christ healed us, befriended us, and sought us out when we were lost. AND, at the very same time, we’re thinking, gee, eternity with God sounds very nice indeed. We’ve got one foot in this world, doing what we can to help and love, and we’ve got the other foot in the next world, learning just what love really means.

And so here we are now, living out our Christian lives, continuing to be the Church, the Body of Christ, knowing that there should be more lilies and vestments and sanctus bells and longing for all those things, but still living the life of the Church here in front of our computer screens. For it’s not the same, and this isn’t how church should be. And that’s okay. It’s still church anyway. We can still love and praise God, even here. Even now.

Unbind them. Let them go.

the Fifth Sunday of Lent
March 29th, 2020

Today’s readings are:
Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 130
Romans 8:6-11
John 11:1-45

If you don’t have a Bible in front of you, click here for these readings. 

           “Unbind him.”
            “Unbind him, and let him go.”

            These are some powerful words. And they’re powerful words in a powerful story. Really, I think this is up there in the top five best stories in the Bible. There are those deeply good and important stories – stories like Jesus’ birth and his Passion – and I think this one ranks up just below these.

            For here is a story of Jesus, the Messiah, who comes to the world to destroy death but who still weeps for his friend who has died. Here’s a story where the God, the author of Life and Love, meets death face to face; God, who will overcome death on the cross, stands before the grave of one he loved. For Jesus here is no armchair theologian, sitting back in a comfy chair, merely thinking about things like death and salvation; no, Jesus is standing before the grave, his hands the source of life and love, yet still with a body four days dead laid out before him. This is, in a way, one of the reasons why God came to us as Jesus Christ – so that he could know our grief firsthand, so that he could know what it feels like to lose someone that we love, firsthand.

            For in that one, small verse, the shortest of the Bible – Jesus began to weep – there is a world of grace in this tiny little verse, enough grace to fill a lifetime. Jesus, God Almighty, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, knew and knows the pain of deep and soul-rending grief.

            This personal touch is so important, but often we overlook it. Because, I mean, God didn’t need to do this. God didn’t need to come down to this Earth, to walk through this dusty world, and to face the death of those he loved. He understood, he knew what death was and, as we hear so often in the Bible, he hears the cries of his people. They touch his heart.

            But walking with us, feeling that same pain that we feel, that does something else. It’s not just head knowledge, it’s not even just heart knowledge, it’s lived knowledge. And we know this, right? Some things you can’t teach; you’ve got to do them to know what they’re about. I faced this while learning how to teach. You can fill your head with a lot of important things – essential things – about how to teach, but there comes a day when you’ve got to put it into practice. Until you’ve got a student sitting before you, who’s dealing with something in his life that has nothing to do with you, who’s mind is in his parents fighting, or who’s still on the football field training for the state championship, or who’s grandma just died, and you need to harness that student’s attention and interest, until you have to do that, and still care for that student’s heart, you won’t really know how to teach.

            Now, God knew us in and out, but he took the extra step. He said something like, “Yeah, I know you. I’ve known you since birth, since before you were born, but I want to know you more. Because I want to love you more.” And so he was born as a child into this world, worked for those in pain and suffering, stood before the grave of someone he loved, and even died on the Cross, just so that he could know us, just so that he could save us.

            “Unbind him.”
            “Unbind him, and let him go.”

            This is at the heart of it, isn’t it? We are bound, we humans. We are bound to grief, to worry, to anxiety, to hatred, even to evil. And I don’t mean that we experience grief or worry or anything, but that we’re bound to it. Our sin is not that we experience grief or worry, or that hatred rises in our hearts. These are human, so very human reactions to a tough world. And we know that grief is not a sin because Jesus, who was without sin, wept at the death of his friend.

            No, grief is natural, and in many ways it is holy. We grieve because we love. Grieving for love honors that love. Worry and fear are also natural. We should certainly be concerned about our health, the health of our loved ones and the world. Anger is also natural, when it is not expressed to hurt and belittle others. The terror, and the sin, comes when we are bound to our grief, to our fear, and to our hatred. That’s when it begins to eat us up inside and to tear us apart.

            Have you ever been bound to something that you just can’t escape? It can be something physical, like food or alcohol or drugs, as with those who struggle with addictions. We can be bound to things mentally, too, where we can’t free ourselves from things that others have said to us, or done to us, or things that we ourselves have said or done. I know I often struggle with things I’ve said in the past, and I play them back in my head and beat myself up over them each time. I’ve heard people with addictions say that, when they were drinking or abusing drugs, they just couldn’t see life without them. Life was a dark circle, moving in and out of self-hatred and guilt. They were caught, they were trapped. They were bound.

            And Jesus says, “Unbind him” and “let him go.” And while he says this, here, about Lazarus and his funeral wrappings, he also says this to us, today, as well. Have you ever heard this word from God? Have you ever experienced it? Have you ever looked at something that you were once bound to and known that you were free? Have you ever looked back at something that you’ve regretted and known, deep down, that that’s just not you anymore? Have you ever been healed from grief, from abuse, from hatred or pain or suffering? This healing, this lifting of us up and out and beyond is the healing work of Jesus Christ, saying to our sin and the sin done to us, “Fall away, dark fetters. You have no power here.”

            I am being a bit vague here, I know. And that’s because that sin we were bound up with and that we’re still bound up with is personal. I could tell you a story about something awful I’ve said or done, but that’s my story. I could tell you about someone I know who was addicted to drugs or alcohol (and I know many) but who is now clean and clear, back with their family, breathing life and living good, honest lives – but those aren’t my stories, they’re the stories of others. And what about you? What stories do you have, where you’ve been bound but are now free? What shackles and fetters are you binding your own heart that you can give to the Lord to be healed? These are personal stories, but stories are made to be told. Spend time this week, even today, praying with those stories, and maybe find someone trustworthy and loving to whom you can share them.

            But in all things, remember this: Jesus came not to just hang out with us for a while, but to set us free. Jesus came – God came to us chains and fetters and break them asunder. And those chains are not only our sin or the sin done to us, but Death itself. Death, which seems the end, is not the end, for Jesus was born for us, lived for us, died for us, and was raised for us, all to snap death in two, break it apart, and cast it away. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt – oh how it hurts. But God wept, too, over the death of his friend, and then he raised his voice and called him forth alive again. So too does God weep for us, then will he raise his voice on high and call out with a voice as clear as sunshine: Arise my beloved! It is time for you to come home!