Archive for 2000
Every time I travel I swear I will only take what I absolutely need. This time I will travel light. I will not need that shirt and tie. But what if there’s a fancy occasion? Better take some good shoes then. What about a jacket? And what happens if … Better safe than sorry.
What are you unwilling to do without? And what would happen if you lost it?
Between Amaziah and Amos is an easy choice. Amaziah is the trustworthy one here. He’s a priest and no ordinary priest but the pastor of the National Shrine. And this is a nation where religion matters. Where God is worshipped with heart and soul and voice. And this is a nation prosperous at last. All the heartbreak of the past has been put right by God. There is peace. Military strength and national courage have paid off. All the enemies have faded away. Gross national product is on the rise. Trade is flourishing. People are happy. Church attendance may not be what it once was—but at least it’s sincere.
So no wonder Amaziah is angry at Amos. He’s a foreigner, a southerner for God’s sake. How’s he to know the real complexity of our country. And a peasant at that. A stinking shepherd with no education. How does he have the nerve to stand here in this holy place and preach at us? Not even preach. He’s not talking religion but politics. We didn’t get where we are today by letting two-bit hacks mouth off in holy places about things they don’t understand. So Amos show some respect. Go home and prophesy there. See if your own folk like it any better. But stay out of our affairs. Got it?
Amos on the other hand has nothing… and nothing to lose. He is free. He never had much to start with and God’s word has stripped him of even that. Now, a poor stranger in a rich country, he has only his voice. Amaziah doesn’t own him. The King doesn’t own him. He has no employer to please for his daily bread. He has no family at hand to make the risk unacceptable. So he does not keep quiet. He cannot keep quiet.
Because he sees things. He has visions. He stands there at their liturgy, in awe, watching. He loves it. Feels the motion sway his heart. But, even though he tries, his eyes won’t be blind to the ones who worship. He can’t blame them for enjoying their comfort. He can’t fault them for fretting over unpaid bills. He doesn’t doubt their sincere faith. He’s just appalled by their blindness. He hopes it’s blindness. The rich are getting richer and the poor getting poorer. And they don’t notice. They don’t see. Or if they see they don’t care. Or if they care they don’t know how to do anything about it. You cannot bite the hand that feeds you. You have to look after your own. And, by God, your hand digs deep when the collection comes around.
Maybe they do see. But not the image Amos sees superimposed on the singing assembly. He has a vision of twenty five years down the road. Only twenty five years. The sanctuary in ruins, overgrown, desolate. The nation’s heart empty, deserted. The people—the well-to-do ones anyway—dragged off in chains to be foreigners in a foreign land. Eating the bread of hardship from an alien hand. Sing now Israelites! Sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land.
Only the poorest are left. People like Amos. The one’s too poor to be worth deporting. The prosperity passed over them—so will the pain.
So Amos weeps through his double vision as he sees this happy assembly stripped of everything they had gathered to protect themselves. And God weeps in Amos’ tears. Because it didn’t have to be this way.
God has been there all along in the Sanctuary. But the sanctuary hasn’t been where they thought. Though they sang their hearts out no one but Amos knew where real safety lay or would risk the journey.
In Jesus time when you made your journey to Jerusalem to enter the temple sanctuary you had to leave things behind. Leave behind the cloak, the staff, the shoes, the money belt—all the stuff of journeys, all the sensible, safe provisions—and enter empty handed and unprotected and insecure to face the living God. The God who has been waiting for you. Why? Isn’t God in food and safety and comfort just as much as desert wind and aching sky?
And why does Jesus send out his followers in the same way—unprotected, unsafe, insecure? Maybe because all the world is sanctuary if you journey aright. And God is waiting there. And the price of admission? Nothing. Nothing. Not to be insecure but secure in God alone. Not to be unprotected but protected by God alone. Not to be hungry but fed by God alone.
God waiting for us, two by two, with power to drive out a world’s demons and mend every broken dream. That’s the authority Jesus gives his friends: the authority to have nothing and do everything.
July 30th, 2000
I used to have a piece of furniture, when I was an undergraduate living in college dorms, that made me shine with reflected greatness. In truth it was a tatty, worm-ridden, ugly thing—kind of a small cabinet on long shaky legs—but so grungy that I can’t remember now what I used to dare to put in it. It even had a name—so strange and impractical was it to look at that a friend of mine christened it a mongo-pod. But its name wasn’t the essential thing—its heritage was. My mongo pod had once been the property of Benazir Bhutto when she was a student at the same school. Now this was in the days when she was only a child of greatness, before she made her own pass at Pakistani politics, her own ambiguous turn on the world stage.
But every now and again, bleary-eyed in a morning, or over-caffeinated at night, my mongo pod would catch my eye and a wider world than my own would offer itself, however briefly or vicariously, and … and what?
Now that’s the question. What? To be honest I haven’t thought about that mangy piece of woodwork for years and, even then, I never saw myself turning up at some palace in Pakistan like a long lost furniture-friend. But to this day my mongo pod remains the closest I’ve been to having friends in high places—my nearest approach to power.
Apart from today. Apart from Ascension!
It’s not so much the going of Jesus that matters to our story-tellers today but where he is going. This Jesus, this guy from Nazareth, yes, we knew that he was like a son to God and, yes, we knew that God didn’t let him rot but gave him new life, but this? Who’d have thought that this … this man … who we’ve rubbed shoulders with, who we’ve laughed around the fire with, who we’ve wept over, who was so bleary-eyed in the mornings, so over-excited at night … him. He turns out to be … what? Ruler of all things? Lord of the cosmic laws? Wisdom of creation? “Far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion and every name that is named.” Right hand man to God.
We knew he was powerful. But we knew him broken too. We saw him heal the sick. We saw him rage against indifference. We saw him exhausted. We saw him dead and we saw him alive again and eating fish. But this? No wonder we are standing here looking up at the sky! We have an un-looked-for friend in high places.
We, that’s you and I, we have a friend in high places. We have an approach to real power. And we have more than a mongo pod to prove it—we have God’s own breath, God’s own spirit, as pledge of the power that holds the cosmos in being.
Listen again to the readings. “In a few days you will be drenched with Holy Spirit.” “You will receive power when Holy Spirit comes upon you.” “The same power which worked in Christ, raising him from the dead and seating him far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion.” And whatever you think about those signs and wonders it is certain that the friends of Jesus will not shrink from power—”you will drive out demons, you will speak new languages, you will handle serpents with your bare hands, you will be proof against poison, you will lay hands on the sick and they will recover.” Our society sure has its demons. The corridors of power slither with serpentine subtlety. Our consumer culture poisons itself and every created thing. And the victims of our success lie sick all around the world. Our mission should we choose to accept it—drive out the demon, handle the serpent, purify the poison, and heal with our own hands what seems to be dying. And, while we are at it, shape an unknown language to speak with authority to those who would not hear.
My mongo pod usually caught my eye when I was wrestling with yet another midnight paper—”essay crises” we used to call them. And the promise was always of a wider world than transition-metal chemistry. A world just out there. Just through those windows. Where people lived and died and made a difference.
As Mark tells it Jesus never says goodbye to his friends and followers. He just gives them a little job to do. “Go into the whole cosmos and proclaim good news to every created thing.” Luke is the one who supplies the wherewithal. “You will receive power when Holy Spirit comes upon you.”
Well, you and I have friends in high places. We have the power. What are we going to do with it?
June 4th, 2000
I love the poetry but it disturbs me deeply. It’s something about seeing … and seeing where you belong.
Elizabeth sees only honour and blessing and joy in her kinswoman’s womb. But Mary is more canny. Of all her people’s heroes she might have identified with, Mary claims kinship with Hannah and echoes the song the once barren mother sings not when she is to give birth but when she has to leave behind the child she has borne. There’s nothing given that doesn’t have it’s price.
There is joy, yes! Mary, full of her burden of life, chooses to name herself with Hannah. One barren who has been made fruitful. One low who has been raised high. One hungry who has been filled. One who has waited till she found her longing.
But there’s a hard edge. A true child of her race, every bone of her is political. Her child to come is destined for the falling and the rising of many. She knows the way of it. No one finds pride but that another is humiliated. No one rises without another’s fall. No one is fed but another goes hungry. No one finds their heart’s desire but that another is thwarted.
There is no level playing field. Wealth never trickles down. And, no, we can’t all be on the same side.
I love the poetry but it disturbs me deeply.
May 31st, 2000
Everything we’ve just heard should cut off, once and for all, any avenue of escape for us. Because I think we all want to escape from being loved by God. Sounds stupid, I know, but everyone I know does it. I catch myself doing it all the time. It usually starts when I’ve disappointed myself—done something I’m not proud of—or not done something I really felt it in my heart to do. I feel a little guilty, a little sad, and I want to hide away from myself. And then I remember all the other times I’ve felt this way and the feeling just grows until maybe I can’t even remember what started it—I just know, on the inside, that the world is divided up into two halves—the ones God loves and the ones God is ashamed of.
But the world isn’t divided up like that. In God’s eyes there are no second class citizens. Like Peter says in the first reading—”I see now that God has no favourites.” Or like the second reading tells us—what’s important is not that we love God but that God loves us. Or like the Gospel says—we are not to think of ourselves as slaves but as friends—God’s friends.
The world isn’t divided up into the people God loves and the people God hates. There are no second class citizens.
And I get uneasy about that. It sounds stupid, I know, but it can be uncomfortable being loved like that. Not always—sometimes it makes me really happy—but sometimes I’m sitting in my harsh judgement enjoying feeling bad and I don’t want to be disturbed. There I am enjoying feeling lousy. It doesn’t feel like enjoyment but it must be or else I’d get out of that mood as quick as I could. But I always stay longer than I need to. God has to really kick me out of that mood. God has to really rub my nose in how much he loves me before I’ll budge. Stupid!
So what’s the pay-off? Why is it so hard to believe that God loves me even when I don’t love myself? Well here’s one thing for a start. Staying put in shame and sadness means I don’t have to bear much fruit, to use the words Jesus uses. It’s a lot safer not believing that God loves you because you can keep you head down. Not do much wrong but not do much good either. If we really believed that God loves us no matter what we do—if we believed nothing at all could ever separate us from the love of God—if we believed that God has no favourites—then who knows what dangerous things we might get up to.
Look at Peter in that first reading. He’s been forgiven so much. He’s learned the hard way that God loves him even if he runs away, even when he turns traitor. So he’s ready to believe that even unthinkable people can be loved by God. Even people who aren’t Jews, even a high-ranking Roman officer. Peter makes a decision then and there that affects us here and now. He sticks his neck out and accepts the first non-Jewish convert. Who knows what would have happened if he hadn’t! But what happened for Peter afterwards was enormous too—his path took him to Rome to eventually die alongside his new converts. That’s the love that lays down its life for another.
Or look at Jesus. Look where his love led him. He would never be the victim some wanted him to be and he would never be the man of violence the way others wanted him to be. Out of love he did all sorts of inconvenient things. He broke his religion’s commandments. He spoke uncomfortable truth to the rich and powerful. And chose to eat and drink with people who were considered dirty, bad, and dangerous. He stuck out his neck so many times that he ended up giving his life for us all.
That’s why it’s easier not believing in God’s love. If we did who knows where it would take us? It took Peter to Rome. It took Jesus to Jerusalem. Where would it take you or me? It’s so much easier to think that we don’t matter much. That God can’t love us much. That we are better off keeping our heads down.
But the words of scripture don’t leave us any avenue of escape. We matter. Each one of us. God loves us. Each one of us. Enough to give his life for us. (And, who knows, maybe with practice we might even get to enjoy being loved that much.)
God loves us. Enough to give his life for us. Enough to give his life for anyone. Even for the people you or I wouldn’t give the time of day to. But for God the world isn’t divided up like that. In God’s eyes there are no second class citizens. God has no favourites. What’s important isn’t that we love God but that God loves us. There are no slaves any more—only God’s friends.
So let’s be proud of that. Let’s lift our heads up high. And who knows where that might take us. Who knows what we might do. But wouldn’t it be good to see!
May 28th, 2000
I have to admit that I’m secretly pleased with that picture of Paul getting all discombobulated at being taken for a god—and Hermes indeed because he was the one doing all the talking. Very telling.
All we know of Paul are his words—and we have plenty of them. His own words, the words of people imitating him, or like here words spoken about him, tales told. Makes you wonder if he ever shut up.
So it’s nice to get this glimpse of him from someone else’s angle—in between the words. The frustrated minister—halfway through his spiel when he realises that not a word has gotten through. He may be convinced by his own eloquence but the poor people of Lystra—whom he calls “friends” and “fools” in one headlong breath—well, they hear all the words but what they see is the miracle. And what they see moves them. Gets them moving. And all the words are wasted.
Theology is more words than miracles. We hear a lot more than we see. But what we see usually drowns out the word. We wrestle with texts all year but what we remember are the pictures. Thank God for pictures!
So maybe there’s something for us as another semester bites the dust … what are the pictures lingering with your from the last months. The glimpses between words that have moved you and maybe want to move you still. Bring on the silence!
May 22nd, 2000
“Remain in me or wither.”
Runner number 19933 in today’s Bay To Breakers says that this morning’s gospel gives incontrovertible evidence that Jesus knew all along that he was God. Why? How? Well Jesus says, “I am de vine…” Groan …
Runner 19933 lives in my house and is prone to bad jokes. Luckily for us all, running naked isn’t one of them. But if he were he could have turned to the Chronicle for its essential advice to unclad athletes—exfoliate, exfoliate, exfoliate! This helpful clipping also recommends where to buy your artificial tan, your fake tattoos, and your body paint.
“Abide with me.”
“It just caught my eye,” said the lady who’s just paid $12,500 (or was it 125,000?) to have a teaspoon of her eventual ashes space-rocketed to the moon. All the thrill of space-travel without the preparation. No training required … you just have to have the cash … and be dead. You get to rest forever in utter, exclusive, dusty silence.
“God is greater than our hearts.”
Harris County, Texas, is concerned about the recent overturning of several established rape convictions as a result of DNA testing. How many more wrongfully convicted men are incarcerated? How many more rapists have got away with this horrible crime? That’s not Harris County’s worry. They are going through their warehouses destroying old evidence to save themselves the effort and embarrassment of being caught out locking up the wrong people.
“I am the true vine.”
Scientists who have recently introduced firefly genes into mustard plants have observed that they glow in the dark shortly after being handled gently. Plants, it seems, like being touched. It helps them grow up healthy and not turn out stunted or leggy. The next step they say is to use jellyfish genes so they glow will be brighter.
“If you remain in me you will bear much fruit.”
Apparently, Senator Jessie Helms is on record as describing humanitarian aid to struggling nations as “throwing money down a rat hole.” The annual US donation to Africa, for example, amounts to something like $1.25 per African head.
OK! Forgive me for rambling …The way we show ourselves to the world isn’t everything. But the choices we make do say a whole load about us. And none more than where we choose to stay. Americans have always been a mobile lot. So many of us are immigrants anyway. Resting here after long journeys, whether made in haste or carefully chosen, so we move and move on looking for the right place to settle down, to put down roots.
Roots are ambiguous though. Tearing them up hurts like hell. But let them be shallow and we wither. We need the sap that seeps up through our roots and nourishes heart and soul but who knows what else rises from the soil we are planted in to colour our lives or taint our fruit.
In the past it was only the absurdly rich and powerful who had the choice to shun the soil. The rest of us knew it daily, smeared on the brow or grubby under the fingernails. But these days we can all afford to float a little above the ground. Never touching soil. Buying washed, peeled, and portioned food. Touching our neighbours only when we choose. And finally going to our eternal rest, not under earth, but in the sterile dust of the sky.
But God is a gardener. And a careful one. Knows the value of dirt. Lets nothing go to waste. Achieves with touch and time and tenderness what chemicals and gene-splicing can only imitate. That touch makes us grow. Makes us glow. Not without the pruning shears and not without sometimes being up to our shoulders in …manure.
Who are we? Our DNA is ambiguous as our roots. We share just about 99.9% of it with every other human being. Heck! We share 98% of it with chimpanzees, over half of it with fireflies. But it can single us out as guilty. Or innocent. No matter how much we protest it wasn’t us. No matter how much we fear it was. But God is greater than our fear, greater than whatever condemns us. Greater than the embarrassment we feel at standing alongside the politicians, sharing their genes, knowing we grow in similar soil and would make their compromises our own if we had to.
We are in this together. Not mustard plants in separate pots of sterile growing medium. But branches of one big messy vine rooted in dirt, assailed by pests, yet tended by God, a gardener with a difference. This one shares our DNA, this one knows from the inside all about vines, what it is to grow and wither, what it is to feel the knife, what it is to scent the new rain.
God alone knows how to be human. But given time God can even make us human too.
May 21st, 2000
My life ended that morning. Right about the time he called for something to eat. If you’d asked me I’d have said it ended a few days before when they arrested him. Or, being more honest, when I ran away; ran away and left him and left the others and left my dream of myself behind.
All that was bad enough. Him dead and my life dead. Worse was when the women were saying he wasn’t dead. And then Peter and John. And the others. And then daring myself to begin to believe. But even believing would he want to see me again—coward, fool, traitor.
But then he was with us—doors and walls be damned—and scaring the bejesus out of us. Christ! he has a nerve—creeping up out of nowhere like that and saying “sorry did I startle you?” like it was all a big joke.
I thought by then I’d begun to believe. But seeing him in the flesh—wounds and all—I realised how little I had. God! we must have looked a fright because the grin on his face just grew and grew. “Something wrong guys? Seen a ghost?”
Seeing is not believing. I see dead people! Breathe! And again!
“You got anything to eat? I’m starving!”
There was some leftover fish to push over to him. Hardly hospitable. But he took it and savoured it’s smell and said the blessing and licked his lips and took a mouthful. And a look of such bliss took him. And then the fool near half choked on a bone—bent over coughing, spluttering, red in the face. And I was with him, holding him, pounding him on the back, panicking lest he choke to death. And then my life ended.
Because he was real. He was alive. And as vulnerable as ever and, as ever, beyond restraint. Untouched by crucifixion—no not untouched—but at risk from a fish bone! And I remember the thought welling up—”this changes everything.” But more than that I remember the feel of warm flesh under my hands and him standing straight again and wiping the sweat from his brow and the grin again and his arms around me. And I remember laughing, laughing till my guts hurt and my giddy heart danced.
Later, when we’d all settled down, when we’d all had our fill of holding him, and he’d almost had his fill of holding us, and we’d said too much and not enough. Later, he took bread—the way he’d done a lifetime ago—and he gave God thanks and praise and he broke it and he passed it among us. And we held it and tasted it like we’d never tasted bread before. And looked at him. Tasted him. “This is the bread of new beginnings, my friends. Eat it and never be the same.” Then the cup brimming with the best wine we had. “This is the lifeblood of the promise between us. Drink it and never be sober again.”
“From this moment,” he said, “you are my witnesses. My witnesses.”
He was right. Nothing has been the same since. We have been his witnesses. Standing up for a truth certainly—though even then we all said it differently—but deeper, farther, truer—standing up for an experience—no! more even than that. He let us touch him. And we still feel that touch, that weight, that warmth. And through the ages we have given witness with our own flesh. Death is real—look at our wounds!—but life is realer still. There is always time for a new beginning. Always a cup of life to share. A forgiveness, a fresh start, a promise kept, a word of peace, a gale of laughter.
We have been witnesses and we have handed that on, generation to generation, in wine and wheat—and, yes, in water.
(… baptism follows …)
May 7th, 2000
At the end of the film “Terminator” Arnold Schwarzenegger—part-man, part-machine—is finally dying after being crushed, boiled and baked. Stripped right down to his metal skeleton he utters his last words—”I’ll be back!”
Schwarzenegger was the bad guy, but it’s the same for the good guys. At the end of another film—”Aliens 3″—the anguished hero, Ripley, gives her life to finally rid the universe of an awful alien creature. She is gone for good—or at least she was, for death is no obstacle when Hollywood recognises a cash cow, so back from the grave Ripley came—half alien herself—in a fourth film: Alien Resurrection.
Resurrection is very popular these days. There’s always the possibility of a sequel (or two) to milk some more cash from the movie-going public. Well, it may be a popular theme but it’s not the way to look at what we celebrate here this Easter morning. This is not the sequel. The Resurrection of Jesus is not a repeat performance of his life. This is not “The Nazarene Strikes Back” nor is it “Son of Son of God.” For one thing, sequels are never as good as the original —the hero returns and does all the same things over again with not one element of unpredictability. What we celebrate here is altogether unpredictable: a new life has been born.
But the birth wasn’t easy. If you listen to Mary’s story today you see how difficult. You realise how exhausted she must have been. And, if we ourselves have entered into the story, as we’ve retold it together in our three days of prayer, we will probably feel just as drained. For Mary, and for us, it has been a succession of intense feelings: a last and disturbing meal with a dear but doomed friend, betrayal and arrest, the waiting, the watching, the suffering, the dying, and then yet more waiting by his dead body in the tomb. And now it is all over, all done, all finished, Mary of Magdala is exhausted and distraught. And now, at the open tomb, her weeping is even more desperate than before because it seems they have taken away even the corpse and left her nothing to cling to, or mourn over.
If we have travelled with Mary these days, we have been mourning too—grieving for Jesus but also grieving for all his death evokes in us, all that seems dead in our own lives, all the failed hopes, the lost opportunities and dying dreams. We carry our own tomb with us—within us—and we don’t know why it is empty.
Then the Easter vigil comes and, overnight, darkness is transformed into light and death becomes life. Suddenly he who was dead is not dead, but alive. But, if we have any heart at all that good news is hard news. It takes time to absorb. It can’t just happen with the lighting of a candle. So there Mary is, bewildered, hanging around the tomb, when these two irritating angels say to her “Woman, why are you weeping?” which is a stupid question. Because, of course she’s weeping! Jesus might have moved from death to life but, as yet, Mary hasn’t. It takes time to grieve and time to accept that life is alive. Mary has to be coaxed out of her own tomb. She hears another voice ask the question: “Woman, why are you weeping?” and she doesn’t recognise it—yet. So she tells her story again, cradling the familiar hurt of it. Until that voice, his voice, speaks her name and lets her unclench her fingers from her burden of death, to receive again the gift of herself, tenderly given, and with it a mission, a call, to be an apostle to the apostles, to touch them too with life.
Jesus, the one death could not hold, is back—not to destroy his enemies but to console his friends. We will see this pattern over and over again in the next days and weeks: Jesus comes to meet friends who are hurting, and to do for them exactly what they need to bring them back to life. To the frightened disciples in the upper room he brings Peace; to the couple fleeing to Emmaus, hope; to the friend who cannot believe, faith; and, here, he pours out comfort for the comfortless Mary. Jesus comes as a friend to bring a friend back to life.
Coming back to life takes time, which is why the Church gives us time. The Church counts this whole coming week as one day—Easter day. And after it forty more days of Easter—a whole Lent’s worth—to unwind the way to Calvary and slowly get the message that Jesus is not dead and neither are we.
It may have happened already—it may take some time—but, however it happens, this Easter Jesus will come to each of us as the friend he is, to console us, to share with us his own joy. He knows what stands in the way of our joy and he knows how to get round it. No need is too big for him—or too small—in fact, the Risen Jesus has nothing else to do! Every single Resurrection story we have is a story of consolation—there is not a one of judgement or revenge—not a one. Jesus lives that we might live. And we, as we are brought to joy by his joy, have nothing else to do but befriend the world, and, through our care and consolation, help it out of the tomb.
April 30th, 2000
I think he came back to us …out of embarrassment or a nagging need. Back to Bethany and Martha and Lazarus and me—looking to explain or be forgiven or something—at least at first. After opening the tomb and giving back our brother and then running off like that leaving us no room for thanks, no room for gratitude, no time to ask him what he’d done or what it might cost.
No, just the turmoil and the disbelief and the laughing and the crying. And Martha dancing for joy, and me singing inside, and Lazarus—Lazarus dazed, surrounded by friends afraid to touch and then unable to stop touching, checking their unbelieving eyes. Even one or two less friendly eyes troubled, angry. I can remember it all and remember nothing—like a dream. I didn’t even see Jesus go, him and his companions. Too wrapped up in all the jubilation I was.
But what do you do when it’s over? When the crowd’s gone, picked you clean, and the three of you are, inexplicably, there. Sitting. Wondering. All the aching questions unasked or asked and unanswered.
It seems we weren’t the only ones wondering what it all meant since the passing days saw a price slapped on Jesus’s head. And lies spread. And threats too. Wouldn’t you think they all would be happy for us? Wouldn’t you expect that and not the whispers that a living Lazarus was an embarrassment—and better off dead. And through it all no sign of Jesus—not to explain, nor promise, nor make it all make sense.
With Passover so close the Holy City was packed and alive with rumour. Jesus was going to march on Jerusalem. Jesus was going to destroy the Temple. Jesus was going to show the Romans. Who could stop him now—with the power of life and death his to command? Fools!
Though we wondered too. Was he going to come? Would he risk it? How could he? How could he not?
Then suddenly there he was. At the gate. Our gate. To explain. To promise. To make it make sense. So I hoped.
This he said: “I’m sorry.”
“We were wondering if you’d come? Hoping! Wondering if you’d risk Passover. Will you?”
“I do not know.” And he said little else. Him the great talker, silent, brooding. John told us he’d been like this since the tomb. Moody. Unnaturally quiet. Hiding in the back of beyond, staring out into the desert. As if waiting for something. Turning aside their concern with a distracted shrug. Till the twelve of them thought it was all over. And argued among themselves about what they would do. Go back north? Or walk into likely death at his side?
Then he ups and tells them he must see his friends and here we all are. Around the table. Eating, drinking, trying to ignore his mood. The guys working hard at enjoying Martha’s feast—laughing, fooling—but, I could see, glancing over at him all the time. Him alone in all the hubbub. They all kept their distance. Confused. Afraid to touch. Embarrassed.
I watched him. I’ve been able to read him since first we met. And right now, fear in his eyes. A need not to be alone. To have someone promise to stay by him. Just like Lazarus’s look when death was crawling close. But mixed in him with the horror of choice—stay or go up to him and no other. I could see him searching for his way out. Finding none. And searching again.
It was just then I heard the voice in my heart say: “It’s time.” It was time. He might not know it yet. But I did. I stood and fetched the oil of nard my inner voice had had me save all these years for him. I prayed. I wrapped a towel around my waist. Unbound my hair. And, as the room hushed, knelt before him. Held his eyes, steady, like. Touched his aching feet. “Do you know what I’m going to do for you?” Slowly he nodded.
I took the flask of oil, gave God thanks and praise, broke the seal, and poured the perfume to anoint him for his destiny. And as his tears began to flow I made my promise. “Whatever happens this week, my love, you will not be alone.”
April 24th, 2000
I remember when my father died 20-odd years ago that the hardest part of going on living was the problem other people had knowing what to say to us—my mother and brother and me. Friends and family want to comfort you but don’t quite know how to do it. And I don’t think I was very willing to be comforted back then—I didn’t make it easy for them—but I suspect there is no easy way of being with someone in their grief.
I did learn back then one really bad way of offering support. So many people said, in one way or another, “don’t be sad, it’s God’s will.” That made me so angry then and makes me even angrier now when I hear similar advice. Twenty years ago I guess I got riled up because I didn’t want easy answers—now I hate it because I know it’s not fair to God. It makes God sound like he doesn’t care or even prefers people to be dead than alive, loves death more than life, but if today’s gospel shows anything it shows how much God loves life and is heart-broken by death.
In the middle of all the magic and the miracle there’s a very human story—a buried body, grieving sisters, confused disciples—and above all a Jesus who is full of feeling. He might be saying grand and mysterious things and he might be doing the impossible but in the centre of it all he is showing us just how God faces death—like a friend torn apart by it all. As the story starts and Jesus is at a distance he manages to have his own theories about why God lets people die before their time but as he draws near, draws near to grief, draws near to loss, he is drawn near to the heart of the matter. When broken-hearted Martha meets him on the road and tells him off for letting Lazarus down into death Jesus tries to comfort her with words. But then as the weeping Mary pours out her disappointment words fail him and Jesus starts to get really upset. But its only when he see the tomb and realises that here is his friend dead and gone that he loses it. Tears pour down his cheeks. No more room for soothing words. He cries. He cries and he prays. And he calls Lazarus out of the tomb and into new life.
Out of death and into life. In a way that’s the whole of the Christian story. Our Elect are with us today and that’s why we use this gospel. It holds the promise for them. At the Easter Vigil when they are baptized they will step out of death and into life. That’s an awesome thing to promise them. New life. How can we give them that? Well, Thank God we don’t have to make good on the promise ourselves—Jesus is the one who has called them and will call to them that night and say “Come out! Come out of the tomb.” But the work isn’t all God’s—we have a responsibility as well. Poor Lazarus staggers out of the tomb all tied up in grave clothes and Jesus tells the onlookers to unbind him and let him go. We have that job for our Elect. As a community we can either let them live or conspire to keep them bound up in death. So how do we do that—unbind our friends and let them live? Two ways … at least.
First of all we have to be able to. If we ourselves are all tangled up in our own grave clothes how can we help anyone else to be free? As we walk alongside our friends into Holy Week and towards baptism we need to let ourselves be brought to life too. To take a good look at what has still got us tangled up in death and ask the God who loves life to set us free once again. Maybe our Reconciliation service on Wednesday is a good way to do that.
But apart from being able to help our Elect receive new life we have to want to. Think how much better the world would be—heck think how much better our families would be—if we did even some of the good things we each have the power and ability to do but fail to do because we can’t be bothered or don’t care enough. How does Jesus find the power to raise Lazarus from the dead? I believe he finds it in his gut when it is twisted up in compassion and in his tears when he can’t hold them back. Jesus cared about Lazarus. Loved him. Wanted him to be alive. Hated his death. And took the risk to weep and took the risk to pray and took the risk to call him to life. Do we care that much about life? Do we care that much about our friends here today? Maybe we need to pray to care that much. I hope we can pray for that gift. But it’s a risky gift.
Jesus gives Lazarus his life back but at a terrible price. John’s gospel makes it really clear that raising Lazarus was the last straw for the authorities. After this act of love Jesus has a price on his head, he’s a hunted man, an outlaw. He gave Lazarus his life and will end up giving up his own. That’s how much Jesus cared about Lazarus. He was willing to die for Lazarus’s life. In a way Jesus has made that same bargain for each of us—given his life so that we might have ours—and done it for the same reason. He loves us so much that he can’t stand to see us dead. Our challenge—all of us—is to live our new life in the light of that enormous and terrible gift.
April 9th, 2000