Thursday, October 29, 2015

Living with death and loss

In the quiet of the middle of the week, I am sitting at my desk pondering the words of this Sunday’s Gospel:
Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” 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. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. 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 also have kept this man from dying?”
Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it.  Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for 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 lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” (John 11.17-44 ESV)
It is a well known passage because at least in part, people hear it all the time at funerals. I cannot tell you how many times over the last 25 years I have heard this chapter read in churches, chapels and funeral homes and utter those same words in funeral services. But I find myself asking a simple question, “Do we in our culture, understand what they actually mean?”

In the nearly 25 years that I have been in ministry, I have done a lot of funerals; to the point where I have lost track of how many funerals I have done. I can understand what Martha says to Jesus, “If you had been year my brother would not of died, but even now, I know God will give you whatever you ask.” It is one of the stages we all go through when we are dealing with a loss. We try whatever we can to make it better; to make it right. We want and look for some semblance of hope and the possibility that we will not be separated for very long. I see it all the time in people: friends and family, strangers and parishioners. We try anger, denial, bargaining and avoidance before we find some peace and resolution.

I have spent lots of time (late nights and long days) with people and their families in the hospital waiting for the moment when death occurs.  There are things to talk about, things to share, and moments to be held on to. For instance, I remember sitting with a young man about my age and who was also a father. He was dying of brain cancer. The doctors had told the family to expect an awful death because of the disease and what they understood was going to happen. In the moments before his death, I gathered the family including this man’s children around the hospital bed and we prayed. We read Scripture. And a t a particular moment, I prayed a prayer that goes like this,

“Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world;
in the name of God the Father almighty who created you;
in the name of Jesus Christ who redeemed you;
in the name of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you.
May your rest be this day in peace, and your dwelling place in the paradise of God.”

For me, they are familiar words, that I have spoken over many people at various times, including family. What catches my eye though in this passage, is the person of Jesus himself; the way that John writes says a lot about what Jesus was personally going through. Is he upset at the death of his friend? Yes, he is. But to let it there and not acknowledge the things that are also evident, like he is very near to Jerusalem now and to his own death – it carries more and more weight. Jesus sees the people that are around him and how they are dealing with grief, sorrow, mourning and death and I would propose that Jesus (as the Gospel points out) is sickened and disturbed more than once by how people where handling not only death but also life.

I think of this moment in John’s Gospel as an “Isaiah moment” for Jesus. First we look at the Father, which Jesus must have done, and see who the Father is and then see ourselves and then look at that state of the people and the land around us and see how far we have moved away from God. Isaiah went through this and then chose to respond to the call of God to speak to the people with the all familiar, “Here I am, send me.”

And let’s be clear: when one says that you can see God, it means that you are learning to trust him for everything and all things. Case and point, in the Garden the night before his own death Jesus asks the Father to let the cup pass from him. But if it is not to happen, then not his own will, but the Father’s will be done in his life.

The basic tenant of the faith is that Jesus died. Jesus is risen. Jesus will come again. Jesus did not died to give you a clean death. He died that you might live. Forever. With him, in the Spirit, to be loved by the Father. The Scriptures reminds us that love is the opposite of fear and that perfect love drives out fear (1st John 4.8). What we are called to do is to come, to participate and to trust God that he knows what he is doing. It isn’t always easy. It isn’t always the nicest place to be in. It isn’t what we would do or have planned but keep something in mind: We are beloved of God and we are not abandoned. We are never alone. We are not alone in life and we are not alone in death. Some of the greatest things that God has and will bring to pass take time to come to their fruition. What perhaps matters most is what is in our hearts when hardships and tragedies of different kinds come to pass. Hardships show the contents of our hearts.  

So if there is a piece of advice I would offer in dealing with loss and death, it would be the words of Psalmist who wrote:

Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.
Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will do this:
He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn, your vindication like the noonday sun. 
(Psalm 37.4-6 ESV)


Friday, October 23, 2015

The Future is so bright, I gotta wear shades!

As I sit down to write these for lines, the sunlight is drifting in my office window for the first time in many days. It is almost blinding! Been thinking a lot about windows, eyes and light this past week. By enlarge it has been about the light that Bar-timaeus experienced after a time of darkness. We are not told in the Gospel lesson this week that “Bart” heard that Jesus the Rabbi was passing by, walking up the hill and out of the City of Jericho on his way to Jerusalem and the Cross.

The way that the first couple of sentences are constructed, it makes me believe that Jesus spent at least a night in the city. He preached a sermon, called people to come and healed those who were brought to him. And because of the things Jesus said and the things Jesus did, Bart knew who he was looking at. That’s why, has Jesus passed him by on the street that morning, know that Jesus was going to Jerusalem and what would happen there, Bart saw his last chance walking away from him and so he began to shout, “Jesus of Nazareth,  Son of David, have mercy on me.” People, wanting to listen to Jesus and not bother with this man, or worse have this man bother Jesus, tried to quiet and subdue him. Such action, knowing that his salvation was walking away from him, up that hill, caused Bart to shout all the more, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

And Jesus stopped. With a smile on his face, Jesus says to the people, “Call him.” What a role reversal! Those who had tried to keep him away and to keep him quiet are now being told to call him and to bring him to Jesus.  They communicate the news to Bartimaeus that Jesus is calling him and he immediately jumps up sheds his cloak and leaving all of his meager possessions behind nothing, is led to Jesus by those who had tried to silence him.

Jesus asks a simple question of Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” The question is not dissimilar to the one he asked of James and John last week, who proceeded to demand power and position in the kingdom when it came in its fullness. But instead of asking for many things, Bartimaeus asked for only one thing: “Teacher, let me recover my sight.” Jesus responds with a simple word, Go your way, your faith has made you well.”

As some will know, I went through a sickness many years ago and there were lots of concerns, even after the worst had past... would he be able to work again, would he be able to see properly again? I don’t like to talk about it much because what people hear and what people see is the pathetic figure of a preacher boy laying in a hospital bed not know whether he would live or die. Much live that man on the side of the road, there was a moment for me when, knowing I was in the presence of the Master, I said to him, ”Master, if it is time... then I surrender. Let’s go home.”   The answer must have been something like what Bartimaeus heard, “Go your way, your faith has made you well.”

Faith, and for that matter prayer, are not about what you can get God to do with your words or your own spirit, but rather what God can do through your life as you move forward in your path. We might be tempted to think that what God is doing is about us... it isn’t. It is about God and his kingdom and what he is doing for his people. It is about us, as a community of people that are trying as best we can to live out what he asks of us so that the world might see him in us.

And do you know what he did with his sight and his life in the days after the healing? Bartimaeus followed Jesus: to the city, to the upper room, to the cross and the grave and saw him rise again. And he was heard to exclaim, “The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades.”


Wednesday, October 14, 2015

An Opus of Obedience to a Symphony of Service

And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”  Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”  And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John.  And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10.35-45 ESV)

Then, after they heard what Jesus said about him being betrayed, beaten and killed, James and John asked Jesus to make them strong and powerful in the new kingdom. It sounds like there is a disconnect between what Jesus is saying is going to happen and what the disciples believe will really happen.  They don’t really believe that Jesus is going to die much less that three days later, he is going to be raised from the dead. He is just fooling around and trying to see what they are going to do.

Unfortunately, the disconnect is all too common and still happens. The interesting thing about all this though is that Jesus plays along with James and John, asking them, “What do you want me to do for you?” The brothers ask for power and authority and a good place in government in the new creation. So Jesus asks them, “Can you suffer with me and share in the pain I bear? Will you let yourselves drown?” Maybe they should have sat down and really thought about what they were saying. They we ready to do what it took to make themselves powerful and to have position and authority over others so long as it was within reach for them and in the power of Jesus to grant it to them.

Jesus, taking a deep breath says to the brothers, “Okay, you will follow and become like me and share in my pain and my trails. But as for where you will sit and what you will have, that is not for me to say. That is not in my hands.”

We are called by Christ to go with him and in the going, to learn to seek and to see and to embrace those we find. In particular those who are in need of care of love, those who need to be suffered with and give compassion to those who are in pain. In doing so we are to get rid of our plans and agendas. We are to seek out Christ in others and serve them instead of contemplating our next play for power and for position. Who are we not serving because we are seeking our own self interests? Who have we missed that might have been strengthened and enabled if we had worried more about them, instead of accruing and accumulating for our own selfish gain?  

Ultimately, we are taught to follow and to imitate the person and life of Christ as a way to serve and not a way to fulfil our greeds. Service and servanthood are about meeting the needs of the other and in so doing allowing God to supply both them and us. If we do not learn to seek and are not determined to see Christ, then how can we serve God in the Holy Spirit? By serving and loving others, we can help our city to see who Christ is and is for them. And we can never know the full depths of how God impacts other people’s lives through us.

Take a chance this week and choose to serve someone and see how that transforms the relationship you have with that person and how it grows and shapes both of you. I pray that we can become together God’s opus of obedient servants and a symphony of service to God and to our city.


Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Thanks and Blessing

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?  Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.  “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. (Matthew 6.25-34 ESV)
Being thankful for what we have and giving thanks to God for al that we have is a lot better than worrying about what you have all the time, isn’t it? We live in culture that tries to reassure itself by sing blindly and timidly, “Don’t worry, be happy!” and we spend much of our time pursuing the stuff that we think is going to make us happy, satisfied, secured. In the verses that precede the Gospel lesson, Jesus calls on his disciples to get away from thinking like the world and from thinking that the pursuit of power and position is what we need to be about.

What we need to worry about is who our Lord is. Yes, we need to know who is at the centre of our life – both personal and corporately. Is it Jesus? Or is it money? Many I am sure expect me to proudly announce that the love of money is the root of evil and blast the capitalist society we live as being a product of that evil... well sorry, I won’t do that. I won’t blast our society for having what it has, but I will push and insist that because we have been blessed we need to bless others. And who have we been blessed by? Is it not the Father? And who have we been sent by to be a blessing in the world around us? Is it not Jesus?

The first thing is to stop and acknowledge who the centre of your life is... and that if it is not Jesus then you need to remove whatever or whomever it is that is at the centre and put Jesus there. It is radical these days, even within the Church to declare “Christos est Kyiros” (Christ is Lord). Much of the worry that we have in our lives comes from having someone or something else at the centre of our lives instead of putting Christ first. We worry about how we are going to have money for this and money for that. We worry about how we are going to make things happen so that we can have that boat, that cabin; that holiday, that car, etc... Jesus reminds us that God knows what we want and what we need. The question is will we seek him first and a relationship with him so that in turn h can bless you hand the relationship that he has with you, that others might be blessed through you.

Reality is, we live in an anxious, impatient and pent up world wondering what is going to happen next. What will happen and will I be okay? Will my family be okay and will it go well for them? If you find yourself worrying, ho do you deal with it? Ask yourself this, who is at the centre of your life? What Master are you serving? Count all the worries you have and then count all the blessings that God has bestowed upon you that you can count and see which list is longer. Then take time to give thanks and to bless God for all that you have and know that he is the Giver, the Donor of all our days. Don't worry, only believe.