A Lutheran Says What?

Sermons and random thoughts on God, the world and the intersection of the two

“If” a Sermon on John 11 Lent 5A March 29, 2020

Filed under: sermon — bweier001 @ 8:28 pm
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This sermon was preached at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, UT on March 29, 2020. You can view it on our YouTube channel Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church SLC.

The text was John 11: 1-44

One of my favorite games to play when I’m ruminating on a situation that I’m unhappy about, is the “if only” game. Maybe you play this game too. You know the one where you have a fender bender and you think “ugh, if I had only not looked left when I should have looked right.” Or “if that other person had stayed in their lane.” Or “if I had stayed home.” Then all the unpleasantness could be avoided. Part of how we are wired as human beings is to be constantly vigilant for how to stay alive and out of danger. And when danger does arrive on our doorstep, as it invariable always does at some point, we want to dissect the events leading up to the misfortune, figure out who to blame, how we avoid this again and even on occasion figure out how to change the misfortune so that we don’t have to endure any of the consequences. This line of “if only” thinking lulls us into the falsehood that we have some sort of control over life events and we can logic or bargain our way to happiness, safety and security.

Don’t get me wrong, we should try and make appropriate decisions that don’t put ourselves or others in harms way, but we also know that there is no such thing as perfection. We can technically make every correct decision and take every prudent action and still have traumatic events befall us. And we’ve seen the inverse of that as well, haven’t we? When someone seems to make poor decision after poor decision and still everything comes out all right for them. It can be maddening to attempt to discern any pattern, consistency or logic out of life.

Mary and Martha and even the disciples are knee deep in this “if only” game in our John 11 story this week. Jesus gets word that Lazarus, brother to Mary and Martha, is very ill. Jesus seems to brush this news off in a cavalier way that is hard for me to understand. I mean, I want Jesus to drop everything and rush to Lazarus’ bedside and save him from what ever pain and suffering he is experiencing. But Jesus doesn’t do that-he hangs out two more days wherever he was. Then all the sudden after two days, Jesus decides to go to Bethany where Mary and Martha were.  Again, why the wait, I just don’t understand.

Jesus arrived to find what I always have envisioned as a wake happening. Family and friends gathered lamenting, crying, telling stories of the deceased, eating, praying, visiting the grave all the activities that you might participate in when a loved one dies. It is interesting that the gospel writer John does let us know that the “Jews,” who are in this gospel the authorities, are here. Were Lazarus or Mary and Martha important to the authorities somehow? Were they a prominent family? Or was it that they were close to Jesus and they thought that this was another opportunity perhaps to see what Jesus is up to? It could be any or all those things, we don’t know, but I get the sense that their presence wasn’t completely altruistic. And I think Jesus knows it. Martha met Jesus on his way and the first words out of her mouth were “if you had been here.” Martha was probably replaying the sickness and death of her beloved brother over and over in her mind and now seeing Jesus was another piece in her attempt to make sense of a senseless experience. Jesus if you had done what I wanted you to do. Jesus doesn’t offer platitudes of “God needed another angel,” or “this was God’s will,” or didn’t even offer an “I’m sorry he died.” Jesus simply states: “Your brother will rise again.” Now Martha’s response is less surprising than we might think as there was a strand of Jewish Pharisaic theology that did believe in resurrection. But it wasn’t quite what we think of resurrection as followers of Jesus, it was more of a what happens on judgment day or the Day of the Lord from the Hebrew Bible. Jesus knows this and gently offers that there is more to it than that. Jesus is the resurrection and the life, not just someday in the far off future, but right now, even when we wonder “if only” and even when we don’t like or understand our current circumstances. Martha then gets Mary, and the Jews follow her as she too, goes to Jesus. Ironically, or predictably, Mary’s first words to Jesus are the same at Martha’s “if you had been here.”

Jesus sees her tears, sees the Jews and then gets mad. The gentle translation of “greatly disturbed” doesn’t do justice to the Greek, which means indignation. Jesus is angry. He is angry and moved, that is he is overcome with many emotions at once. He’s angry that the Jewish authorities are using Lazarus’ death for their own gain, he’s angry that death is a part of his dear friend’s existence at all. He’s moved to tears that this is humanity’s reality. Jesus is moved to tears amid the many emotions himself and of others around him. We have a God who is with us in sorrow and cries with us in sorrow and fear.

Jesus goes to the tomb, and when he says to roll away the stone, Martha interjects that is a bad idea, Lazarus has been dead long enough that there will be the stench of death in the air. But Jesus then offer his own “if” statement. If you believe, you will see the glory of God. Jesus then prays and calls Lazarus by name and Lazarus emerges from the tomb, bound in death wrappings. Jesus says to those present to unbind him from the trappings of death.

We find ourselves in a time when we are asking ourselves, and God “if ” questions. If someone had contained this virus sooner, if we could figure out how to cure it or treat it, if we weren’t so vulnerable from it, if this wouldn’t affect the economy, if this didn’t require so much sacrifice, if we weren’t so afraid and uncertain. But Jesus comes to us in our “ifs” and offers to us belief. Believing isn’t some naïve ascent to wishful or magical thinking, it’s not like those prayer forwards that we all get that say “if you forward this to ten friends then your prayer will be answered.” Belief is like love, it is a gift from God, and it is tenacious and foundational. Believing is how we orient our vision and hearts to live in painful times and in suffering. Believing doesn’t mean that nothing bad will ever happen, but what it does mean is that you will see God at work even when it only looks like death, you will see God who takes our chaos and brings order, you will see how God takes our attempts at logic and control and reminds us that there is more than we can see. Through Jesus, we are freed from the “ifs” of our lives. Jesus unbinds us from “ifs” to freedom, to community, to service and to love.  We are freed to hear Jesus call our names and we unbind each other, as Lazarus’ friends unbound him, for life. Life that is not certain but life where hope is alive and present through Jesus Christ. We believe because of Jesus’ love and we look for abundant life and possibility where others see finality and despair.  We believe and so we see the opportunities before us as a congregation and as individuals, to unbind each other from fear and death to freedom, for the sake of being this abundant life and freedom in our community. In the coming days and weeks and probably months, we will be called on to serve our community in ways we’ve never imagined. But this is God’s people unbound, not stuck in the “ifs” but freed to the reality of God’s love and presence no matter where we are, how isolated we might physically be. We believe and we shed the trappings of death for life. Amen.

 

How running saved my life November 15, 2013

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I have seen a lot of blogs about running lately. Some of you who know me well, have already rolled their eyes knowing I am about to launch into a post on running. It’s ok, you can admit it.
One was about someone complaining about runners or more specifically about runners who post the “13.1” or the “26.2” stickers on their cars. It bothers him that people are proud of their accomplishments. Whatever. I have run several half marathons (9 maybe?) and 3 full marathons and a smattering of 5k and 10k’s. I don’t have any stickers on my car; not because I am not proud of my accomplishments or that I don’t see myself as a legitimate runner. Accomplishments or pride is not why I run. And don’t think its my way of saying that competition doesn’t matter-oh it does. I am highly competitive, especially with myself. But running for me has more to do defiance, fear and grief.
I ran a little as a teenager and a young adult. My first run was with my dad at the age of 10. My dad ran to stay in shape for the Air Force and when my dad asked me to come with him, I was excited as I loved to spend time with my dad. I ran track in middle school and then ran VERY sporadically in young adulthood. Mostly for just a little while after the birth of Kayla and Andrew until the need for sleep overcame my vanity for losing the baby weight. But then came my third child Benjamin.
He was a surprise in every sense of the word. My husband and I were not planning on more children and even (TMI alert!) were taking “precautions” that no more babies would be coming. But on a day in mid February we realized that birth control is not 100% effective. It’s a little embarrassing at 30. To quote my mother, “Aren’t you a little old for this?” Apparently not.
Benjamin was born on Oct. 13th, 2003 and on Oct. 15th after a couple of stressful days in NICU was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect. Officially, “incomplete Shones complex.” Shones is a combination of four defects: supravalvular mitral valve, sub-aortic stenosis (narrowing) aortic valve stenosis and coarctation of the aorta. Ben “only” had three of the four. He was missing the coarctation of the aorta BUT instead had a sub aortic membrane, so….
Ben had his first open heart surgery at the age of barely seven months. He did wonderfully and recovered almost miraculously. One week to the day of his surgery this spunky seven month old popped up on all fours and began to crawl! Yes we COMPLETELY freaked out. Turns out the doctor was cool with this. It drove Mike and I crazy to watch. Such as parenting a special needs child.
But after this surgery I had a epiphany that I had a SPECIAL NEEDS child. OMG! I can never get sick, be incapacitated, or die. I need to be able to care for Ben FOREVER. I looked in the mirror and realized I needed to drop about 25 pounds to be healthy pronto. So I began to run. I dragged a couple of neighbors with me. We would run to the end of the block and then walk a while then we would pick a point in the distance and run to that. We began to run more and more with less walking. My friends dropped off but I kept going. Spurred on by rapid weight lose (I was 31 people-still had metabolism) and feeling better I ran everyday. My best friend who lived too far to run with me was running independently too. On her 30th birthday (I was already 32, sigh) she decided she would run for 30 minutes without stopping. So not to be outdone by someone younger I did too. Soon this was the norm.
Ben’s health deteriorated and by January he needed another open heart surgery- a Ross-Kono double valve switch. Yes that is as serious as it sounds. His aortic and pulmonary valve would be switched and part of his sub aorta removed. This surgery did not go well. He had critical complications such as a damaged tricuspid valve as well as having two strokes. After two and a half weeks he was able to come home for about three days before he went into congestive heart failure at home. He was placed on a ventilator and we awaited a donor tricuspid valve. One donor valve fell through but two days later we had another donor. That morning, Ash Wednesday, Ben went into surgery. Personally, I think he and God had a conversation and because this mama “don’t raise no fools” Ben looked into the face of Jesus and picked that. He died at 9:33 a.m. on Ash Wednesday. I knew the exact moment he died before the staff even told me. I went cold from the inside out. I cried out, “He’s gone.” Leta, my best friend, looked at her watch and yes, that was his time of death.
I ran laps around the hospital every morning while Ben was in ICU. It gave me a focus. And the endomorph-in’s probably helped me too. After Ben died I was despondent. After his burial and memorial service I found that I didn’t want to get out of bed. Ben’s case manager nurse Lesley, and I had become friends. She would call everyday and ask if I was out of bed. The answer was usually “no.” She would tell me that she would call back in a couple of hours and she wanted to hear that I had gone for a run. I don’t know why but I would listen to her and I would go for a 30 minute run. Sure enough, I felt less like killing myself after a run. Huh.
At Ben’s memorial service, Lesley suggested that maybe we could train for the Portland marathon and raise money for the Legacy Emanuel Children’s hospital. (Yes, the irony of a pastor’s child being at a hospital named Emanuel is not lost on me.) I foolishly agreed. I needed a grief project. So Lesley would call daily and I would run. Then we began to run together from time to time. Then we had to extend our runs even longer. An hour, two hours, three hours. With each mile, we talked about our lives, our grief, our issues and at the end of 12, 14, 16, 18 miles-we were new people. Tired people but new people.
I was eventually put on an antidepressant by my therapist (I highly recommend therapy for depression and if you are offered medication take it! It’s awesome!) but it was my running that truly saved my sanity I believe. On my runs I would process the shit that had invaded my life, my grief, my anger at God, my anger at myself (why did I not take better care of Ben?) and anger in general.
But with each step, each mile, each long run, I was getting my life together. I was getting my emotions together and putting a life back together.
When we ran the Portland Marathon eight months after Ben died, It was more than just a running race. It was a defiance of life over death, hope over despair and love over all. My church had joined the cause and put together Team Ben and about 20 of us ran to raise money for the hospital and for Ben’s surgeon who was a Syrian and ran a hospital in Armenia for those in that region who could not afford open heart surgery. Dr. Hagop did not have a house, a car, a girlfriend or any real possessions. He lived in his hospital in Armenia, came to Portland to operate and make as much money as he could to pour back into his hospital. He was a globally renowned pediatric heart surgeon-one of the best in the world-and he could have been a very rich man. But instead he put every dime he made into a hospital for kids who needed it most. We were proud to over the course of three years raise about $12,000 for his hospital. That’s open heart surgery for about 4 children in Armenia. Over the same three years Team Ben raised $18,000 for Emanuel Children’s hospital.
Running is not necessarily about fitness, or racing but it is about life. I often will say that running saved my life-my physical life, my faith life, my whole life. Running is how I remember that life is not about me. Everyday I run and pray for friends, family, co workers, and think about my family, Mike, Kayla, Andrew and Ben. Running is a reminder that I CAN run when others can’t and how I will I live today for the sake of others and the world.