Sylvania United Church of Christ
Claimed by God, Responding as Disciples
Worship - People


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The sermon for week April 10, 2011

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SETTING FOR MIRACLE, John 11:38-44 (1-44), Ezekiel 37:11-14

I believe, always, Jesus is in the room with us. When I wrote this, the first line of my sermon, I thought, now, where am I going to go with this?

First, I could say, Jesus was with me in the room in which I prepared this sermon. Second, I could say Jesus is in this room, today, as we worship, reciting Jesus own words, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Jesus is always there, in whatever room we find ourselves, in whatever situation or circumstance, but to merely understand this statement literally is inadequate to probe the depth of His presence with us. The reality is to great. Jesus informs our imagination, quickens our conscience, inspires our dreams, His teachings correct our actions, His spirit provides us comfort, His life provides a hope that will not die.

Jesus mirrors the image of God, and for me that image is of love, and their is no place where I can go in this life that that love cannot be found, even if it be the loneliest corner of the world, or when at the darkest time that love seems far away, still, even there words of life are whispered to us saying, not yet, carry on, lo, I am with you to the end of the age.

A number of years ago Sharon and I received a phone call in the middle of the night, a call that is a parent’s worst nightmare. Our daughter, in her junior year in college, was studying abroad for a semester in Birmingham, England. The call was from Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, telling us that our daughter had been admitted to the hospital and was then a patient in the Intensive Care Unit.

To get there, and it was decided I would be the one to go, I not only needed to get a passport but discovered I didn’t have a valid birth certificate which I needed to get an emergency passport. Through the helpful guidance of friends I was able to secure a birth certificate and within less than a week I flew to Chicago, landing at Mid Way Airport, drove into downtown Chicago, applied for the passport in the morning, received the passport in the afternoon, took a train to O’Hara Airport and that evening was on a British Airline flight to London.

The same message applies, Jesus was with me in every room or space I entered, every airport terminal, every plane, and all the streets of downtown Chicago where I paced, praying only, “Please, God, please,” as I waited for my passport to be approved.

There is no place or room where Jesus is not. Mary and Martha had thought Jesus got to the place too late, their brother Lazarus was already dead when he arrived, but the God we see in Jesus was always there and Jesus knowing this to be could profess these things had happened for God’s glory, days before he spoke to Mary and Martha. There was that way, before Jesus arrived in Bethany, the Love of God revealed in Jesus was with Mary and Martha in the room when Lazarus died, and the same Love was with them when they laid Lazarus in the tomb, though it would be four days before they would speak to Jesus.

Now, you may not frame it the way I have. You may not speak the way I have spoken, but what I am telling you is there is a force that calls us out of darkness and is with us in every room and every place we find ourselves. It is not benign but benevolent. It is not of death but of life. Some might use the word, “Force,” some might name it “Life Itself,” others might say of it, “an Energy,” some might not name it at all, or even consider it, but I am saying, there is a presence, what perhaps Paul Tillich calls, “Ground of Being,” this side of life, in life, calling us always to life, shouting, as Jesus did at the mouth of the grave, “Come forth.”

Jesus is in the room. Secondly, there are others, in memory or in person, in the same room, the same place we are, always, and their purpose is the same as Jesus, loving us, supporting us, encouraging us, wanting only that we have life and the we experience it abundantly.

Who are these others? They are your family and friends. They are the people who love you. They are your Mary and Martha's.

Oh, how much Mary and Martha loved Lazarus. What joy it is to know that we are loved by a sister or brother, a mother or father, a wife, husband, grandparent, aunt or uncle, to know that there is someone there, whose love for us never tires. That love is in them for us, far deeper than we can ever earn or warrant, and however far astray we may wonder, including when we die, we know that love they have for us does not, will not die. And there are others, teachers we have known, friends we have had, people, who for whatever reason have been in our corner.

Yet, there are still others, perhaps even people we don’t know. I pause for a moment in the story of Lazarus and I look at the men whose hands are upon the rock that needs to be rolled away from the grave. I ask myself, who are these men, and I realize they might not even know Lazarus or only know him as an acquaintance, but they are there to help, and I think of all the men and women everywhere who give their time, share their talent, use their muscle that others might have life.

I think of volunteers dishing out food at St. Paul’s Community Center. I think about the volunteer carpenters, painters and plumbers raising a Habitat for Humanity house in Toledo. I think about the Japanese workers putting their lives at risk to help bring the nuclear disaster under control. I think about all the people along the way from Toledo to Birmingham that in so many different ways helped me reach my daughter, including the church I was pastoring, and as I think about the scene in Bethany with Jesus and Mary and Martha and all the mourners and laborers who rolled away the stone, I think about this church.

I am struck how much each church resembles in its own unique way the scene at Bethany. There is Jesus at the center. There are all the Mary and Martha’s, the people who love and accept us in the church, and there are the workers, the people who roll away the stones. Hilary Clinton wrote a book entitled, It takes a Village to Raise a Child, and I would write one entitled, It Takes a Whole Church to Heal One Person.

It takes the person who is praying and the person who is cooking the meal to deliver to the home. It takes the person to provide the inspiration and the person to provide the transportation. It takes the person to give the welcome handshake and the person who won’t let go of that hand when the needs become greater, and day after day, week after week these are the people I see at Sylvania UCC. It is like being in the village of Bethany on that day Jesus shouted out, “Lazarus, come forth,” and Lazarus, dead for four days stepped out of the tomb, one of the small caves that dotted the hillside.

But, here is the rest of the miracle. Lazarus’ name was not the only name on Jesus’ lips that day. Jesus spoke our name as well. The scene at Bethany is in every day, and somewhere Jesus is calling out someone’s name to come forth from the grave. At some point in our lives, and probably more than once, we will find ourselves stuck behind a rock enclosing a tomb. It might be an addiction we cannot kick. It might be a disease we cannot cure, a depression that will not lift, the impotency of a decision we cannot make. It might be our grief, our disappointments, our failures, or our sin, but we are trapped in a place where there is no light and the darkness conceals all promise.

There in those places Jesus commands someone to remove the rocks that keep us trapped, like those who removed the boulders trapping the still living after the tsunami in Japan, and he shouts out our name into the pit and calls us to come out.

Now, however, here is the most important point to remember from this story and this sermon - it is that this is not a story of the resurrection to eternal life. Lazarus will die again. He will one day, sleep the sleep of eternal death, and Jesus will be there, on the other side of the grave, calling Lazarus to eternal life, but this is not that resurrection. This is a resurrection to this life. Jesus stands in this life, on this side of the tomb, calling Lazarus back into this life, be it for a day or week, a year or decade.

And for now this is where we hear his voice. He is in the room with us, wherever we are, there is no place we can go where he is not, and he is calling us out from those dark places in our soul to stand with him in the sunlight of this day. He is calling us out of our addiction, our failures, our sin, our disappointments, our heartaches, our grief, our anger, our sadness, and saying, begin again. The story of Lazarus is the story of second chances. This is an invitation to stand in the sunlight of this day, on this earth, in this place, and when you do it is the same for you as it was for the raising of Lazarus. God’s glory is revealed. When you say Yes to this life, all that is Holy and Sacred is revealed.

The psalmist says, “This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Embrace it. Carpe Diem. Seize the moment. Let tomorrow worry about its own troubles. And Lazarus, dead for four days, came forth, and this is what you have to do. There is a moment that belongs only to you, and that is in the decision as to whether you are going to respond, or not. Only you can take the first step out of the darkness.

But, here is what I promise you, if you begin that journey into this day, this life, here is what you will find: There are people who love you here. There are parents, spouses, family members, friends, church members, people who love you. The world is filed with Mary and Martha’s and lot them are in church and they want nothing else than for you to be in their life and part of it. And, my second promise to you is that the world is filled with people, people you probably don’t even know, who are going to do everything they can to support you, encourage you and help you get out of those grave clothes. The world is filled with people who will help roll away the stone, making possible my trip to Birmingham and my daughter’s full recovery.

Louis Armstrong sang it best, “It’s a Wonderful World.”

I see skies of blue, and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.
Yes, I think to myself, what a wonderful world.

And, however you want to frame it or speak of it...As the Ground of Being in which we all participate and move and are sustained and have our being...or the evolutionary movement that seems to have a purpose...or the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob...or simply as life itself..I can assure you, Jesus is in the room, this place, this life, this day, with you, calling you to live this life abundantly, and it begins with that first step you take out of the darkness. And, it begins each day when out of the darkness of the night and sleep, you awake to the morning light and on this day, choose life.


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