Sunday, March 29, 2020


John 11:1-45; Ezekiel 37:1-14

Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.

Martha says that to Jesus, and then Mary says it, too. The exact same thing.
It’s how they greet Jesus, today.
I suppose there could have been small talk and warm up conversation that got lost in transcription, but either way, one after another, the sisters see Jesus and get right to the point:
You would have saved him. If you were here.

Theologians sometimes imagine a tone of conviction and faith in those words: that Jesus holds God’s power over life and death, that Jesus is God. Many of us are more likely to empathize with a tone of accusation, or guilt, uncertainty, anger, hope… any or all of those emotions we feel when death comes close to home.

Whatever their tone, though, those words go straight to the heart of the story.
When Lazarus died, Jesus wasn’t there.
It never fails to irritate me when I read this story that Jesus hears the news that Lazarus is dying and consciously, clearly, waits.

The story of Lazarus is a miracle story; a story that reveals the power of God and the promise of resurrection.
But it’s also a story of God’s delay.
Of Jesus waiting to come in to a situation of loss and grief where God is very sorely needed.

That delay – that uncertain and apparently unreasonable waiting for God to come when we’ve called; that waiting for a miracle that doesn’t come – may actually be more familiar to many of us than miracles are.

We’ve collectively gotten used to the idea that God works on a different timeline, with different priorities than our own.  Both the history of faith and our own experience tell us that sometimes God doesn’t appear to act until we’ve quit hoping for miracles; when the feeling of need has basically dried up, like that valley of bones in Ezekiel’s vision.

Many of us know that God mostly doesn’t cure cancer or bring clean release – or solve hunger or poverty or a pandemic virus – when we first ask.

But that doesn’t diminish the grief when someone dies; when we lose identity, or support, or anything we love. Our general acceptance of God’s different timeline doesn’t necessarily soothe the agony of needing a miracle in our immediate lives, and not seeing it coming.

So I get irritated and irritable when I read this story,
and I recognize that there is a part of me looking out toward God and saying,
Lord, if you had been here, this virus wouldn’t have….
wouldn’t have….
I don’t know, honestly, but wouldn’t have something. Right?

I’ve been seeing lots of articles recently about the formless sense of loss and grief that we’re all more or less immersed in these days.

We’ve all lost something – a sense of freedom and space, a celebration or rite of passage that means the world.
We’ve lost time with loved ones, or the easiness of connection with one another in community. Many have the anxiety and struggle of concrete losses of jobs and economic security. Some have deaths or near-deaths close to us.
We’ve all lost a sense of predictability; we grieve uncertainly for the losses that may yet come.

I can’t be the only one feeling like God could heal this; if God only would.
And to know, at the same time, that this is going to go on for a while yet.

And in the middle of that need, today, we read stories of impossible miracles; stories of the resurrection of the dead. Stories about Jesus, about God, stepping into these situations of loss and grief, of sharp bereavement or long, dry desolation, and bringing life.

For some of us, those stories are enough, as a reminder of God’s power and grace, to heal the tears in our spirits, as we face uncertainty together, to bring back life within us.

Many of us may also long for more.
And Ezekiel and John, God and Jesus, know we need more.

When God tells Ezekiel to prophesy life back into those dusty, hopeless dry bones, it’s not just muscle and skin and breath that God cares about. It’s also the knowledge of God. “Then you shall live and you shall know that I am the Lord”, God says.
This knowledge of God isn’t an intellectual understanding. It’s a feeling in our very bones of the certainty of God’s love for us and our love for God.
Certainty in our bones.

When Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb, and when he waits those long two days for Lazarus to die, he does it, he says, so that we may believe.
Belief that’s not agreement on facts, but rather a certainty, a trust, embedded in our hearts, that God is walking around in our world right now, that God is coming close to us to heal us and draw us closer to God. 

Jesus waits for that for us, God wants that for us, so that we have firm ground under our feet, rich trust in our hearts, when dry desolation or sharp-edged loss or formless grief are all around.

God wants that for us – wants that deep rooted security and trust for us – even more, I think, than we can want it for ourselves.

Seeking God’s help in grief and loss – seeking closer connection with God in isolation, uncertainty, and exile – are things I’m trained for, and things all of us are always called to do; both for ourselves, and to help one another.
And if you’re here today [watching online], you’re already trying.
Many of you are actively working to stay connected to God. Many are trying to serve as God’s hands and feet to nurture and connect others; to take the edge off of the losses of separation and support that all of us are experiencing these days, as well as to help God and our medical professionals save lives by staying at home and washing our hands, long after we’re tired of both (and getting sore).

But these stories we read today are also stories of God’s intent and power to bring that deep, connected, trust in God to us when we are far beyond our ability to help ourselves, or those we love.

Resurrection is certainly above my pay grade, and probably above yours.
But it’s an adventure God is inviting us to anyway;
a confrontation with loneliness and uncertainty and loss;
a confrontation with the slow grinding of anxiety and everything else in this world that dries up hope and cuts connection;
a confrontation through which God brings us (or sometimes drags us) into that bone-deep certainty of God’s love that IS new life, even in the middle of that same uncertainty, separation, waiting and grief that feel like death or exile.

We’ll be here a while, you and I, in this strange uncertain landscape.
This story we are living is full of delays and is not nearly solved or sorted yet.
We’ve got a lot more waiting to do, complete with uncertainty and griefs, large and small.

So God is inviting us, in the shadow of death, not so much to wait for Jesus, but to wait with Jesus. To wait (and to act when we can) in that that steady, heartbeat of trust in God’s presence and healing that God is working to breathe into us. That trust that IS the miracle we’ve been waiting for, here and now.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Thirsty for God

Exodus 17:1-7; John 4:5-42

It’s been a week of anxiety and confusion, hasn’t it?
Every time we turned around, the precautions we are taking as a society to help slow the spread of this new coronavirus have changed.  Will there be school? book club? March Madness? business meetings? church??
What’s canceled now, and what’s open? How is that different from this morning? from 30 minutes ago?

And then, as the closings escalated…. well, if you’ve been to a grocery store in the last 48 hours, you’ve been in a wilderness of anxiety and scarcity.
A place of confusion, complaint, and thirst.

It’s not just that the bottled water has been in short supply for a week or more now. Groceries, general goods stores, and the internet have become places where we are now vividly conscious of our need for the essential things necessary to sustain life.

That’s thirst.
The thirst that God’s people experienced in the wilderness, when they’ve made camp in the region of Rephidim, and they discover that there’s really no water here. God’s already providing manna and quail, so they can eat. But without water… without water, we simply can’t live.

It’s not even a tiny bit surprising – perfectly reasonable, in fact – that the people turn to Moses, God’s direct representative among them, and demand water. Demand what will save their lives.
No surprise, honestly, that they do it with complaint and anger and accusation.

It’s not surprising to me, either, that the fundamental question God’s people are asking isn’t just “where’s the water?”, but “What happened to God??”
Did God abandon us, now? Did God bring us out here to die?
Is the Lord among us, or not?

Those are the questions that often underlie our sense of anxiety and danger. The often unconscious triggers of our irritability, bursts of selfishness, or loud complaint in situations of uncertainty and scarcity.
It’s that question about whether we still matter. Are we no longer loved by God? How could God let this happen to me, to us? Is God just not paying attention?

Are we still the people of God, if the outward and visible signs of God’s care for us are gone? If the things we depend on to assure us of God’s grace are being withheld?

The warnings not to touch one another right now, the decision not to gather in person for prayer and assurance, the upheavals in our sense of blessing and security at the communion rail have stirred some of this anxiety in God’s church here and now. We know what it feels like to be thirsty for that baseline sense of God’s presence and care that we’ve gotten used to.

Of course, it affects many of us differently than others. Some of us even find assurance and care in the decision to step back from communion and public worship.
And others of us may just not be wondering about God at all – other pains and needs, other challenges and absences have more of our attention.

Sort of like that woman Jesus meets today, in the quiet noon at Jacob’s well.
She knows she’ll find the basic life necessity of water in the well, haul it home, and keep working on daily life. She’s gotten used to living with problems, used to a life without many signs of God’s grace and care for her.
There are, it turns out, a number of explanations for why a woman of first-century Samaria would have had five husbands and now be living with some other man. Many of them are no fault of her own; all of them suggest a history of things going wrong, of troubles uneasily survived, of becoming that unlucky person that no one wants around any more.
She’s gotten used to living without evidence of God’s presence and grace, and she’s not aware of her thirst for much of anything – except maybe a common drink of water – when she comes to the well.

But Jesus stirs up her thirst,
asking her – unfortunate, weary her – to give him water,
and then tantalizing her with living, running, unquenchable water – and reminding her of all that mess in her life that needs the healing and grace of God.

It’s probably not an accident that after he stirs up her thirst, she starts asking him those questions about where we truly find God.  Here, on the mountain our ancestors have worshipped on? There at your Temple in Jerusalem? Where’s our real access to God? Does God even care?

Jesus’ fundamental answer to her questions is “I AM.”
It’s a declaration of the real, vivid, presence of God right there in his body in front of her at that well in the middle of the most ordinary of days. It doesn’t matter what mountain you worship on. God is here. I am.

These stories about thirst that we read today are really stories about the revelation of the presence of God.
That woman has such a powerful experience of the presence of God, of the care and grace of God poured into the numb, exhausting shadows of her life, that she drops her bucket and races into town to tell the world, to ask them to share her experience of God and affirm it for her – to make it real by sharing it.

And God doesn’t just pop open a river by the thirsty camp in the wilderness. He calls Moses and the elders – the trustworthy witnesses and leaders of the people – out to a place where God will be standing right in front of them as they find the water God provides.
Water that saves our physical lives; the trustworthy assurance of God’s presence, God’s active care, that heals our souls of the dry blistering of uncertainty, anxiety, doubt and fear.

When the ordinary signs of God’s care for us go missing; when our basic assurances of comfort and love are dried up or disappeared,
God is going to break open some new way of revealing God’s self to us.
Sometimes that means that God is going to stir up our thirst, awaken longings we’ve long since learned to ignore. Sometimes we’ll get cranky in the delay between our awareness of this thirst for love and holiness, when we feel how hard it is to live when that God-shaped well in our hearts feels empty.
But every time – every time – God will reveal God’s self in acts of salvation and healing, love and care, embracing our needs and doubts in God’s overwhelming love.

I don’t know what the next month or two holds for us.
I’m not even sure about this week, or what may change by tomorrow.
I know we’ll be out in this wilderness for a while, and that there’s every chance we’re going to feel our spiritual and emotional and even physical thirst repeatedly.

So I’m asking you to join me in intentionally receiving the revelations of God that are happening even now, in response to our thirst, and the thirst of others.
Maybe it’s simple kindnesses in those chaotic grocery stores – or at food pantries and on neighbors’ doorsteps.
Maybe it’s a decision you didn’t want to make that somehow relives your anxiety anyway.
Maybe it’s a word of truth and trust that you discover because suddenly you’ve got to read the Bible or pray at home – or the stirring in your own heart by which God invites you to a new kind of prayer.
Maybe it’s a miracle of cooperative action or unexplained chance that spreads healing or saves the vulnerable.
Keep your heart open; and pay attention to your thirst,
and even to your anxiety, uncertainty, and doubt,
because God is about to reveal God’s self,
to astonish us with the vividness of divine presence and the salvation of God’s loving care.
To assure us that yes, always, with us and for us, God is here.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Ready for the Test

Matthew 4:1-11

Are you ready for temptation?
Jesus is.
Jesus knows what’s going to happen in his 40 days of wilderness. And he has a plan for that.

At least, that seems to be the way Matthew tells the story.
Immediately after Jesus is baptized and publicly recognized as the Son of God, Matthew tells us he is launched by God’s Spirit into the wilderness to be tested by the devil, the deceiver.
Three gospel writers tell this story of the Spirit taking Jesus to the wilderness, and only Matthew tells us that it’s specifically for the purpose of this encounter with the devil.
And only in Matthew do we see Jesus dismiss the devil when he’s done – and see the devil obey. “Go away, Satan!” Jesus says; and the tester promptly goes.

It’s as though you or I got to set the conditions for an important job interview, or a qualifying exam. As if we went into it knowing maybe not the questions we’ll be asked, but exactly what we need to accomplish in our responses. And we get to decide when we’re done.

I’m not saying this makes it easy for Jesus in the wilderness (or for you or me), but it makes me curious about just why Jesus would do this; why Matthew tells us the story this way.
And I think there are two reasons: first, that Jesus chooses this, Matthew uses this, specifically to reveal Jesus. To show us what kind of Son of God he really is; how he’s connected to God, how he can lead and save us.

The other reason I believe Jesus does this, and that Matthew tells the story this way, is to give us a model. Jesus resists temptations by relying on the Word of God; reveals that his strength and his identity are grounded in his relationship to God. So we can learn to use those same tools to ground our own strength and identity, to resist evil when evil comes looking for us.

Each time the tester challenges Jesus to prove himself as Son of God – by miraculous power, spectacular protection, or the rule of all the earth – Jesus models for us how we are supposed to act: by letting God be God; leaning into God’s resources instead of our own; trusting God and following God’s commandments.

Each time, Jesus quotes scripture. Quotes the commandments and advice that Moses gives to God’s people on the threshold of the promised land:
Worship the Lord your God; serve only God.
Do not put the Lord your God to the test.
One does not live by bread alone, but by every word from the mouth of God.

This is not about how to earn our way into God’s favor, but about how to live in the promised land; how to live in that place where all we need to thrive – and more – is already provided by God. To constantly depend on God in gratitude and trust, not depend on ourselves or on alternatives to God.

What makes Jesus the Son of God is that in his humanity, in the same imperfect and stressful world we live in, he lives completely in the kingdom of God, even in this wilderness that looks like the opposite of the promised land. And invites us – shows us how – to do the same.

When you and I meet temptation; when we encounter the subtle or blatant evil and deception that tries to separate us from our trust in God, Jesus invites us to double down on that trust.
When the world presents us with anxiety and fear; pressures us to succeed at all costs, to be just a little richer, a little more admired, comfortable, secure, Jesus invites us to place all our own resources in God’s hands and live as though we are already in the land of promise where we don’t need any more at all. To live in our certainty that God has already provided all we need to thrive, even when we’re getting our noses rubbed in our hunger, our fears, our desires, and the utter inadequacies of this world.

Living in the land of promise while we’re in the modern wilderness isn’t necessarily easy to do.
It may be particularly hard when the news is full of our fears of death and the unknown; of weakness and insecurity (in the form, say, of a new pandemic virus).  Or it may be easy for you to face a virus with full trust in God, but security in retirement, or success in school and work, the responsibilities and demands of everyday life, feel like things God can’t help with.

Whatever it is that is tempting us to rely on ourselves, or put our trust in something other than God, Jesus in the wilderness reminds us that what ultimately and primarily feeds us, protects us, and guides us is our worship of God, our trust in God, and the Word of God. These are what we need to meet temptation and evil; to be prepared for the test that reveals our selves.

The practices of Lent – the things we take up or give up – are meant to strengthen our worship, our trust, and our groundedness in God’s Word.  So if taking up a service to others or a new form of prayer make you proud of your own accomplishments, it may be time to give up coffee instead and really feel your dependence. If giving up chocolate or soda is an exercise in your own willpower, maybe it’s time to take up Bible Study instead, and lean into God’s will; God’s story instead of your own.

In fact, Jesus models for us today that the life-giving Word of God is the place where our life in the land of promise starts; in the word that feeds us more than bread and provides the firm foundation of the worship and trust that protect us from other temptations.

Episcopalians aren’t generally as well trained to quote scripture as first-century rabbis like Jesus. But we do need to know what Word of God grounds us, what we live by.

I tend to lean into phrases from the Psalms –“The Lord is my light and salvation, whom then shall I fear?” –
and Paul’s letter to the Philippians:
 “Rejoice in the Lord always…The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer…with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God…”
I lean into those because they trigger a welling-up of peace and trust, and remind me that God conquers fear and anxiety, and is just waiting for me to bring my needs to God.
And Jesus’ own command to love our neighbors as ourselves keeps my priorities straight.

Maybe for you, it’s another promise or assurance in scripture – that God is with us in the valley of the shadow; that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God; that the poor will receive the kingdom of God; that a mustard-seed of faith can move mountains – that protects your heart from evil. 
Maybe it’s another commandment of Jesus: “Love one another as I have loved you; take up your cross; ask, seek, and knock; feed my sheep…” that grounds you and shapes your decision making.

If you already know what word of God resonates within you, contains your deepest longings and protects you from your fears, lean into that this Lent.
And if you don’t know what it is for you, now is the time to learn, the time to dive into the Word of God and find it. Lent is the practice wilderness in which we find and renew in ourselves that trust in the Word of God that feeds, protects, and awes us, so that we are rooted and grounded in God.

So that we are prepared for temptation and it has no power over us: so we are ready for the test that reveals God’s work within us,
like Jesus, with Jesus,
today and always.