Sunday, March 13, 2005

How About Them Apples? (Sermon for Lent 5A)

A sermon preached by the Rev. Jason A. Fout
on March 13, 2005, Lent 5A
in St. Paul's Episcopal Church, St. Joseph, MI

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Sometimes it pays to stop and look around, to see where we’ve been and anticipate where we are going. We do this because we can pick up on themes and movements that we might not see otherwise. Sometimes we might become so enraptured by each tree that we fail to recognize that there is a rather splendid orchard right in front of us.

This can be especially true of the lectionary, the Bible readings we hear each week in church. Generally, the lessons each week are so rich they are like an apple tree. We can stand here in the morning and pick and eat enough fruit to keep us full for the week.

But we can also take a step back and see that this is no isolated tree, but part of a vast, majestic orchard that stretches to the horizon. This morning I propose to survey a small part of this orchard. Together, we might taste-test some of the fruit we find.
Continue reading How About Them Apples

All through Lent* we have been reading the gospel of John, and I’m sure you’ve noticed that the lessons all have one thing in common: they are all very long! But, seriously, they have more in common than that: each is an extended story of someone interacting with Jesus. Some of the people are strangers, like Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, or the man born blind. Others are friends, like Mary, Martha and Lazarus today. The point is that with these longer stories we get to see Jesus in action, get to hear him speak, and get a feel for who he is.

Three weeks ago, we heard about Jesus and Nicodemus, a religious teacher. In this encounter, Jesus showed that he was the True Teacher of Israel, sent by God. He also said that he was the Son of Man who must be raised up and offered on behalf of the world. Already, this early in Lent, we are looking ahead to the cross.

Two weeks ago, we heard a story about Jesus and a Samaritan woman. Jesus went against a taboo of the time, and had a long talk with this woman. Through it, Jesus tantalized her with talk about living water, and he got down to the heart of the matter about her odd living situation. Finally, like nothing if not Proteus being pinned, he admits to her “I am [Messiah], the one who is speaking to you.” And she goes and tells other Samaritans, who declare that “we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the World.” Already, this early in Lent, we see that Jesus is good news to surprising people.

Last week, we heard about Jesus healing a man born blind. The text says that this kind of cure was something unheard of since the beginning of the world. At the end of the story, the man who had been healed is cast out and ends up with Jesus, who declares to him that he has seen the Son of Man. Jesus gave him sight, and in so doing this man saw what the others could not or would not see. Perhaps the most significant part of this story is at the end, where the man who could see worships Jesus, in Jewish culture something reserved for God alone. Already, this early in Lent, we see that the one who gives sight to the blind is worthy of the worship given to God.

This week, there is a story about Jesus and his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Lazarus has become sick and so they summon Jesus to be with them. In times of death and sickness, family and close friends are the ones privileged to be present, and so they want Jesus to come. But he hangs back, only coming after two days, when he knows Lazarus was dead. When he arrives, both Mary and Martha accuse him, whether out of belief or sheer sorrow we don’t know. Each of them says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Jesus is overcome with emotion, for Lazarus in his death, for Mary and Martha in their loss. He knows that Lazarus will be raised to God’s glory, but he also knows that there is still loss, still a price. And the language from this passage: the tomb, a stone, even the question “Where have you laid him?” all of this looks ahead to the cross and tomb and resurrection of Jesus. Already, this early in Lent, we start to catch glimpses of Easter, hints that even death is no limitation for Jesus.

So over these past four weeks we have caught a glimpse of who this Jesus is. Jesus is the True Teacher of Israel, speaking to the covenant people of God. Jesus is good news to people all over the world, including some folks who might surprise us. Jesus is the true healer, bringing sight to the blind, light to the darkness, and life to the dead. Jesus is worthy of worship as God, yet also is intimately present with us in our grief and sorrow, and our love and joy. And of course the key to the story is Jesus’ cross, death and resurrection, which these texts help us to look forward to. That’s a lot for four weeks! But as I said, sometimes it pays to stop and look around, to see where we’ve been and where we’re going, to see the orchard as well as the apple tree.

I think there’s still an apple or two from this orchard that we might polish up and bite into.

The first apple is this: in each of these four stories Jesus doesn’t just talk about himself in plain language, and then his listeners fall on their faces and worship. It’s never that clear or unambiguous. In each of these stories, you get a keen sense of bewilderment, of people not quite getting what Jesus is saying and what he’s up to. But you also get a sense from each of them of hope, and commitment. The Samaritan woman’s life is changed by this odd man; she goes and tells others. The blind man can now see, he doesn’t know how, but he follows Jesus. Lazarus lives again, and Martha confesses Jesus as Messiah and she and Mary see the glory of God – but how? Even Nicodemus, who seems the most bewildered of all, we find at the end of John’s gospel helping Joseph of Arimathea care for Jesus after his death. Jesus touches these people’s lives and the result is hope and commitment.

But in all of these stories, completely understanding Jesus, having him all figured out is never a prerequisite for being in his presence, for following him, for loving him – or being loved by him. In fact, one is struck in each of these stories by Jesus’ ongoing, generous presence with each of these people. He didn’t reject them for having questions. He didn’t write them off for ignorance. He didn’t send them away for unconventional living arrangements. He didn’t avoid them because of religious or cultural barriers. When they mourned, Jesus didn’t say, “tut, tut, trust in God!” – he mourned with them. And when everyone else rejected them, he was still with them. He never gave up on any of them.

He also never let them off easily, for to do that would just be another way of giving up on them. He stayed with them, kept telling them the truth, kept doing what he was given to do. Some, like Martha or the man born blind, picked up on it fairly soon. Others, like Nicodemus, may never have quite gotten it. But he was there with them all. That’s what sort of Lord Jesus is.

So that’s one apple. Here’s the last apple we’ll pick in this section of the orchard today: the characters in each of these stories we’ve heard during Lent are not just roles in a tableau, and not just historical persons. No, I’ll let you in on a little secret: they’re you and me.

Jesus’ teaching has bewildered each of us at times like Nicodemus. Jesus has approached and astounded each of us, crossing borders and boundaries to get to us, as with the Samaritan woman. Because of Jesus, each of us, though once blind, can now see – although to our surprise, that good news can sometimes make us an outcast. And each of us is a Lazarus that Jesus has pulled out of the graves of our own making, and gradually the grave clothes are being pulled from our eyes. We are each of us, each one of these people.

And in these experiences we know that Jesus bears with us, always telling the truth, but never abandoning us for questions or doubts or failure, never steering clear of us because of differences of race or gender or culture. He is present with throughout life, even in our fears, grief and anxiety. And he doesn’t let us go, no matter what; we even – oh, we don’t have it all figured out – but we trust that one day we will be raised with him, that death is no limitation to God.

So there’s our bushel basket that we’ve harvested from this one small part of the orchard. So how do you like them apples? We’ve done this today because sometimes it pays to stop and look around, to see where we’ve been and to look ahead at where we are going, in following Christ.

These next few weeks, with Palm Sunday next Sunday and Holy Week after that, will give us ample opportunity to sojourn some more with Jesus, to look at where we’ve been and to look ahead at where we’re going, to be there at the cross and empty tomb, to worship the Lord we love and are coming to know, and who knows and loves us all the way to death and even beyond. Amen.

* Well, okay, not the first week, but it is such a small point to bother mentioning.


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