Sunday, April 3, 2022
Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year C

Prayer of the Day
Creator God, you prepare a new way in the wilderness, and your grace waters our desert. Open our hearts to be transformed by the new thing you are doing, that our lives may proclaim the extravagance of your love given to all through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Readings and Psalm
Isaiah 43:16-21 The Lord gives water in the wilderness to the chosen people
Psalm 126
Philippians 3:4b-14 To know Christ and his resurrection, to share in his sufferings
John 12:1-8 Mary anoints Jesus for his burial


Title:  Cult of Life – New Life

One of the criticisms I dislike hearing the most about the Christian church (granted many criticisms are valid and warranted) but the one that I find frustrating, is when people call it a death cult.  An institution obsessed with the dead.  And while I do understand where this criticism comes from because of past expressions of the Church and because of some of the practices and traditions that continue on; my understanding, what I cherish, is that this gift of faith that is from the living God of creation and all life, the call to follow Jesus – the living Word of God – whose life conquered death, and the Holy Spirit that continues to live and work through us, is more about how we live our lives than how we die our deaths. Yes for sure, peace in Christ Jesus is ours even at the time of our death; but what about the life we are living before that time.

Now I know, I have been talking about death a lot lately.  Perhaps its people like me who encourage and feed this criticism that I so strongly react against.  This latest round of talk started back on Ash Wednesday, when we confronted our mortality and, in our sinful death, admitted our need for God.  It has continued on through the weeks of Lent as we explored a God who sacrifices themself for us, who leads us in the dying that we are called to do.  But this dying is not our obsession. This dying that we are called to do is a gateway to new life in Christ.  It is because of this new life, this true life, that we are dying daily.

And today, we stand on the threshold of the culmination of our Lenten journey, as we are about to take those first steps of the walk with Jesus in the ultimate fullness of the way of the Cross, the images in today’s readings are rich with the new life that is ours.  Calling us to see death, not as obsession, but as a necessary so that we might truly live.

Throughout the Hebrew scriptures the story of the Exodus is told and retold.  In many Psalms there is a recap of God’s mighty acts.  The people are constantly told “Remember what God did…”  Passover (coming up soon) with its sedar meal is celebrated each year as a remember of the rescue from slavery and the leading into the promised land. And yet, in today’s first reading God, through the prophet Isaiah is telling the people, forget the former things. God is about to do a new thing.  The people living in exile in Babylon are convinced that their country is dead.  They have been conquered.  Jerusalem and the temple lie in ruins. And all the folks who would have done something to rebuild, have been taken away into exile. Yup, they are dead.  Nothing here to obsess over.  Just accept it and make the most of the life-in-captivity that is their fate.

To those who see death, who are obsessing over being dead, the God of life says “I am about to do something new.”  Sure, the parting of the sea was something.  But now, the wilderness that looks dead, the desert that appears to have no life, to these lifeless places that stand in the way of the exiles coming home, coming back to life; these dead places are about to spring to life, rivers will flow, a way is being made through death into life.

There is a mention of the Negeb in the psalm.  That pesky place name that pops up every once in a while causing us to trip as we read it together.  But curious to learn more about it, I (what else does one do?) – I googled it.  It is a desert southwest of the Dead Sea. And when it rains in the hills that surround it, water comes down and refills the riverbeds.  I even found a short video that shows a group of people watching in excitement as the water returns to the water courses. Not a trickle flows fuller.  No, an absolutely dry riverbed floods with water.  The rivers are restored.  A dead river is brought back to life.  And there is rejoicing. 

Some of this exile talk might get us thinking about what we are seeing in Ukraine these days.  People are fleeing their homes and living in exile until it is safe to return.  Perhaps, like me, you are hearing stories of incredible hope and faith as people stare death in the face and audaciously cling to life.  Now, of course, theirs is a battle they can win, and we pray they will win. 

However, those three siblings in the gospel reading know all too well that for a victory over death, they are completely dependent on the grace and mercy of God made known in the person of Jesus.

Just think about what the mood in that house must have been when Jesus came to visit.  This is the third visit to the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus that is recorded in the gospels.  There may have been more, but we hear of three.

Remember what happened the first time?  Martha was cranky for doing all the work of entertaining this special guest, while sister Mary just sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to him. No mention of Lazarus that time.  Maybe he was the troubled troubling brother.  On the second visit, Lazarus is certainly present, sort of, and he steals the scene.  He has died and Jesus raises him from the dead, as is mentioned in today’s reading.  So again, think of the mood in the house this visit.  Here is the man who raised the brother from the dead.  Martha is certainly not grumbling this time as she serves.  Probably whistling as she works with joy.  How does Lazarus even begin to show his appreciation and wonder at what happened?  And Mary, again at Jesus feet, but this time bathing them in costly perfume.  Nothing is too good for this one who brought new life to this family, who turned their mourning into song, their tears into laughter.

When we look at the font and see our own death, our old sinful self, drown in the waters of new life; it is not an obsession, it is a liberation.  And so, we rise up out of the waters as new creations. And this happens again and again each and every day. 

As Paul writes:

I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.

Perhaps this is a bit radical, but let me throw this out for your consideration.  Because another criticism of the church is that it is too obsessed with making people feel guilty about their wrong doings.  Add to this last week’s contribution from Robert Capon that there must be a death in order to even begin to see what we receive in the fullness of God’s grace. Perhaps our confession of sins at the beginning of most liturgies is another case of merely focusing on the symptoms and not addressing the disease.  Perhaps it is a more complete admission when we gather if we would say, “God, we are dead, bring us back to life.” And, having heard the good news of life restored in Jesus Christ, we then will party like Lazarus and Martha and Mary.  We can’t let that cranky, criticizing Judas steal the focus like he does so often when we read this story.  There is a party of new life going on.  For Lazarus, for the sisters, for us. It’s a continuation of last week’s party at the home of the Prodigal Son.  They are all a foretaste of the party to come.

Obsess about death? A death cult? No, through mercy of God in Christ, death has been put  behind us.  By the leading of the Holy Spirit, like Paul, we are pressing forward to what lies ahead.  For we are invited and called to be obsessed with life, new life in Christ. And so the party continues as we gather at this table and feast on the new-life-bringing presence of Christ, and, through the work of the Holy Spirit, we can boldly live into this new life, this day, and forever.

The Rev. Mark Erson,

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