Sermon, June 2, 2017

Jesus Wept, and Then He Did What He Could to Help
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
April 2, 2017   Fifth Sunday in Lent
Psalm 130; Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45

We heard two stories today about the power of God that flowed through Ezekiel and Jesus and brought people back to life. We heard Paul say, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

Here in the depths of Lent, death is close at hand. We think of Jesus starving in the wilderness, or drawing nearer to the cross.

Here in the depths of Lent shoots may be rising from bulbs toward the light, but earth is buried beneath new snow. Turkeys are desperately digging through icy crust for acorns in deep woods. Cars go off the roads, people slip and break their hips, depression descends on gray, muddy days in this cruelest month.

Here in the depths of Lent we reach the time in the church year that is most like the moment of transition in childbirth when a woman feels as if she will not survive. Transition is the body going through the agony of opening wide to let the birth happen. During Lent we pass through a season of death in order to bring new life into being.

Women want to give up during transition, but birth doulas coach women to focus on their breath and let go. Lent doulas coach us to focus on the Spirit and let go and open wide to the higher power that is trying to bring new life to birth in us.

Here in the depths of Lent, death and new life hang in the balance, and our choice of how to respond makes all the difference.

Recently our beloved Margaret Staples fell in her driveway in a tiny space between her car and a big, solid snow bank. She got stuck under the car and could not get out. She was almost completely hidden from view. She was lying there soaking wet and freezing. It was quite possible that no one would see her before too late.

Panic or hopeless despair would have been understandable responses, but stuck between a car and a hard place, with death looking like the only way out, Margaret turned to prayer, just as Jesus prayed in his impossible situations.

Margaret turned to prayer and found the spiritual truth that Paul taught, that “to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” Maybe there was no connection between Margaret’s prayer and the couple who drove by forty minutes later, and the fleeting glimpse that the woman caught of something strange that made her ask her husband to turn around and go back. Maybe it was pure luck and chance that saved Margaret’s life. We cannot know, but what we do know is that whether she lived or died, prayer was giving her the wisdom and inner strength to go through the experience with a peace that surpassed understanding.

We all have our own life and death struggles, we have our big confrontations with loss and grief and our smaller every day trials and temptations that threaten to bury us in snow or mud or a darkness that we feel powerless to overcome. Sooner or later we all gasp our final breaths. We need the wisdom that Margaret found, that Paul taught, that Jesus showed, we need the spiritual power that can bring peace and life to us in the valley of the shadow of death.

Ezekiel had his vision of the valley where God asked him, “Mortal, can these bones live?” Ezekiel gave the only honest response: “Only you know, God.” Can our bones live, when we are pinned under a car, when we are going through an agony that might be death or might be something trying to be born, when we are in the depths of wilderness and darkness? God only knows, but what we know is that there is a way to be, there are certain things we can do, that will lead us to life and peace even as we face death.

Humanity has felt since the dawn of consciousness that there is a power of life and love and light that flows through the universe and through us. Our ancestors observed that when we immerse in that divine love and light, we do works of mercy and justice and can make others feel at peace. We find wisdom and strength that seem to come from a higher power. We have a miraculous ability to heal wounds and bring oppressed or deadened people back to life.

Today’s gospel passage offers practical lessons in how we can be and what we can do to let this power flow through us. The first is not to rush into fix-it mode, but to breathe and let go into the truth of our situation. Jesus wept. Before he did anything else, he grieved and let himself be deeply moved by the agony of the people he loved. He felt empathy, meaning he stepped into the feelings of those around him, and he felt compassion, meaning he allowed himself to suffer with them.

Then Jesus prayed. He connected to God’s force of life and love and light.

Jesus wept and prayed. These two movements are what Paul meant by setting our mind not on the flesh but on the spirit within the flesh. They put us in the right alignment to let miracles happen through us.

Jesus wept and prayed, and then he did what he could to help. He rolled back the stone from the tomb and called Lazarus forth. We, too, can find ways to remove obstacles and work miracles of resurrection, even if it is just to make a meal for someone who is struggling and deliver it with love enough to shine a light through their darkness.

A pastor had led worship in her church for the last time. The moving van was packed. Her family was waiting at home to begin the drive across the country. She was eager to go, when the last parishioner out the door asked if they could talk. Everything in her screamed no, but she took a breath and let go. She smiled and said, “Sure.”

They sat in a pew and the man poured out his worry about his wife who had just been diagnosed with cancer. The pastor listened compassionately. She cried with him. After a while they prayed and he left. She rushed out, moved away, and had completely forgotten about that time when she returned twenty years later. The man was now the moderator of the church and his wife was there in full health. He reminded the pastor of what she had done, and said it changed his life. A transformative power had flowed through her simple gifts of time and presence. It had enabled him to enter into his crisis with peace and a strength he would not otherwise have had. He learned first hand what the church could do, and he dedicated himself to providing it to others like him.

Here in the depths of Lent our task is simply to weep with those who weep, and to pray, and to let go and open wide for the power of God work to through us as we do whatever we can to help. We need to have mercy for ourselves as well, and open wide to the possibility that God will bring new life to birth out of moments that feel like death. We need to believe that turning to the Spirit in our weakness brings life and peace and a power to change the world.

Let us open ourselves to the truth of what we are facing in our lives, and pray, asking God to show us what else we can do…