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Sarah Lindsay

The Fifth Week in Lent: The Raising of Lazarus

white crocus
Image via Pixabay.

Click here to access this week’s passage — John 11:1-45 — which is worth reading but probably longer than what I wrote below!

I named my blog “Into Resurrection” because the idea that Jesus is the resurrection now, that the kingdom of God is breaking in all around us now, has been transformative to my faith. It means that I’m not just waiting for some future salvation, but that I’m watching for the places where God is working salvation in the present. It means that I’m not just saved from something (hell), but saved for something, for working towards building God’s kingdom in the world around me.

There are plenty of theological clarifications and nuances I could make here, not least of which is the constant tension between looking for God’s kingdom now and also hoping for its full arrival later — and the question then raised of how our work now fits into the coming kingdom.

Nevertheless, believing that Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life right now, in ways that directly impact my life and the lives of those around me, has given me immense hope and peace.

So it shouldn’t be at all surprising that I love today’s gospel passage, John’s account of the resurrection of Lazarus.

Of course I love the story of resurrection literally breaking into the world, as Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb. But what I most appreciate about this story is how it reflects the tension between the already and the not-yet, how it fully acknowledges the pain and grief of the not-yet-fully-redeemed world while simultaneously showing us the glorious hope of the resurrection.

Famously, this story of Lazarus contains the shortest verse in the bible: Jesus wept. Just two words; a factoid tucked away by every kid who competed in sword drills. But these two words are incredibly profound. Think about it: Jesus already knew that Lazarus was dead. And Jesus also already knew that he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead. But instead of telling Mary to buck up, instead of telling the mourners to stop, Jesus sits down with them and weeps.

What a profound acknowledgement of the pain, suffering, and grief we experience now. Jesus doesn’t try to diminish or deny any of that — and in fact, Lazarus isn’t resurrected into a happily-ever-after but into death threats as an associate of Jesus. Our tears have not yet been wiped away; death still occurs; we do not live in the fully-realized kingdom of God.

And yet. And yet. Lazarus does hear Jesus' call, does emerge from the grave back into life, back into the arms of his sisters and friends. Resurrection has come, the kingdom has broken into this household of Martha and Mary, this village of Bethany.

Last week, I wrote about being a non-anxious presence in the world. This hope of resurrection, not just the future hope but the present hope of seeing it break into the world around us, sustains our non-anxious presence.

We aren’t surprised by brokenness and grief; we know that Jesus is weeping alongside us. But we also expect God to show up as we look for resurrection life all around us. We can’t stop this resurrection any more than we can stop the robins from returning and the first crocuses from blooming.

In the liturgical year, as in our lives, we are moving through Lent, through lament and suffering and pain and brokenness. We live in a world where Lazarus dies and his sisters weep. But Easter has come and is coming. Jesus defeated sin and suffering and death, and will defeat them once and for all.

And so, because of resurrection, as we live as resurrection people, we live with hope.

The Fourth Week in Lent: Psalm 23

Lamb rolling in a field
Image via Pixabay.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. He revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over. Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

I’ve been avoiding writing all month, uncertain of what will come out when I start putting my thoughts to (virtual) paper. My bishop, Todd Hunter, very wisely encourages both clergy and laypeople to practice being a “non-anxious presence:” God is always already at work in the world around us, and so not only do we not need to worry ourselves, we ought to actively resist the anxiety and fear in the world around us.

I love this idea. I want to work towards it. But how in the world do I hang on to this non-anxiety in the midst of a global pandemic? How can I be this non-anxious presence?

Several things are helping me control my anxiety: my meds, of course; yoga; long breaks from social media; the field full of robins I saw on a walk last week; connecting with friends, even if we can’t be together in person; making space to pray the daily office.

But this week, we also have the liturgical gift of Psalm 23 in the lectionary.

This psalm is likely one of the best known passages of scripture. Familiarity can sometimes obscure fresh understanding, but this week at least I found the familiarity comforting; as so much is new and so much changes, the timelessness of this ancient poem soothed my heart.

And so this week, as I reflect on the lectionary, I’m not offering exegesis or even fresh insight. Instead, I offer this psalm as an invitation.

An invitation to remember that God is our shepherd, the good shepherd who cares for the sheep: even amidst the anxiety caused by the less-than-reassuring responses of our elected leaders, God does not abandon us.

An invitation to remember that the valley of the shadow of death is just as real as the green pastures and still waters, and that sometimes we’re not in the sunny field but the dark and terrifying valley. But the Shepherd is with us every bit as much in that valley as in the field.

Here’s where I can’t resist making a connection to Lent: during this season, we remember Jesus' suffering — and we’re nearly to Holy Week, when we walk alongside Jesus during the final week before his death and resurrection. But remembering Jesus' suffering isn’t meant to simply make us feel bad that God went through all of that for us.

No: Jesus' suffering should fill us with gratitude, yes, but also hope, because our God became a human being and walked among us. When Jesus the Good Shepherd walks alongside us in the valley of the shadow of death, he can comfort us because he too walked through that valley. And we have hope because he also walked out of the valley, and will lead us out as well.

Finally, Psalm 23 invites us to remember that this is not the end, that we will dwell with God forever. I want to be clear: this shouldn’t make us dismissive or fatalistic, and it certainly shouldn’t make us ignore the dark valley. But we can live non-anxiously now because we know it’s not the end of the story.

This is a dark and frightening time. Many people are suffering and will suffer, because of illness or financial hardship. It’s hard to say how much things will change when we come out from the other side of this pandemic. Everything, from grocery shopping to planning for the future, is wrapped in uncertainty.

But Psalm 23 reassures us that we have a God who doesn’t let us walk on our own, who doesn’t just promise to wait for us at the end. No, the Good Shepherd walks alongside us with the love and compassion that comes from having himself walked through suffering and death, having himself experienced anxiety and fear.

I’m still anxious, I’m not going to lie. I’m not to the point of easily being a non-anxious presence to those around me. But this psalm guides me to remember that God is still here, still with me, no matter what happens.

Tagged: lectionary | Lent | psalms | Year A

The Fifth Week after Epiphany: Matthew 5:13-20

Salt and Light
Image via Pixabay.

This week, the lectionary brings us into the Sermon on the Mount:

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

—Matthew 5:13-20, NIV

I have to admit that I have a hard time with this passage. For me, it’s wrapped up with the Evangelical culture war and with the narratives of (Christian) American exceptionalism that I was taught growing up. America was the City on a Hill, shining for all the world to see; in the era of the Moral Majority, being salt very often meant acquiring political power.

And then, of course, there’s the terrifying prospect of the salt losing its saltiness: what does that mean? how does it happen? As an anxiety-prone perfectionist, this felt like a threat from a God just waiting to be disappointed in me (a topic for another day …)

I’m pretty sure, though, that Jesus doesn’t mean to encourage either political power grabs or existential despair.

So what does it mean to be salt? To be light? And why follow this with a discussion of the law?

In his sermon this week, my rector made two helpful points that I’m going to steal. First, he pointed out that Jesus doesn’t tell us to become salt and light; he tells us that we already are salt and light. Yes, Jesus tells us to not lose our saltiness or hide our light. But for me, the emphasis shifts to how we use what we already have, instead of how we get or keep these characteristics.

Second, he titled his sermon “Different From and Good To.” Salt and light are different from other things — but they are meant to do good. Light, for example, is different from darkness, but it is good: it allows people to see where they are going or what they are doing. I very much appreciate this emphasis on how salt and light are good for the things around them.

So as followers of Jesus, we are salt and light, and we are meant to do good to our surroundings. (And although Jesus didn’t say this, shining strongly and unexpectedly is little better than hiding the light — as I was reminded a few nights ago when my bedroom light mysteriously turned itself on at 2 am, disrupting the rest of my night …)

After this exhortation, however, Jesus veers into what seems at first to be a completely new topic: how he is coming not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. Clearly, there’s a lot going on in these verses: what is the “everything” that Jesus plans to accomplish? What does it mean to have a righteousness that surpasses that of the Pharisees, the very people who clung most strongly to their identity as the people of God?

But with these words, Jesus wants to remind his audience about the covenants God made with Abraham and Isaac, covenants promising that all nations would be blessed through their offspring. About the laws given to Moses that command the people of Israel to treat the immigrant and the traveller well. About the prophets who chastise Israel for its failures to be good to even those within its borders, let alone those beyond them.

God’s people have been meant to be salt and light since the beginning: they are meant to be good for the world around them. And the law and the prophets referenced by Jesus give us an idea of what being good for the world looks like. It looks like caring for the poor, the orphan and the widow. Like ensuring that justice is done. Like refusing to allow the wealthy to abuse and exploit the poor and powerless.

William Temple, an Anglican priest of the early twentieth century, is said to have claimed, “The Church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members.” Clearly, this is sometimes more and other times less true of the Church. But Temple has hit on something vital. The church, as a community and as individuals, should bring God’s goodness to the rest of the world.

What does it mean to be salt and light? It means to love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with God. It means to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned.

Light in an already bright room is pointless; salt in a container in the cupboard has done nothing good. But when we as God’s people are light and salt for those who need it, then the nations of the world are blessed through us.

The Second Week after Epiphany: John 1:29-42

Lamb of God
Stained glass from Holy Family Catholic Church (North Baltimore, Ohio); photo by Nheyob. Image via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0

Today’s lectionary passage comes not from Matthew but from the Gospel of John:

The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”

Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.”

The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!”

When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?”

They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?”

“Come,” he replied, “and you will see.”

So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon.

Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). And he brought him to Jesus.

Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter).

— John 1:29-42, NIV

There’s a lot happening in this passage: John mentions Jesus' baptism (the subject of last week’s lectionary reading); John declares that Jesus is the Lamb of God on whom the Spirit of God has rested; some of John’s disciples turn to Jesus, one of whom is Andrew; Andrew invites his brother, Simon, to come meet the man he believes is the Messiah.

In short: we could talk about baptism, about Jesus as the lamb, about following Jesus, and about evangelism. A rich passage indeed.

But one thing struck me in particular: twice John names Jesus as the “Lamb of God.” The first time John elaborates, describing the moment of Jesus' baptism. And in both this elaboration and in the first naming, John emphasizes that he did not know that Jesus was “God’s Chosen One.”

This constellation of statements fascinates me. Why does John the Evangelist emphasize both that Jesus is the Lamb of God and that John the Baptist did not at first recognize Jesus as the one coming after him?

I’m suspicious that John’s surprise has something to do with Jesus as Messiah and Lamb. Because just like the Magi at Epiphany, we expect a king to be, well, kingly. Born in a palace. Strong in battle. Charismatic. And if we’re going to choose an animal to represent those qualities, we’re not going to chose a lamb.

But this image of the Lamb who is also a king forms the central image in another text written by John the Evangelist. In Revelation 4 and 5, John has the central vision of God enthroned, surrounded by worshipping angels and elders. As chapter 5 begins, John writes:

“I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”

Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders.

Jesus is simultaneously the Lion and the Lamb, the King who conquers sin and evil and death by humbling himself in the Incarnation, by submitting himself to human suffering and death.

This should be shocking. It seems to have surprised John the Baptist; in the lectionary passage, he now recognizes Jesus as the Lamb of God who is the Chosen One of God — but it took a direct sign from God for John to see this truth about Jesus.

I’ve been drawn for quite some time to stories about subversion in scripture, stories where what we expect is reversed. Typically, the character who is weaker, or younger, or generally less powerful is favored by God over the stronger, more powerful character. Once you start looking, this pattern repeats all throughout the bible.

And Jesus is the ultimate subversion: God become a human being — and a human being in a normal family in an Israel ruled by a colonialist foreign power. The most powerful being in the universe, the creator and king, becomes a lamb — and more, a sacrificial lamb.

This should, without question, mean that Christians have a radically different conception of power than anyone else. The one being in the universe who is fully entitled to claim all power and authority, who has the power to demand all allegiance, chose instead to live and die as a human being subject to the oppressive power of imperial Rome.

And yet Jesus' power remained in the weakness. Ultimately, by dying he conquered death itself: a far more significant victory than dethroning a single Roman emperor. A victory that could only be won by a king who is also a lamb.

This is something different, something new. Something a little frightening that upends our categories for thinking about the world.

Like John the Baptist and Andrew and, although he doesn’t know it yet in this passage, Simon Peter, we who are captivated by this Lamb who is a conquering king can do no better than to point to him. Look, the Lamb of God. Look, the Chosen One of God. Come and see the Messiah.

Because is there anything more amazing and more hopeful than a conquering king who is also a gentle lamb, a savior who lives and suffers and dies with us in order to bring us salvation from sin and evil and death?

Baptism of Our Lord

baptism of Christ
David Zelenka, Baptism of Christ, 2005. Image via Wikimedia Commons

I’m trying a new thing on the blog, something to keep me writing every week and to help me think through the weekly lectionary readings: writing on the Gospel passage for each week. We’re in Year A, which means that most passages come from the Gospel of Matthew; this week, the passage is the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan River.

John the Baptizer preached: “I baptize with water those who repent of their sins and turn to God. But someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not worthy even to be his slave and carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He is ready to separate the chaff from the wheat with his winnowing fork. Then he will clean up the threshing area, gathering the wheat into his barn but burning the chaff with never-ending fire.”

Then Jesus went from Galilee to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. But John tried to talk him out of it. “I am the one who needs to be baptized by you,” he said, “so why are you coming to me?”

But Jesus said, “It should be done, for we must carry out all that God requires.” So John agreed to baptize him.

After his baptism, as Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and settling on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.”

— Matthew 3:11-17, NLT

This is one of those passages that is so familiar to me that I forget how startling the story is. Here is John, calling his audience to repent because the Kingdom of God is at hand. He exhorts them to repent, to turn away from their old way of life towards a new one, and be baptized in the Jordan River, symbolically re-crossing into the Promised Land.

John is acutely aware that his job is to prepare people to receive this coming kingdom of God — not to bring that kingdom into existence; that job belongs to Jesus. And yet, here comes Jesus, asking to be baptized by John.

In Matthew’s version of the baptism, John protests, asking why Jesus is coming for baptism. John’s question sparks others: why should Jesus be baptized when he has nothing of which to repent? And why should he submit himself to John’s lesser baptism of water when he is bringing the baptism of the Holy Spirit?

There are many possible answers to these questions, answers that overlap or enrich each other. We could see Jesus as submitting to God, functioning as a true Israelite, as the one who reverses Adam’s sin — the point of baptism being obedience, not repentance.

In another angle, one commentator I read pointed out that the Greek word for “repent” connotes a turning or change; Jesus did not have to turn away from sin, but his baptism marks a change in his life as after this moment he begins his public ministry (Feasting on the Word p. 239).

But I am particularly drawn to thinking about the deep and rich symbolism of water: God’s spirit broods over the water as creation begins. God destroys the earth with water. God nourishes the Israelites in the desert by providing water from a stone. God destroys the Egyptian army in water. God leads the Israelites through the Jordan River into a new home.

Water is life. Water is also death.

So what does it mean that Jesus, the living water incarnate, allows John to submerge him in the water of the Jordan?

Jesus' baptism initiates his ministry, a ministry that ends in his death, burial, and resurrection. As St. Paul tells us in both Romans and Colossians, in baptism we are buried with Christ and raised to new life; the baptism at the beginning of his ministry mingles together the waters of death and of life, foreshadowing Jesus' defeat of death through death.

Water destroys evil; in baptism, we die to sin and evil and death. Water is life; in baptism, we are raised to eternal life in Christ. Water marks a passage from the old into the new; in baptism, we are marked as Christ’s own people.

And when Jesus is dipped into the Jordan River by his cousin John, the Living Water encounters and transforms the waters of cleansing and initiation and death. Now through baptism, we die to the life of sin and live into the life of Christ. Because when the Living Water becomes flesh, becomes a particular person in a particular time and place, all that he touches is transformed and infused with new meaning.

In his baptism, Jesus foreshadows his death and resurrection. But he also gives us a powerful symbol. When the water of baptism flows over us, and then whenever we see another person baptized, we are reminded to repent, to turn towards Jesus, and enter into the Kingdom of God.

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