Archive for November 2015

It’s In Our B.N.A.

November 28, 2015

John 18:33-38

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’

1961 --- Actor Jean Marais in the movie "Ponzio Pilato" (Pontius Pilate), directed by Irving Rapper and Gian Paolo Callegari. --- Image by © Sunset Boulevard/Corbis

1961 — Actor Jean Marais in the movie “Ponzio Pilato” (Pontius Pilate),  Image by © Sunset Boulevard/Corbis

Christ the King Sunday / John Stiles / First Lutheran Church / 11-22-15

Intro: Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from God our First Love, in Christ Jesus. Let all who hear say, “Come!” Amen.

It’s only fitting that we end this church year by proclaiming Christ as King – as the One who is, who was, and who is to come – as the Alpha and Omega of all that is or ever shall be (Alpha & Omega are the first & last letters of the Greek alphabet). Next Sunday is Advent, the beginning (the Alpha) of our church year, as we prepare the way for the coming Christ-child. And here, at the end of our church year (our Omega), we proclaim him King Jesus: the final word on life and death. In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.

But I must admit, that does sound a bit presumptuous, don’t you think? To declare ‘our god’ as the ‘final word’ on all matters of life and death? Is that really what we’re proposing on this Christ the King Sunday – and every time we pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done” – or declare that at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord? Just what kind of king is this?

Historically, the Jews had no king except “Yahweh” – the Lord, God, was their king. When Moses delivered them from the land of Egypt and they wandered 40 years in the wilderness – they were a nomadic people. When they came to the Promised land to settle down, they became a tribal people – 12 tribes. It was a time when judges were raised up to settle disputes and to lead the people in wisdom. But it wasn’t long until other nations began to stir things up. They were attacked by nations with kings – nations with armies and great power – and so they decided they, too, wanted a king – so much so, that they appealed to the Lord, through the prophet Samuel (you can read about this in 1Samuel 8). “Give us a king to protect us from our enemies. We must live in the real world like other nations. For the sake of our national security and for the safety of our children, we must have a king!”

Others, including Samuel, opposed the idea: “If we have a king, we will become like other nations We’ll have military conscription. Elites will grab the land entrusted to our families. We’ll become like slaves. We’ll have to do hard labor for the king and his higher ups. The king will lay heavy tax burdens on us. We will cry out to God in our oppression.” But the ‘pro-king’ crowd won out and the Lord appointed Samuel to anoint Saul as 1st king over Israel.

Things went fairly well for Israel, until Solomon became king and he amassed great riches and wealth, built a grand temple and oppressed the masses of people who were at the lowest rung on the ladder. Between his 700 wives and 300 concubines Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, bowing down to foreign gods. And, in time, Israel became the very thing it had fled from generations before: Pharaoh’s Egypt.

We should be careful what we ask for, yes? It’s like the two guys who died and went to heaven: St. Peter greeted them at the pearly gates and said “I’m sorry, gentlemen, but your mansions aren’t ready yet. Until they are, I can send you back to Earth as whatever you want to be.”  “Great!” said the first guy, “I want to be an eagle soaring above beautiful scenery!” POOF! He was gone. “And what do you want to be,” St. Peter asked the other guy. “I’d like to be one cool stud!” POOF! and he was gone. After a few months, their mansions were finished, and St. Peter sent an angel to fetch them back. “You’ll find them easily,” he says, “One of them is soaring above the Grand Canyon, and the other one is on a snow tire somewhere in Detroit!”

Or, how about the story of the woman who rubbed the lamp and found a genie? It was a one-wish genie. “Ask me for whatever you wish!” said the genie. And, of course, being a kind person, she asked for world peace with her one wish. She even showed the genie a map and asked that these warring nations in the Middle East could settle their differences and that the United States could help bring about peace. The genie shook his head and said, “Do you know that I’ve been bottled up for over 500 years? Now, I’m good, but I’m not THAT good. Please think of something else.” “Well,” said the woman, “I’ve always wanted to meet a man who truly understands me. He doesn’t finish my sentences and he jumps up to do the chores without asking. He’s romantic and good looking and…” “Let me see that map again,” said the genie.

Be careful what you ask for, right?

Martin Luther had no idea what kind of genie he was releasing from a bottle when he nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. When he let the Genie out of the bottle it sparked the Reformation; but things got out of control – within eight years, the peasants were revolting – pulling down statues of Mary and the saints in their churches, making their own rules rioting in the streets and rising up against the aristocracy. And so he made distinctions between the “Two Kingdoms” – the Kingdom of the Left and the Kingdom of the Right – one ruled by the governing authorities and the other by Christ. And we, who bear the name of Christ, are citizens of both – with obligations to both. And Luther wrote hundreds of letters to the dukes and secular leaders of his day – admonishing them to govern wisely, according to the faith. And, during the Peasant’s War he found himself in the middle – sympathetic to the injustices forced upon the peasants – and yet, not condoning their bloody tactics. Some called him ‘the butcher’ for siding with the governing authorities to put down the rebellion.

So, there are no easy answers on this Christ the King Sunday – when we are tempted to claim: “Our god is better than your god.” “Our religion is the one, true religion.”

Last week’s terrorist attack in Paris has brought to the forefront a national debate about what “True Islam” is really about. True Islam says that if you kill an innocent person, it is as if you’ve killed all of humanity. So it says in the Qu’ran – and yet, there are also some verses requiring us to kill the infidel in the Qu’ran. Just as there are calls to kill one’s enemies in our own scriptures. Who could read Psalm 137 “Blessed are those who dash your babies heads against the rock” and say ‘go and do likewise’? We understand these texts of terror in their contexts – penned by people who had witnessed atrocities against their own people, taken into captivity. And so, each day is a striving for the truth.

Also this week, in North Minneapolis, there are those who are trying to uncover the truth about the shooting of an unarmed man, Jamar Clark, by a police officer. Peaceful protests have begun outside the 4th precinct to demand answers. Will we ever know the truth?

What is the truth? It’s the question on everyone’s mind these days.

And it was Pilate’s question to Jesus after the reading of today’s gospel. When Jesus says to Pilate: “For this I was born, to testify to the truth.” Pilate says “What is truth?” In John 14, Jesus said it was he, himself: “I am the truth, the way and the life.” And here, in today’s reading, we find Jesus on trial. “Are you the King of the Jews?” He doesn’t deny it – but he describes a much different kind of kingdom. It is one where his followers do not rise up to fight. Whereas, Pilate is used to ruling with an iron fist, taking names and commanding soldiers – Jesus rules from the heart, with love and mercy. He’s counting on his followers to listen to the truth, and to overcome darkness with light and to drive out hate with love. This way of ruling involves not a company of soldiers, but a communion of saints – a towel and a basin to wash one another’s feet. Here is a king who rules by caring for the hungry and the thirsty – there’s no mighty chariot, no flashing sword.

Do you ever wonder whether we’d recognize Jesus today – if he were to show himself? I bet the first thing he’d say is what he always said: do not be afraid.

In a world where fear runs rampant – whether it’s about ISIS or the potential threat of fleeing Syrian refugees – Jesus would say: do not be afraid.

Did you see the story in yesterday’s paper about First Lutheran Church – opening its doors to refugees 40 years ago after the fall of Saigon? It’s in our DNA – that thing that Bishop H. George Anderson called our BNA: “Be Not Afraid.”

It’s not a safe world in which we live. There will always be dangers and unforeseen tragedies. But we are called to walk in the way of peace nonetheless.

I am reminded of the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer – a Lutheran pastor who was hanged by the Nazis for his part in the resistance against Adolph Hitler. He wrote: “There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared. It is itself the great venture and can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to want to protect oneself. Peace means giving oneself completely to God’s commandment. Wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hand of almighty God. …Battles are won not with weapons, but with God. They are won when the way leads to the cross.” –Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from a sermon on August 28, 1934.

It’s often a lonely path we are called to walk. John opens his gospel with these chilling words about Jesus: “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” (John 1:11)

So, what are we to look for these days? How can we open our hearts and accept the coming Christ as our king this day? In many ways, it seems obvious: we just pray to him. We take time each day to keep Christ at the center of our lives (both public and private).

As a closing prayer, I leave you with the words of a Charles Wesley hymn. Let us pray:

Help us to help each other, Lord, each other’s cross to bear’
Let each his friendly aid afford and feel his brother’s care.
Touched by the loadstone of thy love, Let all our hearts agree;
And ever toward each other move and ever move toward thee.

A Message From “Old Long Robes”

November 28, 2015

Mark 12:38-44
As [Jesus] taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Pent22 / First Lutheran Church / 11-8-15 / John Stiles

Children’s Time: Have you ever made a tent? It’s fun! I brought this blanket from home so we can try it. And I have this flashlight, too, since it can get dark. Should we invite anyone else in? Maybe mom or dad? What about a friend or even a stranger? You see… if we just keep the tent for ourselves and no one else, it can get lonely and even a little stuffy in there! Plus, others might need a friend and would love to join us. In our lesson today, Jesus was worried about people in church who cared only for themselves. They had a lot of nice things (fine clothes, fancy dinners, and they were famous – everybody knew their names) but they didn’t even notice this poor woman in need among them. Did you know that we have a Food Shelf drop off in the main office? You can bring a can of soup, a box of cereal or a turkey for our Thanksgiving Baskets and leave it in the office and we deliver it to people who are hungry. That’s just one way we’re helping others instead of just ourselves. Can you think of anymore? So, having a tent is great – but let’s not get so turned in on ourselves that we forget the rest of the world.

06 Mar 2015 --- Parents creating fort over sleeping children --- Image by © Hero Images/Corbis

06 Mar 2015 — Parents creating fort over sleeping children — Image by © Hero Images/Corbis

Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from God our First Love in Christ Jesus. Let all who hear say ‘Come!’ Amen.

When I was a little boy, we used to love making a fort in the basement out of blankets. It was the perfect activity for a snow day off from school. We would raid the linen closet and bring out every blanket and sheet we could get our hands on. Then we’d drape them over chairs and stretch them out into hallways and secret chambers – making sure to weight down the sheets with copies of the Sears-Roebuck catalogue, The Encyclopedia Britannica, Webster’s Dictionary – the bigger the book the better to hold up the walls of our fortress!

And if we were lucky, we’d find a fitted sheet we could install over the entryway of our fort – right in front of a box fan set on ‘high,’ so it would poof out into a great, billowing drawbridge. I’m telling you, it was the best – except for one small thing: the older kids got to go in in at first. They had to ‘check things out’ and make sure it was okay. Well you can imagine how that went over with the younger ones… No one likes to be left out in the cold, excluded or ignored.

So, who gets to come into our tent this morning? Who’s invited? Isn’t the church just one big tent? And yet, who’s on the outside looking in today? Who might we be reluctant to welcome because they’re ‘like us’? Or they might not want to play our games – or they might knock something over – or fart and stink up the whole tent! Each week, on Sunday morning we gather for coffee hour in between services in the Koinonia Hall. That word, koinonia, literally means (in Greek) ‘community.’ The church desperately needs opportunities to simply be together and to lift each other up in the Body of Christ. We come to belong to something greater than ourselves… and only then are we sent to become who God intended us to be.

Because we all know that if it’s only “about us” then we’ve already ceased being that Body – the church of God in this place. If it’s all about self-preservation then we’ve already lost our way. The classic definition of sin is to be turned in on oneself.  It’s bound to happen – we’re made that way – to bend inward, toward self-preservation – to look after our own interests. Heck, even Jesus reminds us of the greatest commandment: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength – and love your neighbor as yourself. And I’ll be the first one to say, “You’ve got to take care of yourself or you’ll be no good to anyone else!”

(half) The Widow's mite. (Woman placing coin in box for the poor at church graveyard as ghost of woman watches.) Stereo, c1876 by Melander & Bro. (no --- Image by © CORBIS

(half) The Widow’s mite. Stereo, c1876 by Melander & Bro. no — Image by © CORBIS

And that’s well and good – even necessary for healthy living – but… then there’s this widow giving her two copper coins. All that she had to live on! And I’m not sure what to make of her. I got to preach this sermon yesterday at the Woodland Good Samaritan Home at the 4:00 service where, wouldn’t you know, half my audience were widows. Hoo boy!

Who’s invited into your tent today? In what way is the Holy Spirit prying your fingers open – from a posture of fear and hoarding, turned inward – to a posture of abundance, turned outward, where all are welcome? Jesus doesn’t hold back. He goes right for the scribes, in their vain attempts to get attention and care only for themselves. And, for me, this hits close to home:

Long robes? Check.
Respect in the marketplaces? For the most part.
Best seat in the synagogue? Yep.
Says long prayers? We’ll see.
Devour widows’ houses? Where did that come from?

Nobody said anything about hurting poor old widows. That’s the rub in our gospel lesson for today. They didn’t even notice the plight of this poor woman among them. Jesus makes sure to point out this widow to the disciples, but it’s easy to miss the tone of his voice. Is he saying, “Look at that widow who gave more than all the others – you should go and do likewise?” Or, is it a tone of disgust: “Look at that poor widow, being taken advantage of by these ungrateful brats in their flowing robes!”

I don’t think it’s about the amount that poor widow put into the treasury. No, one of the mistakes we make with this lesson is that we assume we, too, should “dig deep” and give away all that we have like this widow. I think it’s more about the motivation behind the gift that matters.

It reminds me of Stumpy & Martha. Stumpy and his wife Martha went to the state fair every year. Every year Stumpy would say, “Martha, I’d like to ride in that there airplane.” And every year Martha would say, “I know, Stumpy, but that airplane ride costs $10, and $10 is $10.”

One year Stumpy and Martha went to the fair and Stumpy said, “Martha, I’m 71 years old. If I don’t ride that airplane this year I may never get another chance.” Martha replied, “Stumpy, that there airplane ride costs $10, and $10 is $10.” The pilot overheard them and said, “Folks, I’ll make you a deal. I’ll take you both up for a ride. If you can stay quiet for the entire ride and not say one word, I won’t charge you. But if you say one word, it’s $10.”

Stumpy and Martha agreed, and up they went. The pilot did all kinds of twists and turns, rolls and dives, but not a word or a squeal was heard. He did all his tricks over again, but still not a word or a sound. They landed and the pilot turned to Stumpy, “By golly, I did everything I could think of to get you to yell out, but you didn’t. I can’t charge you the $10. The ride is free.”

Stumpy replied, “Well, I was gonna say something when Martha fell out back there, but $10 is $10.”

Wasn’t it Jesus who said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also?” (Mt. 6:21) Yes, the money is important, and yet, wealth is about more than just money. Untold wealth was in the members of the AME church in Charleston, SC who gave that shooter the undeserved gift of forgiveness. It’s all they had to give him. He’d already taken the lives of their loved ones. That’s a wealth that is immeasurable. People think you need money to get something off the ground. And yet, most of the movements that changed the world didn’t come out of financial gain. Paul was a tent-maker who received donations from the church in Macedonia. MLK, Ghandi, all of those guys didn’t have a lot of funding. But they were wealthy in other ways.

So, how do we better steward our money? How do we make room in the tent until no one is ignored or overlooked? We commit ourselves to pay better attention. We notice the least of these who have been forgotten – before it comes down to their last two pennies! We watch for our veterans returning home and we provide support groups for them to re-learn how to live with PTSD in civilian society. We give a turkey or prepare a meal this Thanksgiving so a family won’t go hungry in this land of plenty. We open our hearts to Syrian refugees, refusing to paint all Muslims as terrorists, as we welcome the stranger.

Don’t take it from me, “Old Long Robes.” No, take it from Jesus who once said, “I came as a guest, and you received me.” (Matt. 25:35). Let’s build a tent big enough for all to come and find peace and belonging this day. Let us pray:

O God, you gift us with many things. May we use them as stewards – to your glory – and toward the betterment of those in need among us – so that all might be welcome in your kingdom, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Smells Like A Saint – A sermon on All Saints Day

November 5, 2015

John 11:32-45
When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

All Saints Day / John Stiles / 11-1-15 / First Lutheran Church

Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from God our First Love in Christ Jesus. Let all who hear say, ‘Come!’ Amen.

Girl pinching her nose --- Image by © Wavebreak Media Ltd./Corbis

Girl pinching her nose — Image by © Wavebreak Media Ltd./Corbis

Do you smell something? What does a saint ‘smell like?’ Though my grandpa George would probably chuckle at being called a saint, I count him as such.  I remember as a kid visiting grandpa and he always smelled like Vicks Vapor Rub and Wintergreen candies. And if you even gave so much as a little sniffle or sneeze, he’d slather a generous layer of Vicks on your neck ~ because it’s good for you! You couldn’t really win an argument with grandpa, but besides all that, I knew he loved me. A real saint in my book. So, what about you? What saintly smells do you remember, both good or bad, growing up?

I remember the smell of oatmeal on the stove where my wife stands cooking it up at 6AM on a Sunday. A weekly ritual that I have come to appreciate deeply.   This week, we’ll head to Staples for the leutefisk dinner with some friends from church. Now, there’s a smell that can go either way, depending on which side of the fjord you grew up! No, some smells are not pleasant at all, are they?  I recall the smell of urine at the nursing home when I go to visit someone there. What smells bring you back to important people or moments in life? Is it the smell of perfume or cologne that remind you of an ex-lover? Or maybe the smell of saliva on the back of your head in the 7th grade when you were teased? What does grief smell like to you?  What really stinks in your life?

You see, Jesus knows something about stenches. When he arrived on the scene, in today’s lesson, his friend Lazarus had already been dead four days and there was a stench. But Jesus had a keen sense of smell. He could smell betrayal on Judas, as he dipped his bread in the sauce and greeted him with a kiss later that night. He could smell the fear in the woman caught in the act of adultery, shamelessly at his mercy, waiting to be stoned to death. He could smell the stench of greed as he toppled the tables of the money-changers who were cheating the people of God right there in the synagogue.

Anytime you encounter a situation in life that just plain stinks… he’s there. Like a Cosmic EMT who’s used to the sight of blood, Jesus is unafraid to get in there and stabilize us – check our vital signs so we can get the care we need. That’s just the way God operates. He’s got the stomach for all the things that make us want to throw up. And he lives in us as a fragrant bouquet for those who call on him in faith.

Mother smelling flower held by her son (4-5) --- Image by © Jorn/Corbis

Mother smelling flower held by her son (4-5) — Image by © Jorn/Corbis

I know, today is All Saints Sunday – a time to remember with fondness, those ‘saints’ in our lives who have gone before us – those who have “the aroma of Christ” – that pleasing smell of love and mercy. And yet, in our grief, as we hear the tolling of the bell and recall the names of those who have died this past year – we also bring a part of us that hurts, that stinks, that mourns. Maybe you’ve grieved well and have moved on or maybe you’re still healing from the hurt.

Granger Westberg, in his book Good Grief, reminds us of how much we try to avoid grief and talk of death. Of how boys, especially, are taught not to cry – to be a man – and show no emotion. So why then, do you suppose, God made tear ducts? Why was it important for John to include this famous “shortest verse in the Bible?” John 11:35 Jesus wept? (I know, the NRSV translated it into four words, but you get the idea) According to Westberg, there are several stages that one can go through when faced with a loss: shock, physical distress, panic, hurt feelings, anger, resentment, depression, and eventually… hope. But the tears are a part of that process.

Tears are simply a cleansing of the soul for those who have loved and lost. We grieve at the death of a family member or friend. We grieve at having to ‘put down’ the family pet. We grieve at the loss of health, eyesight, hearing. We grieve when a child goes missing – as with the Jacob Wetterling case, that has been in the news again this week. Even sending your kids off to college – or through marriage can be a loss. Westberg writes: “A child is lost not through death but through marriage. He takes all his belongings from his room, and the house is lifeless. A house once filled with laughter and joy is now as quiet as a tomb.”

And Jesus knows something about tombs. He knows the stench of decaying flesh and preserving spices such as myrrh. He can tell you what people say at the tomb. They get angry: “Lord, where were you? Having a day off? If you’d been here, he would not have died. You restored sight to the blind, so where were you?” It’s a fair question of the grief-stricken. Of those who are caught short of breath and slapped in the face with barely an idea of what hit them.

Anyone who’s had a loved one die or had a good friend move away or who has gotten passed over for that promotion – knows what it’s like to say, “This just stinks! Where were you, Jesus? Don’t you care?”

That’s the thing with loss. It hurts. But Jesus didn’t answer the question. No, when it comes to the questions that rise from the depths of our grief – no pat answer will do. Instead, he gives them something much more. He says: “I am the resurrection and the life.” (John 11:25) He gives them what they need.

No one wants to die. We’d rather have God deliver us from that harsh reality. Maybe that’s why books and movies about near-death experiences give us a glimmer of hope. But even those testimonies are just about resuscitation – not resurrection. Lazarus would go on to die again after this story. The promise, “Behold, I make all things new!” (from Revelation 21) comes only after the old has passed away. There is no way to grow into something new without letting go of what’s dead and gone.

And we can let go because Jesus promises to be there with us. And what does he do? He just weeps. He weeps right where you are, right in the middle of your awful, stinky, mess – fully aware of the stench, and thanks be to God that he’s not going anywhere!

Pastor Heidi Neumark once said, “Jesus stands with us in the face of all that stinks.” (The Christian Century, 10/31/12). He stood with Mary and Martha as the stench of Lazarus’ rotting corpse seeped from that tomb. He stands with kids who are bullied and teased. He stands with those who got bad news from the doctor. He stands with those in the midst of divorce, whose lifelong vows have been shattered. He stands in our worship – where people come, fully knowing they don’t have it all together. And he weeps, and he cares.

And that’s good news for me and for you. Because something new is coming, and it’s because of this story right here. Renowned preacher, Fred Craddock had it right when he said, “This story isn’t just for Mary and Martha, ‘Oh, good for them, they got their brother back.’ No, when Jesus called Lazarus out of that tomb he knew that he was about to go strait into it.” From that moment on, John tells us, the chief priests and the scribes looked for an opportunity to kill him. And maybe some of his tears were echoes of his prayer: “Father, if it be thy will, let this cup pass from me!” Our very human, brother Jesus didn’t want to die. And yet, here he is: invited to his own tomb with the words: Come and see. “Where have you laid him?” “Come and see.” It’s a call to discipleship that John uses repeatedly. Nathaniel said it to Philip: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Who is this Jesus?” “Come and see!” The woman at the well was so moved by Jesus, she invited her neighbors, “Come and see a man who told me everything – can he be the Messiah?” And here, Jesus is being called with the same words… to his friend’s tomb – and ultimately, to his own.

~He comes to see us in our times of trial.
~He comes to see the destruction in Texas, where record flooding has claimed lives and destroyed livelihoods along the gulf coast.
~He comes to stand with the soldier being deployed to Syria, not knowing when or if he will come home.
~He comes alongside the young person who has no place to sleep, except for the couches of friends who open their homes to the homeless.
~He comes to weep with the young man who left his home church years ago because he was transgendered, and she didn’t know if she’d be welcome anymore.
~He comes alongside that person who was shunned by parents for dating someone who doesn’t believe in God.
~He comes to stand with you in the stench you alone can smell. And he’s not going anywhere.

In Rev. 21:4 we hear: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” But notice how the very next verse describe the conditions: “7Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.” In other words: Jesus can stand the stench: all the failures and rottenness of our sinful nature. All we have to do is believe it – and receive the inheritance of the saints in Christ. All things are being made new, making us more than conquerors. When you live grounded in that hope, the people around you smell Jesus – the sweet smell of victory.

As Horace Mann once said (that champion of the American public schools): “Be afraid to die before you have made some small victory for humanity.” That’s what a saint looks like – or smells like – it’s that smell of victory around you that makes all the difference. It’s fresh coffee from a friend at just the right moment, or baked bread on the table feeding someone in more ways than one, or the sun on the bedsheets taken in from the line, as a blessing at the day’s end. It’s oatmeal on the kitchen stove at 6AM on a Sunday. It’s the smell of the top of a newborn baby’s head as the waters of baptism are poured out. It’s Christ living in you and me, in those small victories, that draws others to want to breathe it in more deeply. Take a deep breath right now and remember: you are the aroma of Christ – you saintly sinners – you ambassadors of Christ. And you smell great to me!

Let us pray: O God, some days we can’t stand the stench of this life. Weep with us. Give us courage to grieve, not as those who have no hope… but as children of your promise, filled with the aroma of Christ, in whose name we pray: Amen.