Sunday, April 29, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "Shibboleth"

John 11:17-27

 17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Bethany was a little less than two miles from Jerusalem. 19 Many Jews had come to comfort Martha and Mary after their brother’s death. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him, while Mary remained in the house. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. 22 Even now I know that whatever you ask God, God will give you.” 23 Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha replied, “I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die. 26 Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She replied, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, God’s Son, the one who is coming into the world.” (CEB)

“The Lazarus Mission: In Search of the Meaning of a Miracle,” Week Three

The pair of New York playwrights could not have been more out of place sitting the counter of the Waffle House that sat on the Georgia-Alabama border. In the Deep South to perform research for a play they were writing, Erik and Jessica were drawn to the southern chain by its inexpensive coffee and abundant carbohydrates—both of which are major food groups for me as well. In their book, entitled Living Justice, they wrote about the first time they stepped into a Waffle House, having just arrived from New York City, and are approached by a waitress:

“You’re not from around here, are you?”

“Nope,” Erik says, “Can’t say that we are.”

“We figured you were from somewhere else…what’s that tattoo mean?”

Jessica replies, “It’s a tree of life. A religious symbol, you know?”


Then Erik jumps in, “That a John Deere out back?”

“You bet your (behind), son.”

“My grandfather was a farmer, you know; taught me how to fix one of those with a ball-peen hammer and a can of WD-40.”

And the waitress, no longer disturbed, but flirting, says, “Oh, really? Buy you a coffee?”

It is as though Erik had said the magic words that unlocked a stranger and turned them into an acquaintance—the password that brings down a person’s guard, and allows you in--which is what exactly happens in the Scripture passage here today.

This Sunday marks the third installment of this sermon series for us that we have been exploring as a celebration of the church season of Easter, as well during as of the earthly season of spring—which means that for both Christians and non-Christians alike, this is a time of growth and renewal and, most importantly, of new life! Having just heard the most famous resurrection story the Bible has to offer on Easter Sunday, we will be spending four weeks going verse-by-verse through the second-most famous resurrection story—the story of the raising of Jesus’s friend Lazarus, a story that is only found in the Gospel of John. It is not the only resurrection miracle that Jesus performs—there is also, in the other three Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the story of Jairus’s daughter being resurrected by Jesus. But the raising of Lazarus is told in such rich and lavish detail that it has come to occupy a unique place in our collective memory as an exceptionally well-known and well-loved story. The first week, to kick off the story, we began with Jesus first hearing that Lazarus has fallen ill—not that Lazarus has died—but that he is sick. Last week, Jesus pronounces Lazarus dead and finally acts—to return to Judea to raise Lazarus, and this week, He arrives and we see the drama begin to unfold.

And in the midst of this drama, we are given one of the most famous Jesus quotes of all, one that probably ranks right up there with turn the other cheek, do unto others, and love thy neighbor—“I am the Resurrection and the Life, he who believes in me, though he were dead, shall live, and whosoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” And we do this Jesus quote a profound disservice when we forget that it was never meant to stand on its own—it is Jesus’ reply to Martha’s incorrect statement that she would be reunited with Lazarus at the end of time—Jesus says, “Your brother will rise,” and Martha says, “I know. He will rise in the resurrection on the last day.” Now that may sound hopeful to the untrained ear, but it really isn’t—Martha is saying she has no hope of seeing her brother again until the very end of time.

So while we may treat Jesus’ pronouncement here as a standalone sort of statement, it doesn’t quite work like that. Try hearing Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in a total vacuum, devoid of the racism and injustice that he was protesting. Imagine listening to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address without actually knowing about the American Civil War. For a more contemporary example...try watching the television show Family Guy without having ever seen the show it blatantly rips off of, The Simpsons! We cannot afford to do the same to Jesus’ teachings, and so we cannot afford to forget that Jesus is consoling a woman who, for completely understandable reasons, has lost her faith.

Because we have all probably been there at some point in our lives, right? Where our faith was weakened, broken, even shattered completely and had to be carefully and lovingly rebuilt bit by bit, piece by piece. But we are not so lucky as Mary and Martha are in this story, to have their faith in God, and their faith in Christ, restored in one fell swoop with the raising of Lazarus—for a lot of us, it takes time. And Martha thinks it will take time for her as well—enough time to fill eternity until she sees her brother again. And because of that, I think that for the two of them, the reality is that without these two verses, without this simple, fundamental truth, that their faith could not exist as it did. This is the new building block, the new keystone upon which these two women's faiths are being built, that Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life.

The choice of words is not coincidental, for Martha’s new affirmation of faith, “You are the Messiah, the Son of God,” is almost word for word what the new rock, the foundation of our church, the disciple Peter, says to Jesus in Matthew 16—“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” The difference of the word “living,” or of the addition of "who is coming into the world" may seem inconsequential to us in passing, but to me, it actually means a great deal to who Peter was, and who Martha was, as a believer.

We each see and perceive and interpret the world a little bit differently than the person next to us. We each have our own vocabulary and our own dialect, our own ways of expressing ourselves, and that is as true then as it is now—in the book of Judges, there is the story of a rebel faction of Ephraimites, members of one of the tribes, trying to cross over the Jordan into Gilead during the war, and Israel’s judge at the time, Jephthah, he defends Gilead by asking the rogue Ephraimites to say the word, “Shibboleth,” and as the Scripture said, the Ephraimite would say, “Sibboleth,” because he could not pronounce it correctly. It distinguished true Israelites from the rebels. And the slight change in wording from Matthew to John distinguishes Martha’s faith from Peter’s. 

Each of you has your own shibboleth—your own pronouncement of faith that will always likely vary just a little bit from the person sitting next to you. Cast about your own mind, think about what Scripture verse you have built the entirety of your faith upon. I know for many of you, that verse is John 3:16, for God so loved the world that He gave His only Son. For still others of you, it may be Romans 10:9, all who confess with their lips that Jesus Christ is Lord shall be saved, or perhaps Deuteronomy 6:5, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. Just as Martha and Peter word their shibboleths differently, so too do each of you have those slight differences that make your faith--that make it unique, like your own spiritual fingerprint. And so, I imagine for some of you out there, it may well be here, that whoever lives and believes in Jesus shall never die. And when you hear the faith of another believer proclaimed, and know in your soul that without that faith, that fundamental truth that belief in Jesus means you shall live, that you could not be a Christian, without that piece of knowledge you could not live out your religion, it reminds you that sometimes, you too are as Martha with only that piece of faith to cling to in a sea of death and loss and grief and despair.

Jesus has found Martha’s own Shibboleth, and after beginning this story in a state of hurt and anger towards her Messiah, she is now prepared to let him in to heal her family once and for all. What an amazing reversal for her! May that be the place we find ourselves, the place we allow Jesus to find us, having just placed our trust and faith in Him to make our wounded selves whole.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
April 29, 2012

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