Sunday, January 24, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "Bound to Christ"

John 11:38-44

Jesus was deeply disturbed again when he came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone covered the entrance. 39 Jesus said, “Remove the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said, “Lord, the smell will be awful! He’s been dead four days.” 40 Jesus replied, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory?” 41 So they removed the stone. Jesus looked up and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me. 42 I know you always hear me. I say this for the benefit of the crowd standing here so that they will believe that you sent me.” 43 Having said this, Jesus shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied, and his face covered with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.” (Common English Bible)

“The Mount Rushmore of My Soul: Who Influences Your Faith?” Week Three

For a great many people, the murder of John Lennon in December 1980 was a watershed event, like those of a great many who were assassinated in the twenty years between 1960 and 1980—Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Harvey Milk, George Moscone, Robert Kennedy and, of course, President John F. Kennedy.  Jay Cocks, writing for TIME, said:

The outpouring of grief, wonder, and shared devastation that followed Lennon’s death had the same breadth or intensity as the reaction to the killing of a world figure: some bold and popular politician, like John or Robert Kennedy, or a spiritual leader, like Martin Luther King Jr.  But Lennon was a creature of poetic political metaphor, and his spiritual consciousness was directed inward, as a way of nurturing and widening his creative force.  That was what made the impact, and the difference—the shock of his imagination, the penetrating and pervasive traces of his genius—and it was the loss of all that, in so abrupt and awful a way, that was mourned…all over the world.

Had I been alive then, in 1980, I have no doubt that I too would have been profoundly affected by the news, not just because of the outsized role Lennon and the Beatles played in my life, and in the lives of millions of others, but because of the single fact that at the very moment that Lennon was pronounced dead on arrival, at 11:15 pm, December 8, 1980, a Beatles song, credited to the famous partnership of Lennon-McCartney, “All My Loving,” started playing on the hospital speaker system.

That is one of those moments when you have to think that there is indeed some manner of communication, no matter how mystical or unexplainable, that manages to convey sentiment from the dead to the living, and the living to the dead.  John Lennon’s music, unlike him, was and is immortal, so he continues to speak to us.

Likewise Jesus, who in both word and substance is immortal, continues to speak to us, even if we cannot, and have not ever heard His earthly voice, because that earthly voice once said to an otherwise undefined man named Lazarus to awaken from the slumber of death and arise to new life.

This is a new sermon series for a new year, although the genesis of this series came in the middle of 2015, when I posted on Facebook to ask folks what the Mount Rushmore of their faith would be—which four writers, pastors, theologians, etc. are the ones who have shaped their faith the most?

Once my (genuinely beloved) atheist friends had had their fun, I got an amazing array of responses to that question, with some names that were repeated several times: C.S. Lewis, Paul Tillich, Hildegard of Bingen, and Martin Luther King, Jr., all of whom would have made a great reserve squad if, you know, Mount Rushmore had a bench (I suspect that would have added a number of years to its construction).  But when I limited myself to four, the four that I eventually settled upon were St. Teresa of Avila, Soren Kierkegaard, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Nelson Mandela.

This sermon series, then, will take each of them and offer one sermon each on how they revealed God’s presence, truth, and love to a broken world in sore need of the message they had to offer, beginning two weeks ago with St. Teresa of Avila and continuing last week with Soren Kierkegaard.  Today, we’ll be talking about the impact of German pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed in a Nazi concentration camp less than a month before Nazi Germany surrendered to the combined Allied forces.  And by the time we finish talk about all four of them, we will be ready to enter February and the church season of Lent, something that Bonhoeffer himself would probably have gravitated towards, considering what lengths he went to in order to not just live out his convictions, but to reflect his discipleship in Jesus Christ.

Bonhoeffer himself was something of an odd duck—his own theology is more poetic than systematic, a quality much revered in contemporary theologians like Karl Barth and Paul Tillich, and he spoke of shedding all of his other identities (national, personal, etc.) in favor of looking towards a solitary divine identity that he hoped could create a Christianity bound together in following Christ:

Discipleship means being bound to Christ.  Because Christ is, there must be discipleship.  An idea of Christ, a doctrinal system, or a general religious knowledge of grace or forgiveness of sins makes discipleship unnecessary, is hostile to it, and, in truth, even excludes it.  With an idea one enters into a relationship of knowledge, enthusiasm, perhaps even realization, but never into personally obedient discipleship.  A Christianity without the living Jesus Christ necessarily remains a Christianity without discipleship, and a Christianity without discipleship is always a Christianity without Jesus Christ.  It is an idea, a myth.

Contrast that today with how we define ourselves by so many things: who we voted for in the last election, our political party, our level of education (or our distrust of education), even what sports teams we cheer for and which sports teams we necessarily despise as rivals, but not our Christianity.

All of which, believe it or not, brings us right to the threshold of Lazarus’s tomb outside of Bethany, near Jerusalem, as Jesus is about to enter the Holy City in preparation for His third and final Passover.  Before He does so, however, this crucial piece of work of raising Lazarus from the grave must be accomplished.

And it must be accomplished not because of who Lazarus is, really.  Yes, Lazarus was very close to Jesus—so much so that his death causes Jesus famously to weep in mourning for His friend.  But Lazarus really is a stand-in, a cardboard cutout, almost.  We know almost nothing else about the man except that he was close to Jesus, which means that if we too are close to Jesus, we have in common with Lazarus his greatest, most defining characteristic.

It means that Lazarus is a stand-in for us, a cardboard cutout of us.  Lazarus is who humanity could be if it were to shed all of its other identities and roles, hats and labels, and simply choose closeness to Jesus Christ, because as a direct result of that closeness, Lazarus is in a position to hear the voice of Jesus calling out to him, saying, “Lazarus, come out!”

And then, Jesus follows that up by commanding that Lazarus be untied of the clothes of death--the burial shroud--and to be let go.  Lazarus is untied, unshackled from the grave, he no longer bound to death, he is bound only to Christ.

In the deadness of the world, a deadness largely of our own making as we have made one another the targets of our hatred and our violence, our oppressions and our sins, yet a single, solitary divine voice calls out to us from beyond the confines of our own earthen coffins, our own trappings of dying to one another and to God, to say to each of us, “Lazarus, come out!”

God is bigger than the coffins and tombs we make for one another.  God is bigger than the weapons of war or of words we use to slay one another down.  God is greater than Lazarus’s dying.

That is why a precious few German Christians did outwardly protest the policies of the Nazi government.  Pastor Martin Niemoller dared to say from the pulpit that God was his Fuhrer, and for his criticisms he spent eight years in different concentration camps.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer could not abide by the eugenic and genocidal aims of the Holocaust, and as a result, he joined the Abwehr-based resistance, served them as a courier, and increasingly spoke out about the crimes against humanity taking place within his midst, leading to his 1943 arrest and 1945 execution as a martyr.

We bind ourselves to Christ when we first hear His voice, calling us to emerge from the tombs we have made for ourselves, whatever those tombs may be, on a systemic or individual level.  But we must continue to choose to bind ourselves to Christ in discipleship, to answer His call to us when He says to each of us, “Lazarus, come out!”

That is the choice Bonhoeffer made.  It is the choice we can make, or not make.  But much like the choice of any such larger-than-life voices, be they Bonhoeffer’s, be they John Lennon’s, those voices have a capacity and uncanny ability of calling out to us over and across time, even when they themselves have gone the way of Lazarus, so that even in the moment they pass from this world, their voices can still be heard, be it on a hospital’s sound system, or in the pulpit of a historic sanctuary, or in the still beating and enduring hearts of a faithful whose lives still act as a vibrant and vivid witness to all that Christ did and was.

What a great blessing it is, then, to be bound to Christ.  What a soul-sized burden.  What an amazing, awe-inspiring fate that we have chosen for ourselves.

Lazarus, come out!

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
January 24, 2016

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