1. We join the conversation already in progress, with King David prompting us on what to say and how to say it.

While Sarah snipped at my sideburns a phone call came in. She excused herself, backed away from my scalp and answered it. Then, upon her return to my swivel chair, I joined the conversation already in progress.

Now, do you realize this morning that each one of us will join at least one conversation in progress per day? That is, presuming that we live among other human beings and that we periodically go to Supercuts and pay $13 for a hair cut, the chances are very good that we will catch someone in the middle of a repartee. Generally speaking we won’t catch them at the beginning. Mothers and fathers and assorted legal guardians have already taken care of that. And we won’t catch them at the end of the conversation either. If you’ve ever had the privilege of visiting an elderly person in a nursing home, for example, you may overhear an old show tune, and that show tune may call to mind the memories of countless weddings, debutant balls and USO dances. To truly engage someone before the first memory has been imprinted or to resolve the unfinished business of a lifetime is truly rare, which is why (I think) we need some help when it comes to the middle.

We need some help when it comes to joining a conversation already in progress; that’s where the action is! And, you see, in the case of Sarah, that conversation involves the one she’s having with her eight-year old son. That had been her son’s school on the phone. They needed to re-schedule a teacher’s conference and wanted to confirm Sarah’s availability for 8 a.m. the next morning. Sarah then told me how important her son (and her daughter) had been to her. She said, “No offense, but I don’t want to be cutting hair the rest of my life.” “None taken,” I replied, looking at her face in the mirror. She then proceeded to discuss with me her plans of going to college and majoring in nutrition. “What happened to the kids’ father?”
“We’re not together anymore,” she said. “But I have a boyfriend; we waited six months before moving in together.”

“Do you have any other family in Spokane?”

“My grandmother used to live here; that’s why I moved from Seattle when I was fifteen, to be with her…”

I listened as Sarah snipped around my left ear lobe, not asking about her parents. “Last year she moved to Portland,” Sarah continued.
“Why did she do that?” I protested.
“I don’t know. To get away, I guess.”

So, at this point, you’re probably wondering where Jeremiah, the Hebrew prophet, comes into play. You’re probably wondering if there’s anything helpful or relevant that he’d like to add to the conversation. And I think there is:
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise that I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David…”

You see, what’s relevant here, more than anything that we can ever experience, is the promise. God has promised. According to the prophet from 587 BCE God has promised a future of homecoming and of righteousness. And now, while she’s making plans, someone like Sarah might want to hear about that promise. She might want to factor it into the equation.

For instance, she might want to know that King David, for all of his splendor, did have his regrets. In fact, if there’s anything that King David says that still whispers in our ears it’s this: “I have sinned…” He says it two times that we know of (in 2 Samuel), and each time God promises to continue his family line. That’s a promise of homecoming and of righteousness which fades in and fades out and fades in for thousands of years. And I suppose, given her situation with the father of her children and given the fact that her grandmother likes to get away, someone like Sarah may want to know that for David there springs up a righteous Branch. Would you like to know?
2. Another word for righteousness is justification—the process of being made right.

“Something has spoken to me in the night,” writes Thomas Wolfe in the novel, You Can’t Go Home Again.
something has spoken in the night, and told me I shall die, I know not where. Saying: “To lose the earth you know, for greater knowing; to lose the life you have for greater life; to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth.

The interesting thing about this passage from a great American author is the way it continues to haunt us. No matter how transient or how rootless or how forgetful we become the yearning for home will not leave us behind. The nostalgia for the glory days cannot be shaken. But, when we believe that we have found it, when we settle in and say to ourselves, “Ah, finally we can rest,” that’s exactly the moment that we hear something speaking to us in the night.
Is there “a land more kind than home”?

In the Forrest Gump movie, starring Tom Hanks and Robin Wright Penn, there’s a little girl, named Jenny, who befriends the boy from Greenbough, Alabama, but she never wants to go home. All day and all night, Forrest and Jenny are like peas and carrots, holding hands under the large sycamore tree, watching the sun go down. For some reason—a reason that we learn later—Jenny doesn’t want to go home. One day, Forrest finds her hiding in the back yard. When Jenny’s father, in a drunken rage, yells for her, they run together into the cornfield. “Dear God,” she prays, knelling down, “Make me a bird and let me fly, far, far away…”

You see, what every home needs is something more than even the best of parents can provide. It’s something that can’t even be bought with the best of college educations. It can’t even be earned with a lot of hard work and ingenuity. Jeremiah 33 refers to it as “righteousness.”
“he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called, ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’”
So let’s think about this. Let’s not just assume that we automatically understand what Jeremiah is promising. It’s not a matter of God rewarding those who are right and punishing those who are wrong. In fact, if we go from the Hebrew into the Greek translation of the word, righteousness, we discover that it can also be rendered as justification. And justification actually defies the simple categories of right and wrong. Justification is actually the process by which human beings are made right. And this is what Jeremiah 33 promises for our future; it’s not a homecoming in which we will be rewarded for doing what’s right; it’s a homecoming in which we will be made right.

3. God promises, so there’s no need to decorate this Branch.

I love that scene in the Charlie Brown Christmas classic, when Charlie Brown listens to Linus tell him what the Christmas story is all about. He listens and he believes and then he takes his small and pathetic stalk of an evergreen branch outside. Charlie Brown is determined to decorate the tree, but when he transfers a huge ornament off of Snoopy’s first prize dog house display, the tree droops with the weight of it, and Charlie Brown stomps off, saying, “Everything I touch gets ruined.”

Now, I don’t mind telling you that I have occasionally felt like Charlie Brown; and maybe on various occasions you have felt that way too. Everything we touch gets ruined. But what if, with Jeremiah’s help, we can see our way clear to one righteous branch that needs no decoration. In fact, suppose for the next four weeks, you and I leave one vulnerable area of our lives totally exposed to God’s promise. And suppose, here at Latah Valley, we refrain from justifying ourselves or redeeming ourselves or rationalizing ourselves, but we allow the story of Jesus Christ to spring up, pristine and green, in the middle of a conversation. If that could happen it doesn’t matter if the whole family tree is sick and sorry; there’s at least one branch that will never die.

Where we used to live, a new housing development sprang up over the course of a few months, maybe a year. We lived among the model homes, where there had only been a few trees planted that were over six feet tall. I wanted more trees in our yard for our kids to climb, and so I sent away for a pack of seedlings. A box then came in the mail with about three or four twigs, er, I mean, branches with tiny green shoots at the bottom of them. So I dug my holes and planted these sticks in the ground and waited. I waited into the spring, when the neighbor boys decided to play a game of “war,” and one of the kids ripped a tree out of the moist earth. He used it as a sword to beat the other kids. And I said, “Hey, give me my tree back!” He said, “You mean this stick.” I replied, “Excuse me, son, that’s a tree.” Well, I re-planted that branch, with little green shoots, and last summer we paid a visit to our old neighborhood, where I checked the trees in the backyard. And wouldn’t you know it… That small righteous branch, once used as a weapon of war, was now about as tall as this 16 foot ceiling and had a truck as thick as my 45 year old expanding waistline. I tell you, it takes time.

Even a righteous branch takes time to grow. But it does grow, when we’re not paying attention. It grows as it’s vulnerable and seemingly ready to die. Even here at Latah Valley, watch it grow.



Read Luke 17:1–10

1. Don’t Rebuke Without Being Ready To Forgive Again and Again.

In the long history of utensils—from the apple peeler to the zucchini masher—from the cheese grater to the meat slicer—from the energetic egg-beater to the no-stick Teflon spatula—from the toaster oven to the George Forman Grill—there has never been an instrument quite like it. No, it’s not necessarily a piece of kitchen ware. We wouldn’t find one on sale at Target or Shopko. But as far as its enduring impact upon the eating habits of the civilized world, the millstone takes the cake. Or more precisely, the millstone actually grinds the grain into the flour that makes the cake, and, in the ancient world, this simple round granite rock would be the utensil which would turn the wheat growing in the field into that ever-present source of sustenance, bread.

The millstone, therefore, has always had an appropriate use. And it is a use that leads to feasting and to life. But, suppose, for the sake of argument, that we might consider the most inappropriate use of a millstone. We might, for example, imagine using the millstone as a table. We might consider using a millstone as a heavy-duty studded snow tire. Given its girth we might even want to use a millstone as a trash compacter. But, you see, never in two-thousand years would we want to make use of a millstone as a necklace. We would never, in two thousand years, think of wearing it around our necks before swimming in the lake.

And yet, when we read Luke’s Gospel this morning, there it is for us to ponder: the most inappropriate use of a utensil in the history of the culinary arts.
“Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.”

Heading into the Thanksgiving holiday this week, I’ve been wondering about what Jesus says here. And it seems to me that he doesn’t mix his metaphors too often. But when he does, as per a millstone, the effect is dramatic…
I walked up the aisle of the K-Mart, searching for the Live-Bait refrigerator in the fishing section of the store. Someone had told me that I could get two dozen night-crawlers there for three dollars. But, just as I made the turn at the display for pots and pans, a woman and, what looked to be, her daughter stood, nose to nose, in my path. The girl writhed under the grasp of her mother’s hand, and after a brief flash of ‘attitude’ she simply looked down at the linoleum while her mother continued to berate her. “Sorry,” she whispered, trying not to draw any more attention to herself. “Sorry… Sorry… Sorry…” Well, while passing by, I tried not to look at them. I tried to give them their space because, Lord knows, I’ve had my own issues in public with my own children. But here’s the thing that pushed me over the edge. When I heard the mother broadcast words like “stupid” and “selfish” and “ugly” and “ungrateful brat,” my sneakers screeched to a halt in front of them. And I heard my voice interject this unwelcome remark, “I think she gets it.”

Now you might not think of this episode as having anything to do with God or Jesus or any kind of recipe for salvation stew. You might even caution me in terms of minding my own business. But here’s where the millstone comes into play. Just as it would be extremely inappropriate for us to wade into the water while wearing a millstone around the neck, it is also inappropriate to rebuke someone without leading that person toward forgiveness.

I will grant you that a mother and child do not typically enter K-Mart with the expectation of picking up a saying or two of Jesus. But, you see, neither is any child of God, any “little one,” meant to be weighted down with our finger-wagging. And this is part and parcel of what it means to be trained as a disciple of Jesus. You and I are stirring in the world like tasty morsels of accountability and forgiveness. Where people imagine that they are free to do whatever the hell they want, we remind that they are accountable to others and to God. And where they have really messed up, we appropriately “must forgive.”
2. An Increase In Faith Follows The Pattern of Smallness, Uprooting and Re-Planting In The Sea.

A few nights ago, Ian practiced for a debate tournament in which he would deliver the same sermon that Jonathan Edwards preached on July 8, 1741. Here’s a little taste of what the congregation of Enfield, Connecticut heard on that day:
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times so abominable…

Now, before going any further, I’d like to contrast the starting point of Jesus versus the starting point of Jonathan Edwards. First, Jesus assumes that “occasions for stumbling are bound to come,” but he saves his “woe”—his most dire warning for those within the community of faith who might cause someone to stumble. By contrast, Mr. Edwards launches his tirade against who have stumbled before coming to faith in Jesus Christ. Second, Jesus will talk about increasing in faith, or growing in faith, or maturing in faith, much more than he will threaten people with hell for not having any faith.
“If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you” (v. 6).

You see, this is not as discouraging as it may initially sound. Fred Craddock even points out that a better translation of that conditional clause might read:
“If you had faith the size of a mustard seed—and you do…” You and I do have faith the size of a mustard size. So, assuming that, let’s extrapolate further.

Corrie Ten Boom wrote a book, called The Hiding Place, in which she described surviving the trauma of living in the Netherlands during World War Two. During the war she saw her faith in Jesus actually grow, and after the war Corrie Ten Boom discovered that God had even more growth in store for her. She had been speaking at a church service in Munich, when she recognized the former SS man who had stood guard at the showers of a concentration camp. After the service then came these flashbacks:
“And suddenly it was all there – the roomful of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, Betsie’s pain-blanched face. He came up to me as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing. “How grateful I am for your message Fräulein”, he said “To think that, as you say, (Jesus) has washed my sins away!” His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often to the people in Bloemendaal the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side. Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this
man; was I going to ask for more? Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him.”
You see, in that electrifying moment, when Corrie Ten Boom explains how she actually forgive the SS man with the actual forgiveness of God coursing through her hand, there’s an undeniable pattern that we might want to keep in mind.

Here it is: if we recognize that we have faith the size of a mustard—if it’s obvious to us how small and insignificant we are—Luke 17:6 claims that the mulberry tree can be uprooted. In other words, that thing that haunts the landscape of your life can be removed. Not only can it be removed it can be re-planted in the sea where it won’t bother anybody anymore.

I don’t know if it was a mulberry tree or something else, but Michael Lindvall, in his book, The Good News From North Haven, describes a woman who used to mark the leaves of the tree that she had planted in her front yard. In the late summer, Lindvall spotted her on a ladder, and with a sharpie, she scribbled an X on the back of every sprig of green growth. When asked why she was doing such a thing, Lindvall says that she pointed to the neighbor’s tree in the adjoining yard. She said that when the leaves would die and fall to the ground she would be damned if she was going to rake anything that didn’t fall from her own tree. She didn’t mind raking the leaves from her own family tree; it was just that she couldn’t tolerate her neighbor’s leaves getting mixed up with her own. Well, depending upon your perspective, Jesus offers some advice to the lady in Lindvall’s story and to anyone who finds him or herself desperately entangled with the sins of the past, or with the sins of those whom we now must consider neighbors. And the advice goes like this: If you only had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could talk to that tree, and it would be gone forever.

3. Celebrate Thanksgiving Without Expecting To Be Thanked.

Beginning last Thursday, I believe, the Butterball hotline has been and will continue to field calls from those households for whom the word turkey is synonymous with trouble. The turkey becomes trouble, for example, whenever the children in the room park their matchbox cars within the hollowed out cavity of the bird. If that should happen, as it has happened, the Butterball experts are there to offer their wisdom, which would be to not be too hard on the little ones and to skip the stuffy this year. And, you see, these kinds of calls are placed repeatedly—so much so that we have to wonder. Could this be symbolic of a deeper, spiritual condition? I think so. In fact, I think the Butterball experts are on to something when they talk about not expecting their callers to thank them on Thanksgiving. They’ve actually prepared themselves for the person who resembles the 1993 one who called in a panic. Almost hyperventilating, this woman contacted the hotline to say that her pet Chihuahua had crawled all the way inside a twenty pound turkey. After helping the pooch escape through some minor surgical procedure, no expressions of gratitude were exchanged. And you see, I think there’s an insight here for our work at Latah Valley. Jesus says,
“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink…’”

Now I do not presume to call anyone, who participates at Latah Valley, a slave. No one here is enslaved to this ministry. You and I are all free to come and to go. But, consider this: within the context of our recipe for salvation stew—that is, our personal relationship with Jesus Christ—these final instructions should haunt us. If you and I are maturing in faith, there will come a time when no one will say thank you. And in that time we’ll be surprise that we keep working, because, in the end, “we have done only what we ought to have done.” Amen.

Stir While The World Simmers

November 15, 2009

1. Out of The Ruins A Community Emerges.

There is a time, in the late afternoon, when the blue lights flicker. You can see them like swarms of small insects, winging quickly out of a window or into an open door. Up and down the road, in the gathering darkness of a late autumn day, the television sets come on. I don’t mean to imply that they come on by themselves; I’m assuming that an individual is there, manipulating the remote. I’m assuming that there are families there, behind every door, changing the channels with their competing index fingers. And what each household sees, flickering in shades of blue, are the images of the day’s news. And what every computer monitor and every television screen makes all too clear is this: the world is boiling over.

I remember my father cursing President Richard Nixon. As a ten year old child I had no idea what he had against the man. But, as my mother stirred the soup in the kitchen, as she salted and peppered and added bay leaves to it, I could hear him venting his fears and frustrations. I could hear him shouting and sighing and rolling his eyes… And how I wish, as I look back, that we could have done something—that we could have reached into the blue light with a spoon and simply stirred! How I wish we could have stirred… And how I still wish!
“For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines…”

If you remember the blue soup scene from the movie, Bridget Jones Diary, you know what I’m going to talk about. Bridget Jones wants to impress her friends with a multi-course gourmet meal. In her cookbook she reads the instructions for a special kind of soup—the kind of soup that requires her to tie up some of the ingredients with a string and then let it simmer. Bridget doesn’t have any culinary types of string. All she finds in her kitchen drawer is this blue yarn that she’s used to knit sweaters. So, in the panic of preparation, she binds the food items with the blue twine and cooks them as directed. Guess what happens.
Well, nothing boils over. And nothing is rendered completely inedible. But, as Bridget stirs, the dye in the yarn turns the broth of the soup blue. Not to be discouraged the hostess then serves the soup in silence. One of her friends picks out some of the melted yarn from her teeth. Another then says, “Hmmm. This is really good,” before all of them burst out in laughter. “To Bridget,” they say, while raising their glasses, “whom we love just as she is.”

Yes, believe it or not, out of the ruins a community emerges. It happens at dinner parties which go awry. It happens when the flickering blue lights go dim. And it happens in Mark’s Gospel, when the teacher is invited to look.
“Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”
“Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another…”

You see, this strikes me as kind of a weird thing for Jesus to say. For as long as any faithful Jew could remember, the re-built temple in Jerusalem had been a crucial ingredient of personal salvation. The temple, along with the text of the Torah, were in fact non-negotiable components of faith in Yahweh, the One who had delivered the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt and then brought a merciful end to the exile in Babylon. The temple embodied the history of God’s people on earth and throughout the millennia. So, when Jesus announces quite matter-of-factly that none of these great buildings will remain intact, it gets your attention. Why is he stirring this up? And why now? I mean, why would Jesus take the single most stable institution of faith in God and take it apart?

The same question, you see, can be asked regarding the institution of church today. Why is it changing? With all the turmoil in the world today, why can’t we have church stay the same? And maybe the answer has more to do with the way God stirs in us. God stirs in us and through us the whole world of blue flickering images becomes a kettle of soup and around that blue soup a community emerges.
2. Wait. Wait. Wait For The End. And Then Wait Some More.

In their classic book, Resident Aliens, Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon describe the end of the world as we know it. The end happened, they stipulate, on a Sunday evening in Greenville, South Carolina. Then…
“in defiance of the state’s time-honored blue laws, the Fox Theater opened on Sundays. Seven of us—regular attenders of the Methodist Youth Fellowship at Buncombe Street Church—made a pact to enter the front door of the church, be seen, then quietly slip out the back door and join John Wayne at the Fox” (p. 15).

In other words, that “defiance” concluded the long centuries, during which the church had been the only game in town. That was the end of the institution, monopolizing the minds and hearts of Greenville, South Carolina. From that point on, a young man or a young woman didn’t have to socialize at Youth Group; he could mingle with the images cowboys and soldiers on the screen. And she could cavort with her friends and dream of a leading man all while munching butter-soaked popcorn rather than the stale communion bread of the fractured fellowship hall. And, you see, let’s be honest. Even though we’ve more or less internalized this once-upon-a-time-church-dominated society coming to an unceremonious and non-sanctimonious and irreverent end, the journey has obviously meandered on. And the question is where? Where are we stirred in a world where the vehicle for that salvation seems broken down?

“The end is still to come,” says Jesus in Mark 13:7. The end is still to come…

I took a date to my high school’s performance of Mouse Trap. We were there in the audience for Acts 1 & 2, and without any programs, I didn’t know about Acts 3 & 4. So, during intermission, I stood up and gestured to my date that we should go. Like a good, compliant and submissive girl, she went. She grasped my hand and followed me up the aisle and out the door and into the parking lot. I stuck my key in the ignition when I realized that no one else had left the building. Luanne then said, “I’m not sure it’s the end.”
Well, it wasn’t the end at all. But, by God, I had already left the auditorium. I had nearly started the engine of the car. I wanted to grab a bite to eat and a kiss before her curfew. To walk back into that performance would be humiliating. And yet, by the look on her face I could see that none of that mattered—not even the kiss. What mattered is that we could wait for the end. We could go back, join the community and wait.

N.T. Wright, in one of his commentaries, talks about an imaginary work of William Shakespeare. He writes about some old librarian discovering four Acts of a five-act play. Acts one and three are intact. Act five is also well-preserved. What is missing, however, is Act four. And so, he invites this comparison. How can any actor, in knowing the build-up and the culmination of this work of art, actually ad-lib his lines for Act four? The only way Shakespearian actor could possibly get by is to wait. Wait. Wait. Wait for the end. And, far from being passive and apathetic, this waiting happens to be filled with all kinds of creative things to do and to say. So, let’s make the leap. Leap into the life of salvation through Jesus Christ, our Lord. We know the build up. We know the ultimate end of Revelation 21, where there will be a new heaven and a new earth. So start acting. Start acting as if you know the end, and as if you know “the end is still to come.” Start acting. Start creating new dialogue. Start handling new props. Start imagining new relationships.
“This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”

When Jesus makes this remark in Mark 13:8, it’s rather jarring. How do the concepts of birth and the birthing process fit with all the hell and mayhem that he describes just earlier? How does new life attach itself to things like war and rumors of war? And then it hit me like a messy placenta in the face. Followers of Jesus are meant to slime and to be slimed with hope. And for hope to be genuine it has to be felt and expressed when there doesn’t seem to be any hope at all.
3. The Contractions Are Closer Than Ever. But Don’t Push Yet.

Michael Yaconelli is a Christian leader who died about ten years ago. About a month before he died he wrote this short piece in a magazine that he founded called The Door.
“It is like swinging on a trapeze. Once you have gained the courage to swing, you never want to let go . . . and then, without warning (around age 50, for me), you look up and see another trapeze swinging towards you, perfectly timed to meet you, and you realize you are being asked to let go and grab onto the other trapeze. You have to release your grip. You have to reach out. You have to experience the glorious terror of inbetween-ness as you disconnect from one and reach for the other.
“This past year has been a time of letting go, one finger at a time, and these last few weeks have been a terrifying weightlessness, a wait-lessness, a paralyzing stretch for the unknown. I haven’t reached the other bar yet. I am somewhere in between, but I can tell you this: my heart is filled with an exhilaration, an anxious anticipation that just as I get to the other bar, I will not grasp it, but I will instead be grasped by the hand of Jesus. I can hardly wait.”

1. A False Piety Has Many Perks, But The Affirmation of God Is Not One of Them.

How much do you want to bet that the widow in today’s passage makes a great broth? How much do you want to bet that it’s like the stuff that your grandmother used to make—that it’s rich and creamy and smells like heaven? And how much do you want to bet that in her day this poor woman has sliced, diced and stewed more potatoes than all “the scribes” mentioned in Mark’s Gospel, Matthew’s Gospel, Luke’s Gospel and John’s Gospel combined? I would like to wager two Jewish leptons. That is, if I had any, I would like to wager two Jewish leptons. But in lieu of those ancient coins, what I can offer is vulnerability. Vulnerability and Risk. These are the two sides of the same coin that Jesus endorses in Mark 12:42. But what he does not endorse, in verse 41, is also worth mentioning.

Jesus neither endorses, nor shows much tolerance for a false piety, and the reason, I think, goes like this: being religious for the sake of being seen by others will inhibit the vulnerability and the risk that gives salvation in Christ its essential flavor. Showing off your faith with the aim of drawing attention to yourself will actually poison the relationships that you hope to salvage.

Now, in drawing this initial conclusion from the passage, let me just point out that none of this dynamic is obvious to the naked eye. In fact, Jesus has to sit opposite the temple treasury a good length of time before making the observation. And he will readily admit, a false piety has many perks, including the best seats at the synagogue, the places of honor at the banquets, plus the attention that spectators will give to your long prayers. There are public and present-day perks to a false piety, but the affirmation of God is not one of them. And, you see, that begs the question, the question that Jesus doesn’t say aloud, but it’s lurking there anyway and ready to pounce: Do we want the affirmation of God more than we want the image of being affirmed by God?

“It’s good for our marriage.” This is what my church secretary told me about her recent discussions with her husband. For years he had been the Dean of Students and traveled around the country, lecturing other college faculty and students. For years he had been the absentee partner at all the church potlucks and all the Christmas pageants and all the mission projects. Phyllis was there, but Tom wasn’t. And then, one day, as he took the up escalator at the Atlanta airport, Jesus came to the Dean of Students. Jesus came and Tom prayed and by the time he reached the top floor he had accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior.
Upon hearing the news, of course, Phyllis let out a mighty laugh. The ripple effect of this faith decision would be huge. Not only would the dynamics of their marriage change, but our church would change too. From now on, Tom would be there at the soup kitchen. He would be there in the front pew. And with the considerable wealth that he had gained on the speaking tours, Tom’s money would be there too. If Tom didn’t like the carpet in the narthex, that carpet would be gone. If Tom wanted to teach the kids to memorize Bible verses, Tom had the crisp dollar bills to motivate them.

And this is how things went for the Dean of Students. The Christian life for him would take him up the up escalator. He and another faculty member would soon form an elite group. They would be the Christians on campus that all the students could go to if they had a question about the Bible or the right way to live life. They would be the ones sitting together on the dais during the luncheons. They would also be the ones who handed out awards and received awards on television. But I remember the day that Phyllis told me.

She said that she had made a stew for supper and that in the middle of the meal she told her husband respectfully that he didn’t know as much as he thought he knew. And when I picked up my jaw from the floor and asked how that went over, my church secretary said, “Well. It’s good for our marriage.”

2. Jesus Is Watching You, and He Knows What You Did Last Summer.

You see, what I’m suggesting today is that anything that Jesus notices we ought to notice too. Jesus is watching. And again, the question is, if we care. Do we care about what he cares about? Do we care about the broth?

There’s a famous joke about a burglar who breaks into a home. In the home, beneath a white cloth, a parrot begins to stir in his cage. The thief at first becomes alarmed when he hears the parrot speak, but then he realizes that the bird is simply repeating what it’s been taught to say. “Jesus is watching you,” says the parrot. “Jesus is watching you.” Over and over again the robber hears the words, until finally, in frustration, he tells the feathered fiend to shut his beak. Into the kitchen he then goes to ransack the silverware. Once there the thief notices a dog dish on the floor. The name on the dish reads, Jesus.
And suddenly, as the ferocious Rottweiler leaps upon the neck of the intruder, the words of the parrot carry a lot more weight. Jesus is watching you.

Now, having told that joke to the best of my ability, I know that you may only laugh at me if I repeat the phrase. And yet, here goes: just as Jesus, in Mark 11:41, watches “the crowd putting money into the treasury,” he is also—to this very day—watching you and watching me. We are being watched. We are being watched, not by the Big Brother monitors of George Orwell, and not by the private detectives or the paparazzi of Spy magazine. In fact, part of the salvation that we experience in Jesus Christ implies that we submit to his vision for our lives—that we feel the eyes of Jesus upon us, more than we feel the eyes of anyone else on the face of the earth.

And if you were to ask me, based upon today’s passage, what Jesus watches about us, I’d have to say that he’s watching to see how much vulnerability we’re putting in the broth. He’s watching to see if what we give to others in his name actually makes us vulnerable.
You see, the reason that I can say this is that when Jesus observes “many rich people” putting in “large sums” of money at the temple treasury, he’s not impressed. These aren’t people who are taking a risk on the family of faith. And so, Jesus could really care less about how much they’ve given specifically. More to the point is that he does notice specifically the amount given by the poor widow. She gives “two small copper coins,” which isn’t very much at all. It’s not very much at all, and yet Jesus describes it as “more.” In terms of vulnerability and risk—which is the currency that Jesus values—a couple of Jewish leptons is a huge investment in God’s kingdom.

A few years ago a scary movie hit the theatres, starring Jennifer Love-Hewitt and Sarah Michelle Gellar. I Know What You Did Last Summer is the name, and its basic plot involves a violent psychopath who stalks these young coeds.
The sequel to I Know What You Did…, I Still Know What You Did… came out a year later. And more recently a third installment went straight to DVD. This last film is called I’ll Always Know What You Did Last Summer. Anyway, I’m mentioning all these frightening flicks, not because I’d like to recommend them. On the contrary. I don’t have to go into detail to tell you what these sordid tales are all about. And what they’re about, I think, is the idea that our past deeds will come back to haunt us. What they’re about is the broth we’re making and the stew we’re stewing.

Well, what if I announced to you this morning that there’s a way for us not to be scared anymore! In fact, what if Jesus of Nazareth actually knows what you and I did last summer—and he forgives—and he promises new life! You see, if that the case, then what we’ve done in the past doesn’t matter nearly as much as what we’re willing to risk for the future. Jesus can take any of our bitter stuff and mix it with something sweet. Jesus can take any experience that’s left us sour and make it sumptuous. But the key is the vulnerability with which we offer ourselves to the stew that God is stewing.
3. When “Everything” Isn’t Very Much, It Goes A Lot Longer.

“I don’t want to get socks or hoodies or any of that stuff from you anymore…”

This is how Josie, a twenty-something street person spoke to the pastor of The Bridge, a new church in down-town Portland. “I don’t want any of that stuff anymore… I want to be a part of your community and earn money and buy that junk and give it away with you guys.”

In other words, I don’t want to continually get and get and get. I want to give. I want to be with a community for whom “everything” may not be very much, but it goes a lot longer.

Think about Latah Valley. Think about the small, meager things that we can do that risk “everything… everything we have to live on.” Yesterday, a seventy year old mean stood upon a ladder. He didn’t have to. He wanted to. And when the ladder slipped and gave way beneath him, this anonymous man fell. His face hit the floor and he bled. He went to the hospital and the doctor said that he fractured a bone in his face. She said it could have been much worse. But, you see, it couldn’t have been better. It’s good for us to hear about a man or a woman giving everything. It’s good. Giving like that adds a lot to the stew.


1. The weeping indicates that it’s personal for (at least) Jesus.

A few years ago I accompanied a group of teenagers through a corn maze. With me as their guide, we got lost of course. But eventually we made our way out of the tall stalks and into make-shift amphitheatre, where the host of the corn maze served us hot chocolate and apple cider. Then we saw a movie, a scary movie about two people who died. One of them, according to the script of the film, went to heaven and the other went to hell; and what set these two characters on these two very different trajectories was the fact that one believed in Jesus—one got saved by accepting Jesus into his heart, and the other did not. At the end of the movie, a man in a cowboy hat then stood before us and asked if any of us would like a personal relationship with Jesus. He then instructed us to lower our heads and close our eyes. “If anyone here would like to accept Jesus into their hearts,” said the man, “just raise your hands in the air, and I’ll pray for you.” I have to admit that at this point I peaked. And then, when I saw no one else raising a hand, I raised mine… I raised my hand because, as I explained later to the man in the cowboy hat, accepting Jesus is something I have to do every day and every night.

You see, when it comes to the ingredients of personal salvation I have issues. I have lots of issues, most of which are related to how easily people can be manipulated with a core maze, a cup of hot chocolate and a scary movie. But I also have issues when faith is reduced to a rational decision. Okay, would you like to go to heaven or go to hell? It’s your choice…

Well, based upon today’s passage, I’m not exactly sure that it is our decision. What I read in John 11 is that Jesus arrives on the scene late and much to the chagrin of Mary and to the disappointment of Martha. What I read is that Lazarus is dead. But, instead of comforting the relatives with promises of heaven, Jesus weeps. And his tears, I think, are the first key ingredient to personal salvation.
Now, of course, people shed tears for a variety of reasons—not all of them obvious. A biochemist, for example, might delineate between two types of tears: the emotional ones (crying when emotionally upset and stressed) and the ones arising from irritants (such as crying from onions). A biochemist might even tell you that emotional tears contain more protein-based hormones, some of which are natural pain killers, and all of which are produced by the body when under stress. Crying because of onions, however, will induce no natural pain killers, and may even cause an increased level of pain because of the isolation and loneliness that a person experiences after eating the onions. Of course, a biochemist would not have to monitor your tear glands to tell you that; she might just smell your breath and keep her distance.

In the case of Jesus, however, his tears (like his words) require a more in-depth interpretation. Is he upset? John 11:35 and John 11:38 describe him as “greatly disturbed.” Translations, other than the New Revised Standard, aren’t so tame. They would call him agitated, indignant and extremely angry. It’s almost as if, in the moment, Jesus has co-opted the persona of Bobby Knight at an old Indiana University basketball game. He’s in a rage. His tears indicate that at least for him this is personal. Death, how dare you interrupt these relationships? What right do you have to claim the last word about Lazarus?

And, do you know what I believe triggered this strong respond from Jesus? My sense is that it was something that Mary said. This is the same Mary that used to sit at her teacher’s feet and listen to his every word. And when Jesus asks her about the location of her brother’s corpse, Mary lets these words slip, “Lord, come and see.” Now, “come and see” is a phrase that has only been used in two other places in John’s gospel. One is in John 1:39, when Jesus invites the disciples of John the Baptist to come and see where he is staying. And the other is in John 4:29, when the woman at the well tells the Samaritan villagers to come and see the man who told me everything I’ve ever done!
But with Lazarus, the phrase hurts. “Come and see” hurts. It stings. It taunts. It sticks in his gut like a dagger. Mary takes the very phrase that had been used hospitably to invite others to receive Jesus and reminds him about the harsh reality of death. “Lord, come and see,” she says in verse 34; and with his very next breath, Jesus began to weep.
2. The stench is necessary and helps to clear our heads.

Quoyle and his daughter, Bunny, have done their share of weeping too. Bunny’s mother has died in a car accident and Quoyle tells her that she’s sleeping with the angels. This image helps to placate the girl for a while, during their move to New Found Land. But at the end of The Shipping News, by E. Annie Proulx, Bunny discovers the ancient practice of the wake, or as she hears it “awake.” A wake, of course, is a bawdy, but meaningful, party, during which whiskey glasses are raised in honor of the deceased. The mourners also bake casseroles and recite poetry and try to make sense of the dead person in their midst. So, in the novel, Bunny walks through the noisy crowd and stations herself next to the open casket. Billy Pretty, a haggard old seaman, is giving a speech, something like, “You all know we are only passing by. We only walk over these stones a few times, our boats float a little while and then they have to sink. The water is a dark flower and a fisherman is a bee in the heart of her.” These are the words that waft over the maritime villagers; they’ve heard them many times before. But on this occasion, as the dead person smells like a dead fish, Mrs. Bugget finds his lodge pin in the pantry. She then goes to attach it to his lapel, and as she’s pressing on his chest, there is “the sound of an old engine starting up.” Foul sea water dribbles from his mouth and streams from his nostrils. And Bunny, the little girl, attending her first wake, makes this public declaration: “He woke up” (p. 333).

You see, I don’t know why we can’t admit it publicly and more often:
“Lord , already there is a stench…”
Much has been written about the odor of death, which is more than just symbolism. Death doesn’t just stink metaphorically or allegorically; after four days, the carcass of any animal rots and the corpse of any person literally reeks. Death is inevitable and necessary; and by Jesus smelling the stench at the tomb of Lazarus, I think he’s willing to acknowledge the fact. But, you see, what he cannot abide is total lie of death having the final word.

I once heard an interview with an astronaut who had done a walk in space. He said that upon returning to the shuttle, the fibers of his spacesuit smelled like burned steak. Others, aboard the International Space Station, described the aroma like over-baked almond cookies. “Flying into Mir,” said Jerry Linenger,
“it smells sort of like dirty sweat socks in a guys locker room… And it’s a uh tough—you know, any aroma is tough to describe, but it has a distinct smell, and its sort of a burnt out, uh, after-the-fire, the next-morning-in-your-fireplace sort of smell…”

In other words, there’s no other way to describe the fragrance of the universe except through one’s own personal experience. And that’s the way it is with the stench of death as well. The apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians, refers to the worshipping community as “the aroma of Christ.” And he writes that for some in the world we are the fragrance, leading from life to life, but for others we are the fragrance leading from death to death. And, you see, the only way to account for the difference is by our willingness to walk in the space that Jesus walked. Jesus did the space walk into that vacuum of that dark, scary tomb, and when he came back, he prayed. And he prayed in a very public way:
“Abba, 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…”

3. A public expression of thanks may free up those who are too tightly bound.

Now, here’s my beef with the ingredients that we ordinarily gather around personal salvation. To be saved, or to be salvaged, is to be made whole. But if a person is too bound up in his or her own individual life, I’m not sure that person gets the prayer that Jesus just prayed.
Notice, for example, he’s not praying for solitary persons in the crowd. He’s not praying with all heads bowed and eyes closed. He’s offering a public expression of thanks on the crowd’s behalf—perhaps so that the crowd might become a community.

Douglas Coupland can’t believe that his childhood friend Laurie is dead. In his book, Life After God, he says,
“I think death is a loss that can never be found again, words that can never be taken back, damage that can never be made whole. It is denial of any possible future giving of love…”

These, of course, are philosophical words. But in the following chapters Coupland remembers something that happened when he and Laurie were kids, something that even though it happened in the past, seemed like it happened and will happen, in the future. Growing up, he says, Laurie would steal the eggs of Canadian geese. She would take them from the nests the birds would make near the pond at the golf course, and then, over time and with much love, hatch the geese and raise them as her own. Inevitably these winged pets fly away. They fly away and you think that you’re never going to see them, or smell them again, or hear them, or touch them again. And yet, Coupland continues,
“Usually it is very early in the morning while you are still deep asleep. You are awakened by a familiar sound, the sound of honking, and so you rush out into the yard with the rest of your family, all of you bleary-eyed. You check the pond and the lawn and find no sign of your old friends. And then you look up on the roof—up to the roof’s crest. There are your old friends, standing on the summit, plump as Thanksgiving turkeys, blaring the happy trumpets that lay rejoicing inside their hearts—letting you know just this one time, as you stand there waving to them, that their love for you is greater than those forces in the universe that would split apart any of us…” (p. 267).

And so, these are at least some of the ingredients of personal salvation: the tears that help us to rage with Jesus against death, the stench of death that leads to possibility of new life and the thanksgiving that will not give up on relationships no matter how much time and death has gone by. Amen.