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A sermon for these strange and heartbreaking days, not unlike the strangeness and heartbreak of the story in John 11:1-45, the gospel lectionary text on Lent 5, Year A. Madison Mennonite continues to worship virtually with one another, and will do so for the indefinite future. How do we stay connected to one another and to our Source of Hope in the midst of great pain?
This is a story of love and pain. Of the way love and pain mix, sometimes a little too easily so that it’s hard to know which came first or if it’s possible to have one without the other.
John writes repeatedly in the text that Jesus loves Martha, Mary, and Lazarus in a unique way. One begins to wonder, hearing how much Jesus loved them, if Jesus sees this little family in Bethany as his “chosen family.” The people who see and know the sides of Jesus that the crowds don’t see. The people who, regardless of biology or law or tribal loyalties, have deliberately chosen to be kin for one another. To support one another as equals.
In other words, while Jesus is probably not closely, biologically related to Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, the four of them share a deep bond that is not broken by geographical distance, or by differences of opinion, or even by long periods of time spent apart.
This story is marked by pain. The deep pain that comes with death and loss. With questions if a family member has betrayed his beloved ones. With moments of raw and overwhelming emotion on display.
Love and pain mix, for Martha, Mary, and Jesus, as love and pain both become more real and more profound throughout the story. And it’s in sacred moments of complete vulnerability, where love and pain meet face to face.
Martha, runs out of her home, the sphere of her influence, to meet Jesus on the road. Martha starts to question Jesus’s love, saying, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” She could have stopped there. It would have made sense. But instead of closing off and giving into her fear, she stays vulnerable in the moment, and says, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.” Martha owns her grief, but isn’t willing to turn her back on her beloved brother, Jesus.
Mary also runs out to meet the teacher, leaving her home and the comfort of those who grieved with her. She repeats her sister’s accusation, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” And instead of closing off, she roots herself in her woundedness. Standing next to Jesus, and overcome with sorrow, she weeps. In this moment, Mary is trusting completely that this chosen brother will not judge her for the emotions that overwhelm her.
There is a sacred moment of vulnerability when Jesus’ own non-anxious presence crumbles and seeing the distress of his beloved sisters, Jesus begins to weep.
Soon thereafter, Jesus again is vulnerable in offering a public prayer – the intimate words most often reserved for his moments of solitude are now spoken aloud in front of a crowd. To speak “Lazarus, come out!” is the most vulnerable yet – what if he fails and Lazarus remains cold?
Within the context of this chosen family, love opens each of them to the possibility of being deeply wounded. To be vulnerable is to open oneself to the potential for harm or even death.
But in this story, vulnerability born of love results in the transformation of relationships. It results in bold witnessing of the good news. It results in new life.
The good news of this text for today is that Jesus stands with us in the midst of great pain because of Jesus’ great love for us. The love of God does not erase the possibility of pain or suffering or death. The love of God does say that these will not ultimately win out.
Much of our current, collective pain derives in a virus. A sickness with the consequence of driving humanity apart. We, too, have the choice to close off, taking our distancing to new levels of isolation and finger-pointing.
But if we take our cues from Martha, Mary, and Jesus, we will resist closing ourselves off and instead become more vulnerable to the world we love. And to the community that we love. More present to our chosen families.
For many of us at Madison Mennonite, this community is our chosen family. For those who are joining beyond our typical group, I invite you to imaginatively connect in this moment with those you would call your chosen family.
While we are separated from other kinship networks or biological connections, we find deep love and belonging within our chosen family. These communities are a respite from the world’s pain. These communities are a source of renewal, transformation, and new life. They are a place where we might be seen and known and loved even in the midst of wilderness experiences we never planned for.
We can expect this week and the weeks ahead to be filled with deep pain, particularly if we love the world enough to, as our Jewish siblings say, “sit shiva” with the world. With Martha, Mary, Lazarus, and Jesus, may our love lead to acts of great vulnerability and ultimately the world’s transformation. Where trust holds. Where relationships endure. Where wounds are tended and heal. Where compassion has the last word.
I pray this be so.
Approaching the fifth week of Lent, we engage our fifth and final element: fire. Like the other elements, fire has within its nature the potential to harm and destroy. To wipe out forests in a day. To raze homes and buildings in mere minutes. To burn animals’ delicate skin. To erupt and cover our planet with molten lava.
Perhaps, it’s mostly from our human perspective that fire seems so dangerous and destructive. And it’s true that fire takes human lives and has been used as a weapon of torture and capital punishment.
So, what does it mean to pray for the peace of the fire? Does it mean that we hope that fire is tamed, controlled, domesticated? Or does it mean our perspectives on fire will be changed?
Fire connects to this week’s lectionary passage in the Gospel of John, chapter 11, when Lazarus is raised from the dead. Fire is cleverly hidden in the passage – you have to look harder for it than in other weeks. It is certainly in the ground, the rocks and hills that make up the landscape of Judea. But’s it’s also in the stone that covers Lazarus’s grave, which is then pushed away in an act of life-giving. That stone, birthed in fire, delivered its own miracle on that day in Bethany – where once death was a final and unyielding citadel, with the stone as its sentry, the stone now abandoned its guard in a defiant act of resurrection.
So fire, too, becomes a witness and actor in God’s foolish love of shalom.
O God, our rock in a weary land,
we pray this day for the peace of fire.
We praise you for the fire of the sun,
warming planet Earth,
kissing the plants and waters and our bodies
with steadfast love.
We praise you for the fire of the earth,
creating land for land animals to trod on,
for towering mountains to behold,
and deep canyons to ponder.
We praise you for the fire of our hearths,
delighting us with feasts of holy communion,
where friendships blossom and laughter abounds,
and where, in the quiet crackling and dancing of flames,
our soul’s deep questions find illumination and new life.
May your Spirit, like tongues of fire, purify all hatred and fear,
inspiring this world to burn with life-giving peace.
We ask this in the name of Jesus the Peacemaker. Amen.
A prayer inspired by John 9, in the style of a Collect.
O God, you are the Great Physician.
You see us by the side of the road,
and you come to be with us.
You know how we long for healing,
how we long to be restored to community.
Touch our eyes,
that we might see and believe
and become witnesses of hope in your hurting world.
We are facing our mortality more than ever these days, the threat of covid-19 looming large in every conversation, news story, or trip to the grocery store. How (when) will it affect me and the people I love? What will happen to those who are particularly vulnerable? Will we have enough toilet paper? Our fear and anxiety are often based, if hidden from our minds, in our fear of death – of losing control over our mortal, physical selves, and entering into the Great Unknown. We’re afraid of becoming dirt again, for to dirt we shall return.
At least in modern English, “dirt” is a negative concept. If something is dirty, it seemingly has lost its purpose and is fit only for the rubbish bin. When a person is dirty, it justifies isolation and exclusion until they are clean again.
How do we hold dirt, humus, the earth in a more positive light…where to return to stardust, to return to dirt is not bad but necessary for the continual renewal of the cosmos? In the midst of our fear and anxiety, can we “ground” ourselves in trust, that the Love which made us, is remaking us still, and will continue to use us “dirt creatures”* in the transformation of the universe? Can dirt be beautiful without being sanitized? Can mud, smeared on our blind eyes, give us hope to see again?
who delights in the messiness of mud,
we pray this day for the peace of the dirt.
We praise you for the rich earth beneath our feet,
holding ancient memories of its time among the stars.
We praise you for the dirt’s revolutionary vocation,
breaking down what is spent in order to nurture new life–
dead leaves and moldy fruit,
last month’s casserole forgotten in the fridge,
our beautiful and bloodied bodies —
transformed into new beloved communities
of flesh and fiber.
We praise you for the inherent goodness of mud,
slathered on our world as a healing salve.
May your gentle hands shape the earth each day,
enlivening the dirt with your Breath of Life.
We ask this in the name of Jesus the Peacemaker. Amen.
*When God forms the first human from dirt in Genesis 2, the better translation of what is formed (ha-adam apar) is “dirt creature.” The creature represents humanity in its fullness.
Last week, on my day off, I walked from our house to the art museum on campus. For the first time, I realized that I could spot Lake Mendota on Speedway Rd. – just the smallest of vistas between various buildings, but there it was, still frozen and frosty white. Since moving to Madison, I have missed the presence of a body of water just outside my door. I never tired of sitting on our front porch in Linville, looking down the hill to Linville Creek and listening to its gentle current. Leaving that porch and that creek was hard; and the waterfall-themed white noise app I use at night rarely convinces my brain to shut off like Linville Creek did.
But this lake vista, a surprise sighting as I walked on the sidewalk along a street busy with cars, gave me pause – and delight. Each time I have driven up Speedway Rd. since, I have waited for that moment when my eyes catch sight of that sacred body of water, the “blood of the earth.”*
whose presence is like a stream in a desert,
we pray this day for the peace of the waters.
We praise you for the lifeblood of this watershed,
for Yahara, the Catfish River**
for Mendota, the lake “where the man lies”
for Monona, the “Teepee Lake”
for Waubesa, the “Lake of the Rushes”
We praise you for the snow and ice,
that encrust the world,
and slow our hectic pace.
We praise you for the gentle rains,
that awaken the earth in spring,
and nourish the crops in summer.
May your healing love cleanse the waters of this world,
from the aquifers below to the storm clouds above.
We ask this in the name of Jesus the Peacemaker, Amen.
This week, the scripture-inspired element for our Peace Lamp prayer is air.
“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” John 3:8
Spirit, who hovered over the face of the deep,
We pray this day for the invisible mixture of compounds we call air.
We praise you for air’s generative movement,
bringing life from the four directions,
carrying pollen and seeds,
giving reason for new growth.
We praise you for the way wind enlivens our world,
the ambling tumbleweeds,
the gentle breezes of the lakeside,
the way our kites take flight on spring afternoons.
We praise you for the oxygen that fills our lungs,
to sing our songs,
to offer our praise,
and to simply be.
We pray this day for the shalom of the air,
that it, too, will benefit from your healing and liberating love.
We ask this in the name of Jesus the Peacemaker, Amen.
During Lent at Madison Mennonite, our weekly Peace Prayers are being shaped by the elements (nature, earth, fire, wind, water.) As I wrote this week’s prayer on nature from Gate 12 at the Dane County Regional Airport, four F-16 fighter jets took off on their daily practice flights, one after another. Thundering by on their exit, the noise shook the terminal. We could hear nothing else. It was terrifying. My body seized, chest tightened, and tears came to my eyes. Christ, have mercy.
While I can hear the jets taking off from our home and feel their abhorrent power even miles away, today, simultaneously writing a prayer of peace for nature, I was utterly convicted again how much our world needs peace. While the empire stays at war, prepares for more war, plays war, and builds ever-more-destructive weapons of devastation, we must pray and work for peace. Christ, have mercy.
Peace Prayer for Nature
Giver of Life,
We pray this day for the peace of the natural world.
We praise you for the trees,
who send their roots deep into the earth, and their branches to the skies.
We praise you for the rising and falling of the landscapes,
the driftless regions, the prairies, the dells, kettles, and moraines.
We praise you for the many creatures who live here,
from the smallest prairie dog,
to the honking wild goose,
to the slinking coyotes.
May your Spirit of Shalom permeate the natural world,
sustaining life in all its good forms.
We ask this in name of the Jesus the Peacemaker, Amen.
To those women considering ministry, to those who feel a strong call to the Church but question the Church’s readiness for them, to those in the midst of interviews for a ministry position, to those who simply love the church, may your path be filled with friends who tell you over and over again: Your voice matters. Your strength is good. You set your boundaries. Your gender is an asset. You have all the power you need. Your sisters are there for you. Your dreams are a crucial part of the Gospel.
Your voice matters. You have experience. You have knowledge. You’ve been trained for this. You’ve rarely had the title that encompasses all you do. Some will question your experience, knowledge, and education, and they will question you for various reasons. It will feel like crap. You will have to keep giving evidence of why you’re legit. (You’ll resonate with the Black Woman proverb*: You have to work twice as hard to get half as far.) It will be exhausting. Especially in spaces where you’re the only woman, it will be really hard to speak up. Do it anyway, if you can. But remember you are also entitled to give yourself grace on the days you can’t.
Your strength is good. Your strength will be intimidating. And the range of responses to it will be varied. Some will be caught by your assertiveness and want to dampen it. Don’t be surprised when others, including other (and usually, older) women, fear your strength and try to reassert the patriarchy. (These women are often blind to how they’re perpetuating patriarchy, pandering to the men they think they’ve got to keep happy.) Some folks, with whom you’ve established some level of trust, will acknowledge openly how your strength impacts them. They’re the ones who love you enough to see that your strength is a gift, even when they sometimes feel threatened by it. Love them and be gentle with them. (They’re human, too.)
You set your boundaries, no one else. People will say things like, “I see you more as a friend than my pastor.” It’s great, as relational beings, to be seen as an “equal.” But you’re not. And that’s hard to explain, especially in power-illiterate communities. Find ways to explain your boundaries in simple terms, and stick with them (both the boundaries and the terms). Teach your congregation that pastoring isn’t something that you can just turn off. Also, ministry is political. It relies heavily on trust. And in political, trust-based communities, there are always power dynamics to talk about. Setting your boundaries means you’ve reflected on the politics of trust, and know how to leverage your power in ways that are beneficial for you and the community. (When you thrive, your community is likely to thrive. “As the leadership goes, so goes the congregation.”)
Your gender is an asset. Of course, your gender will “invite” all sorts of asinine comments, largely in the form of microaggressions. People will comment on what you wear, your tone of voice, your earrings, your haircut, etc. much more easily and frequently than what you say in your sermons or Sunday School lessons. It will take awhile, but you will learn how to respond more quickly and more effectively to these comments. You have the power to redirect conversations and to ask others not to comment on these things. You have the power to say no to unwelcome physical touch. You will shake and your voice will waver, but that’s okay. That’s the Spirit trying to make her way into the world.
You already have all the power you need, and the Spirit gives it to you freely. No one else can empower you. (Empowerment, as a thing, is really a sham, a ruse wherein oppressed folks are tricked into thinking they have to wait for power to be given to them by the culturally-powerful. You need no one’s permission to claim your liberation.) What you will need is people who create space for your flourishing, and who will reflect your commitment to celebrating everyone’s inherent dignity and power.
You need other ministering women in your corner. They’re a special breed with incredible capacities for empathy. They’re also wise and can spot when the patriarchy is trying to dupe one of our own. And they’re willing to wait for one another, check in with one another, and choose one another over institutions and even their favorite men in power. They’ll call out your crap and then offer to help add it to the collective compost bin.
Lastly, do not sell yourself short. Find spaces that offer you room to spread your wings, not ask you to clip them. Look for a church that actually believes in the good news of Pentecost, where your dreams and visions are welcomed as just that — new realities of collective healing and liberation for all (including you!)
*Brittney Cooper, Eloquent Rage, 60.
In the midst of Love Feast worship service, in which we reflected on the post-resurrection sighting of Jesus in Luke 24, I offered this prayer during our “Joys and Concerns” prayer time.
God of Love,
like the pilgrims on the way to Emmaus,
you journey with us through life.
When we step tentatively through treacherous terrain,
when we march defiantly for liberation,
when we plod through uncertainties and confusion,
and when we dance with unbridled delight,
you accompany us,
taking the same route and matching our pace.
We offer you these prayers,
trusting that you reveal yourself to us,
on our roads to Emmaus,
in the fellowship of this beloved community,
and in the breaking of bread.