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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Friday, April 14, 2017

Death Behind Us, Death Before Us

This sermon for the Lenten season was first preached at Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church on April 2, 2017.  It seems highly relevant for Good Friday or Holy Saturday.
Ezekiel 37:1-14
    1 The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.  2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.  3 He said to me, "Mortal, can these bones live?"
    I answered, "O Lord GOD, you know."
    4 Then he said to me, "Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.  5 Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.  6 I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD."
    7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone.  8 I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.
    9 Then he said to me, "Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live."
    10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
    11 Then he said to me, "Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, 'Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.'  12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel.  13 And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people.  14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act," says the LORD.

John  11:1-45
     1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.  2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill.
    3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, "Lord, he whom you love is ill."
    4 But when Jesus heard it, he said, "This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God's glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it."  5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
    7 Then after this he said to the disciples, "Let us go to Judea again."
    8 The disciples said to him, "Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?"
    9 Jesus answered, "Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them."  11 After saying this, he told them, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him."
    12 The disciples said to him, "Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right."
    13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep.  14 Then Jesus told them plainly, "Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him."
    16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, "Let us also go, that we may die with him."

    17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.
    18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother.
    20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home.  21 Martha said to Jesus, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him."
    23 Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again."
    24 Martha said to him, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day."
    25 Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"
    27 She said to him, "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world."
    28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, "The Teacher is here and is calling for you."
29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him.
    30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him.  31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there.  32 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."
    33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.  34 He said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to him, "Lord, come and see."
    35 Jesus began to weep.
    36 So the Jews said, "See how he loved him!"
    37 But some of them said, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?"
    38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.  39 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."
    40 Jesus said to her, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?"
    41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, "Father, I thank you for having heard me.  42 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."
    43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!"
    44 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."
    45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
    We already heard the reading from the prophet Ezekiel.  I’ve had a special affinity for Ezekiel, for his many acted out prophecies and for the pathos of his life as a prophet who was rejected among his people.  Ezekiel’s visions, another sermon for another day, make a crucial theological turning point, along with the other great prophets of his era–Jeremiah and the Exilic Isaiah.  They reshape the vision of a people under God who are not dependent on an earthly army or king, or even on a land of their own.  They elevate the doctrine of the Hebrew God to One who is not limited to land or ethnicity, but rules in all places and among all peoples. 
    This passage in the 37th chapter, one of the most famous ones from Ezekiel, is a text I have preached more than once.  I want to highlight the first verse before I read from the gospel text.  If you want to turn to the 11th chapter of John’s gospel, I will start there in the first verse.  But first, let me repeat the first verse of Ezekiel 37.  “The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.”
    Now if you will join me in the Gospel reading from John, chapter 11.  The lectionary selects verses 1-45, telling a familiar story of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.  I will narrow the focus to the first 16 verses.  John 11:1-16.... 
    And look again with me at that final verse, 16.  “Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’”
    Join me today as we consider these two passages on the theme, “Death with us; death behind us; death before us.”  Death behind us. Death before us.
    The first thing to strike me about these lectionary readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent was the pervasive presence of death.  The prophet Ezekiel was carried away by the power of the Spirit and set down in a place of death.  It was some kind of historic battlefield scene, but one in which the traditional practice of burying the dead must have been too overwhelming.  Instead, a field of dried, bleached bones lay scattered before the prophet.  As so many other times in his prophetic ministry, Ezekiel found himself overwhelmed.  Here he stood, surrounded by the signs of death of so many who had lived before his time.  He was immersed in the memory, or perhaps it was the forgotten memory, of so much death behind him, so much death that loomed heavy behind him.
    Then we look at the Gospel text and find another very familiar story in which Jesus initially feels no pressure to check on his friend, only to find out soon that Lazarus had died. I was struck by more death.  With his disciples, he has to face going to the home of his dead friend.  Moreover, his disciples are concerned that to take this journey could also mean the death of Jesus and even their own deaths.  In the midst of their work of ministry, they are looking down a road toward death.  Death looms before them.
    My mind quickly jumped to a famous Irish prayer associated with St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland.  One of the most remembered sections of the prayer repeats one affirmation after another about the presence of Christ:
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ where I lie, Christ where I sit, Christ where I arise...
But my mind replaced the affirmation of Christ with the recognition of the presence of death. 
Death with us, death before us, death behind us,
Death in us, death beneath us, death above us,
Death on our right, death on our left,
Death where we lie, death where we sit, death where we arise...
I admit it’s not a pleasant set of thoughts.  We live in an age of denial.  We like to call our denial positive thinking.  We think we can mentally hide from the realities of life.  So faced with the pervasive presence of death, we are most often inclined to say to ourselves or to one another, “Why don’t we change the subject?  Let’s talk about something happier.” 
    I’m not criticizing that strategy.  Sometimes that’s the best way to cope with some of the hard truths of our existence.  But we should not confuse coping through occasional denial with opening our hearts to the truth about what people face every day in our world.  We, as Ezekiel and as Jesus, live in a world where death surrounds us.
    Many of us have in recent months had to entertain the possibility of death’s presenting itself in our families as national leaders threatened to eliminate health insurance for millions of us.  What kind of logic, or should I call it greed, drives people to believe it’s acceptable to cause the deaths of many thousands of fellow citizens by taking away access to health care?  What does it mean to call health care a responsibility and not a privilege, when at least half of workers make such low wages they could never take the responsibility to purchase health care on their own?  Death with us, death in us, death where we lie down.
    I’ve heard people say that when I preach they know to expect a social justice sermon, a sermon about ministry in our community.  I don’t mind that reputation.  I hope that along with that reputation I can also have a holistic faith and ministry that touches all kinds of needs and hopes of God’s people.  But I don’t apologize for always seeking to look beyond our inward well-being toward the well-being of the world God loves.
    Yet today I want to say that while there are obviously social justice implications for this message, it is also an attempt to delve into the depths of what it means to live and love, to lose and die, and to be God’s creatures, to be human in this marvelous and mysterious world God has made.
    In day-to-day living, we don’t always have time or energy to think about the mysteries and marvels.  We stay busy putting one foot in front of the other.  We count on the continuity of having the people around us present today and tomorrow and next month and next year.  Jesus probably felt the same way about his friends in Bethany.  When he got word that Lazarus was sick, maybe he did not initially take it very seriously.  Everybody gets sick now and then.  I had a head cold this week.  Some of you may have had a rougher time with the flu recently.  We think of getting sick as something to endure, with the assumption that “this, too, shall pass.”
    A couple of days later, Jesus decided it was time to go to Bethany.  Had another person come to give him a message?  We don’t know that, but we soon find out that he had somehow come to know that Lazarus had died.  Maybe he had a vision or an intuition.  Moreover, John does not give us much insight into his mood or feelings at this point.  Later we learn how sad he was about Lazarus’s death.  At this point we only know that he has made up his mind to go to Bethany.
    His disciples are pretty upset about this plan.  They have been doing their work farther north, and across the Jordan, outside of the jurisdiction of the Jerusalem authorities.  The reason is that Jesus has not always been respectful and diplomatic in his dealings with the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Herodians, and the Roman authorities.  During his last visit to Jerusalem, of which Bethany is a near suburb, a mob had actually picked up stones to kill him.  Jesus and his buddies slipped away before the stoning could happen, and they had stayed far away ever since.
    Now Jesus is facing the death of his beloved friend Lazarus down the road, near Jerusalem.  The disciples are thinking about that angry mob with the rocks.  We know from the other three gospels that Jesus has warned his disciples that when he goes to Jerusalem, the rulers there are going to kill him.  Their strategy has been to keep their distance.  They are not sure Jesus is thinking straight.  He insists on going, so Thomas gives a plainspoken response–“I guess we can all go die together.”
    Under the rule of empire, the residents of Palestine were acquainted with death.  They had the experience of harsh treatment by the Roman overlords and the Herodian interloper kings.  They could not get out of their minds the image of their friend John who had been beheaded because he would not mince his words.  And they had seen the way crowds can shift to mobs in a moment when the conversation turns an unpopular way.  They weren’t ready to die, and they were not convinced they or Jesus needed to die.  If Jesus would just get organized for battle like a real Messiah was supposed to do, they could gather enough fighters to sweep into Jerusalem and take out all the enemies of the people.  But Jesus showed no interest in being a Messiah under those conditions.  So maybe they were doomed to die together.
    The slogan Black Lives Matter is a response to the pervasiveness of death in times and places where it just should not happen.  The former president stood in the role of every person when he confessed that in the killing of Trayvon Martin it was clear that the boy could have been the son of any black parent, including himself.  The blood of Trayvon, of Michael, of Sandra, of Freddie, of Rekia, of Jonathan, of José, of Uniece, and of so many more cries out from the ground.  How many deaths until young people’s lives matter?  How many killings until accountability becomes a reality?  Death on our right side, death on our left side, death where we rise up, death where we sit down.
    The rest of the story from John 11 is very familiar.  Jesus goes on to meet Martha and Mary.  He weeps over the death of his friend.  And God performs a powerful sign through the Incarnate Son to demonstrate that there is nothing out of the reach of God’s power.  The story of Lazarus’s coming forth from the grave is a powerful moment in the gospel account of Jesus’ life.  It foreshadows something even greater to come when Jesus comes out of his grave.  In and of itself, this event does not abolish death.  Lazarus went on to die at a later time, as did his sisters and everyone else gathered in Bethany that day.  And so we still find ourselves living in the midst of death, as did Jesus and his disciples and friends in this story.
    I stumbled upon a book of poetry by Audre Lorde this week as I was preparing for this sermon.  The title of the book is Our Dead Behind Us.   I decided I needed to understand what she meant by that title, so I got a copy of the book and started reading the poems.  I was not too surprised to find that title phrase in the first poem, one called “Sisters in Arms.”  It is a poetic narration of two women who find themselves in a crisis.  Both live as expatriates from different societies–one from the USA and one from South Africa.  The South African woman gets news that in a horrific and violent series of repressive acts, her fifteen-year-old daughter in South Africa has been murdered by the police forces.  In the same sequence of events, elementary school children have also been massacred for protesting against injustice and apartheid–six-year-olds, nine-year-olds, even a three-week-old infant.
    The mother heads to South Africa to bury her daughter and join in the struggle.  The other woman remains behind, and in her pain and anger is working in her garden.  Let me quote a few lines from the poem,
my hand comes down like a brown vise over the marigolds
reckless through despair
we were two black women touching our flame
and we left our dead behind us
The power and pain of death, even in their sympathy and care for one another, was breaking them down and breaking them apart.  Their lives kept going on, and their dead were left behind them.  This experience is not far away from many people throughout this world in which we live and die.  Death before us, death behind us.  We don’t escape it if we live in this world.
    God has made us finite beings.  We are born, we live, we die.  Even Jesus’ coming into the world has as a crucial part of it his full sharing of our existence, all the way to the point of death, and more specifically an undignified death. 
    By the time most of us reach middle age, we have become far more acquainted with death than we wish.  Grandparents and parents whose love filled and shaped our lives leave us in this world without their presence.  Too many of us lose loved ones far too early for their time.  The mystery and grief of their absence weighs heavy on us.  We sometimes are tempted to join with the writer of Ecclesiastes and wonder if all of life is in vain.
    I do feel some trepidation in taking you down this difficult road of thinking about death today, but I can’t help but testify to the light the Spirit has shed on these texts.  From Ezekiel to Lazarus, even when we walk with Jesus, we walk amidst death in a dying world.  Part of what we must recognize in Thomas’s remark from John 11:16 is that if we are going to be faithful to Jesus, we may even have to challenge death.  The way of Jesus, we see now in hindsight, is a way of the cross.  It is a road to execution.  It is a pilgrimage of standing strong for God and God’s justice even in the face of those who would kill us for doing so.
    Many of us have grappled in recent months with the likelihood that struggling for justice may become harder in our time.  It may not be adequate to call the congressional representative or write a letter in support of some legislation.  It may not be adequate to have celebratory marches in which we are happy to be together in the cause of justice, then stop off at our favorite restaurant on the way home.  It may be that we will have to face down harsher opponents in our time.  We may begin to catch on that when our young people are beaten and shot in the streets, we cannot keep telling ourselves that it was because they were not acting respectably enough.  In some circles and places, the forces of evil are gathering their strength.  They are already lashing out at Muslims and refugees and transgendered persons.  They are looking for ways to cut away the safety net for the poor, for the elderly, for school children, and for children of immigrants. 
    Protecting the vulnerable may become costly for us in ways that it has not been.  Standing up against official injustice, against warmongering, against government sanctioned discrimination, against unfair voting practices–these may become as dangerous as it was for children in Birmingham, for citizens walking on a bridge in Selma, and for Dr. King organizing with sanitation workers in Memphis.
    I’m not predicting these things will happen to you or to me.  I am simply reminding myself and all of us that when we take up the calling to follow Jesus, a cross may be near in our path.  If any of you would follow me, you must deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow me. Anyone who would save his or her own life will lose it, but all who would lose their life for Jesus’ sake will find it.
    There is a deep logic of death and resurrection in the very nature of the church.  Our sacramental practice of baptism articulates that logic.  We ought not to be unfamiliar with death, but we ought to be able to see it differently than the world does. 
    For part of the reason that Jesus was ready to head to Bethany was that he had become convinced by his faith in God that death was not final.  He had come to realize that even if he were captured and executed as an enemy of the state, that God still had a purpose for him beyond that moment of death.  Moreover, his dying as an act of defiance and protest to the injustice of the empire would be far greater than the regime’s acting against one person.  He had come to realize that the death he would endure was one which would encompass the deaths of all of us.  In his role as the Second Adam, he would be recapitulating, reconstituting, rebooting humanity into a new creation.  This is what he tried to explain to Martha later in Bethany--he himself is the resurrection in which we also share.
    Paul wrote about this logic of death and resurrection often.  In Jesus we all die, and in his resurrection we all are raised.  In his death, our past inadequate way of living passes away.  In his resurrection a whole new life already has begun in us.  He, who is our Savior, is our new life.  As Paul wrote in Galatians, I am crucified with Christ, yet nevertheless I live.  But it is not I who live, but Christ lives in me.  And the life I now live in the flesh I live in faithfulness to the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.  He reminds us in Romans that we die and are buried with Christ in our baptism.  We rise from the waters of baptism into a new life.
    So there is another sense in which we might say without despair, and perhaps even with rejoicing, that death is behind us.  Although Ezekiel looked at the bones and saw death in its brutality in the history of that valley of bones, his eyes were opened to see that those parched and desiccated bones can live when God raises them to new life.  Jesus, on the road to Bethany, can face the likely wrath of the powerful in Jerusalem because he has fixed his eyes on the joy that is before him.  He is willing to despise the shame of the cross, of the jeering crowd, and of the mocking crown on his brow.  He can endure the cross for the sake of the new creation.  He can endure death because he will bring us all through it with him.  Oh, Death, where is your sting?  Oh, grave, where is your victory?  In bringing all of us together into his death, Jesus puts our deaths behind us.
    Now some of you may rightly want to complain that it’s not quite right, Rev. Broadway, for you to lay on all this thick death conversation and then try to turn it around to be happy in the last minute or two of the sermon.  Let me say that I also hope I know better than that.  It ought not to be a rule that we have to leave church feeling giddy and happy all the time.  Sometimes we may have to leave with some burdens to bear.  So I’m not going to try to dress up death in a pretty outfit so you can forget about what these texts teach us.
    What I do want to say is that in our baptism, we are united to Jesus in his death.  We undergo the death of our sinful ways.  The death of our rebelliousness and rejection of God is accomplished.  The old short-sighted and egocentric self dies in order to be joined to the new self, the true human self, the Second and True Adam, Jesus.  Our new humanity is constituted by being joined to him.  We live in Christ.  Christ lives in us.  We are made new.  This is great and wonderful news.  But that is not the same as saying that we no longer have to face the troubles of the world. 
    I think there is something to be learned here from Jesus’ baptism.  The gospel accounts tell us of the remarkable experience of his baptism in which all three persons of the Triune God are made manifest together as the Son is baptized.  It is a crucial moment of Jesus’ life and ministry, and yet he comes up out of the water only to face some of the greatest trials he ever had to face.  He goes alone, driven by the Spirit, into a deserted wilderness, and great temptations befall him.  He struggles with his mission and Messiahship.  How should his life count in the world?  What kind of Messiah should he be?  It was not easy for him, and it will not be easy for us.  Yet still, because of his example in baptism, and because of the way he embodied that baptism through faithful life, death, burial, and resurrection, we have become united to God through him.
    Would you go on living on your own, alienated from God, if you knew that you could have your life joined to God for every moment and every day?  Would you seek to have the courage to face whatever troubles and trials come, knowing that in all of them, Christ is living in you and you in him?  That is what God is offering to each of us today.  If you have not yet answered the call to unite your life to Jesus, to follow in his way, and to enter with him into baptism that demonstrates our passage from death into life, then there is no better time than today for you to follow Jesus.  Follow him through this vale of tears, through the pervasiveness of death, with hope that God is at work even now to transform this world we live in to become the Kingdom of God, the beloved community, a land where peace and justice reign in the lives of women and men.  Follow Jesus today.  Pass from death to life in him.
    There may be some present today who are struggling with loss and grief.  You have lost a friend, a family member, a spouse, a parent, or some other loved one to death.  You know you are supposed to acknowledge that such a death is a mere passing on to another dimension of life, an entry into the presence of God even more fully than we know on this earth. Still, it does not take away the emptiness and hurt you feel on this side of that transition.  Perhaps you need to turn toward God and ask for comfort and healing as you continue on the road of life that remains for you, before and until the joyful reunion you long for beyond the grave.  If you need to come and cry out for God’s Spirit to fill and heal you, then now is the time to come.  Don’t be embarrassed for having grief.  It means you are human and that you know what it means to love and be loved.  God is a healing God.
    If you live in Durham, but you are not currently united with a congregation, take a moment now to call on the Holy Spirit for guidance.  It may be that God has brought you here today because you should be united to this local body of Christ’s followers as we fight against the pervasive power of death and shine the light of life in the world.  If you feel the calling to join with us in the ministry that God has called us to in this city and this neighborhood, why not go ahead and join with us today.  Amen.
An addendum:  a few words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
Whoever enters discipleship enters Jesus’ death, and puts his or her own life into death; this has been so from the beginning. The cross is not the horrible end of a pious, happy life, but stands rather at the beginning of community with Jesus Christ.

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