Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sermon for Lent V

John 11:1-44
Romans 6:16-23

(St Luke's, Springfield)
Let’s remind ourselves where we’ve been on the three Sundays leading up to today.

Three weeks ago, we were with Jesus and Nicodemus for their nighttime conversation about God’s great and the gift of new birth to eternal life.

Two weeks ago, we were with Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well for their conversation about “living water,” which made us think as well of the Lord providing water from a rock in the time of Moses, and how the water that God provides quenches our deepest thirst.

Last week, we were with Jesus and the man who had been blind from birth. Jesus gave him the gift of sight, and this makes us think of how, in baptism, God “turns on the lights”, and lets us see the real world for the first time.

Now, if we consider these powerful signs all at once—new birth, living water, the gift of sight—if we look at these signs as a group, we notice that they kind of go together. Each one is more intense and more dramatic than the one before it. Each one goes a little deeper into the heart of human experience, human anxiety, human suffering. Each one gets a little closer to the heart of what ails us.

They lead quite naturally, then, to today’s gospel story, where a dead man comes back to life. Lazarus, along with his sisters Mary and Martha, is a close personal friend of Jesus. They live in the south, while Jesus tends to hang out in the north. One day, word arrives in the north that Lazarus is really sick, and issn’t long for this world. By the time Jesus made the three-day journey on foot, Lazarus had been dead and buried for four days. But Jesus goes immediately to the tomb, asks for the entrance stone to be moved out of the way, says a prayer, and calls for Lazarus to get up and walk out of the tomb. Lazarus is only too happy to comply, and when he makes his appearance, it’s a sight to behold, because he’s still wrapped—“bound” would be more like it—Lazarus is bound in cloth from head to toe, so Jesus’ next words are these: “Unbind him, and let him go.” 

Jesus was speaking literally, of course, because he wanted Lazarus to be able to move and breathe. But, from where we stand, we have the luxury of hearing some symbolism in his words, which makes them tremendously powerful and relevant to our lives. How do we experience being “bound”? What is it that restricts our ability to move and breathe in the ways God intends for us?

This could be a very long list, but it would certainly include addiction—addiction to alcohol, addiction to nicotine, addiction to various other legal and illegal drugs, addiction to sex or pornography, and—yes—even addiction to work. Addiction binds us, and Jesus wants to unbind us and let us go.

The list could also include idolatry. Now, we’re way too sophisticated to think that statues made of clay or wood or metal are actually gods, but that doesn’t mean we don’t worship our share of false gods. An idol is anything that we worship—which is to say, anything that we assign to first place in our lives. Whatever we consider to be Priority #1, that’s an idol. Unless, of course, Priority #1 is the true and living God—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Anything else we put in first place is an idol, and it binds us. Jesus wants to unbind us and let us go.

The list of things that bind us would have to also include any kind of sin—casual sins and serious sins, trivial sins and gigantic sins. Who has not known the power of anger and envy to bind people? Who can deny the bondage created by lust and gluttony? Who has escaped the damage caused by slander and gossip? Sin of any kind binds us. It restricts our ability to move and breathe as real human beings. Jesus wants to unbind us and let us go.

The list would also include regret and remorse and shame—things that we have said or done in the past that we wish we hadn’t, and things we’ve not said or done in the past that we wish we had. In my line of work, I might see this a little more frequently than others, so trust me on this: People are all around us whose lives are utterly bound by regret and sorrow for past misdeeds. Jesus wants to unbind them and let them go.

The list would also have to include woundedness from the past—not from what we have ourselves said and done, but by what others have said and done to us. We find it ferociously difficult to let go of painful memories—memories of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse; memories of mistreatment and betrayal by those whom we trusted. The walking wounded are here among us, and the effects of those wounds touch every area of our lives. We are constricted by them. Jesus wants to unbind us, and let us go.

And we dare not finish our list of things that bind us without mentioning fear in all of its forms—fear of sickness, fear of dying, fear of being poor. Fear shrinks the field on which we live our lives. It makes us smaller. Fear binds us. Jesus wants to unbind us, and let us go.

Now…if you’re paying exceptionally close attention, you may wonder why I mentioned material and financial anxiety after sickness and death. Isn’t death both the root and the sum of all our fears? Well…I would say so. Yet, financial anxiety, I believe, is somehow uniquely able to take us to the crux of the matter, the center of all this business about being bound. Within it lies the key to experiencing the liberating, “unbinding” ministry of Jesus. So I’m going to say just a word about money, about stewardship. At the heart of a spirituality of stewardship is the realization that I own nothing. Not only do I not own the money in my bank account or the clothes on my back. I don’t even own my time. I don’t even own my freedom. I belong to Christ. I am bought and paid for by Jesus Christ.

Well, at first, this might sound like exchanging one form of bondage for another. But one of the prayers we use on weekdays at Morning Prayer sheds light on just what I’m talking about. In this prayer, we say to God that “….to know you is eternal life, and to serve you is perfect freedom.”  In order to be free of all that binds us, we need to surrender to the service of Christ. In order to be unbound, we need to give ourselves over to the bondage of Christ’s love. Freedom from what binds us comes when we surrender ourselves to the perfect freedom of Christ’s service.

When we take this step—this step of surrendering ourselves to the perfect freedom of Christ’s service—we see laid out in front of us the path toward freedom from all that binds us—freedom from addiction, freedom from idolatry, freedom from regret and shame, freedom from woundedness, freedom from fear, and freedom from sin. Sometimes it’s a short path, and we are delivered through miraculous means. I’ve known of alcoholics who are simply set free from all cravings immediately after prayer and laying-on of hands. Most of the time, it takes cooperation and effort over a long while.  But the bottom line is that Jesus wants to set us free from anything that might prevent us from knowing his love fully and serving him freely. He is looking at each and every one of us who are gathered here in worship today, especially those who are about to be confirmed, and calling us out of the tomb, and saying to his other servants, “Unbind them, and let them go.” Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

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