Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ 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.’ Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ 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. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live,
Unbind Him: John 11:1-45
Jesus starts this story in the wilderness. He has gone there to seek safety. How many of us who are able-bodied, with good sized properties, or the privilege of a working car have gone to the wilderness for some comfort in the last few weeks? We who have been working from home, protecting our neighbors through social distancing, are venturing into the woods to find some space and fresh air. Jesus went into the wilderness for protection. He had been preaching and teaching. And, some felt he was blasphemous in his teaching and set about to punish him. They threatened to stone him, an appropriate response in their shared tradition, if one was teaching wrong things about God. So, like us, he went to a familiar wild place, one where John had been baptizing people, and he stayed there teaching. People still found him, but they were eager to learn from him. They came to believe out there in the wilderness.
Suddenly, though, word came from two of his close friends that a third friend, their brother, was sick. It was serious. He could die. Who here has gotten that phone call or email? I know I have. Usually the first thing I did after it was figure out how quickly I could get to my sick friend or family member. Jesus stayed two more days in the wilderness. I don’t know why he stayed those two days. Scripture tells us that Jesus loved Mary and Martha, the ones who called for him, and Lazarus, the one who was sick. Scripture also tells us that Jesus was sure this illness wouldn’t lead to death but to God’s glory. But, I still don’t know why he waited.
When he decided to go, he told his disciples that they were leaving the wilderness of Perea and going to back to Judea, they had some questions. “Jesus, um, our people just tried to stone you there. Why would you go back?” Jesus gave them a strange and convoluted response about walking in the light and not stumbling that they didn’t understand. This happens a lot in John. He says something else strange. He says, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples, reasonably I might add, say, if he’s asleep, then he’s going to be fine. Why do we need to go? Jesus then, finally, says something clear. Lazarus is dead. I don’t know how he knew, but he knew. In John, Jesus always knows things. But then he goes right back to something obscure. He says “For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. Let us go to him.” Then, Thomas, assuming the worst will happen, tries to help their friends be braver. “Let us also go. If Jesus is going to be killed, we will die by his side.” And, yes, this is a kind sentiment, but unnecessary bravado at this moment. Jesus probably rolled his eyes. This shows us that the disciples still don’t understand. That’s ok. We really don’t either.
We don’t know how far it is from where they are to Bethany. It could have taken them 2 days to get there. How far do you think you could walk in two days? We do know that Bethany is two miles from Jerusalem. It is a little over two miles from Paris Farmer’s Union to the Winthrop Veterinary Hospital. In traveling to tend to Lazarus’ death, Jesus is now the closest he been to his own death in the book of John. That proximity to the place where he will be crucified is important in this story. The thing that happens next, the most important of the big 6 miracles in John, will happen in the shadow of the crucifixion. Renewed life will come in the shadow of death.
Mourners have gathered at this point. Lazarus has been dead and in his tomb for four days. It is Martha who comes out to meet Jesus. This Mary and Martha might be the same Mary and Martha mentioned over in Luke, the ones who had the disagreement about how to host Jesus in their home. It might not be, though. All we really know is that this is the first time they are mentioned in John. Martha has asked Jesus to come help for a reason and I can’t imagine what she was feeling at that moment. It had been four days since she and her sister called for his help. Now, we don’t know exactly how far away Jesus was from Bethany. But, Martha did. And she expected Jesus to have been able to get back to them fast enough to help Lazarus. Instead, it took four days.
She says to him, “Had you been here, my brother would not have died. But, even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Such a statement of faith even in the depths of grief. Then they have this interesting back and forth about resurrection at the end of days. Both, Mary and Jesus were among the portion of Jewish people who believed that bodily resurrection would happen when the Messiah came. Jesus says to her, “Your brother will rise again” and she assumes that he is reminding her of a future resurrection, perhaps to comfort her. Jesus is quick to tell her that’s not what he was talking about.
This is the game-changing part, the part that they hadn’t quite expected, the part that is still confusing. He says “I am the resurrection and the life.” He, the Word come to life, human and divine, carries within his very life the resurrection. New life, renewed life, is not some far off hope. It was as close as he was standing to her in that moment. It was closer than six feet! New life, renewed life, was possible if only one believed. The ones who live will die and the ones who live in him will never die. Then, he asks her if she believes. She said yes. That she believed he was the Messiah, the one coming into the world. This is the first moment of transformation in the story.
She goes and get her sister Mary. The mourners follow them back to Jesus. Mary states a similar faith to Martha, that she knew that Jesus could have saved him. Then, Mary, Martha, Jesus, and the mourners all weep for Lazarus. It’s quite beautiful. But, it’s not the end. It says that Jesus was greatly disturbed and went to the tomb. He asked Martha to take away the stone and she is shocked. She knows what four days of death smells like. Jesus assures her that glory will be all they perceive. She rolls the stone away. Jesus prays. Then, he talks to his very dead friend and tells him to “Come out.” And, he does... still wrapped in death clothes, face shrouded and unable to see. Lazarus’ sisters and friends unbind him, the last steps before he is free.
This is what Jesus offers in John. Not some far away future promise. But, new life, right now. Relationship, right now. Care, right now. Way back in the poetry of John 1, where the Word became flesh and lived among us, it says that from the fullness of Jesus’ being, we received grace upon grace. Scholar Karoline Lewis puts it this way, “What does grace upon grace sound like? It sounds like when you are deader than dead and you hear your name being called, by the shepherd who knows you and loves you, and you are then able to walk out of that tomb, unbound to rest at the bosom of Jesus.” What would it mean for you, right now, to live as though the resurrection were within your grasp? What would it mean for you, today, socially distant or essentially working, to feel new life in the shadow of this new death? How might you live differently knowing that Jesus is abiding, even here, in this place, in these connections over the internet?
Renewed life is possible only two miles from certain death. And, it is possible right now, though maybe not in the ways we imagine. May we tell the ones we know can help us when they are too late. And, may we be confident that new life can still find a way.
Resources consulted for this sermon:
Karoline Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014).
Melinda Quivick: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4411
Joy J. Moore: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=5423
A Psalm of David.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff--
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
Healing and Sheltering: Psalm 23
I read an article about four years ago and I’ve wanted to preach on it since. I just couldn’t find the right time. Today might be a right time. As we are in a time of social isolation and maybe even sheltering in place, of prayers for healing, of the need for good leadership, this story might serve as a guide and a buoy for us. I hope you will hear this story about a basketball coach and her players and remember all the sheep and their shepherds and all the people who need healing and guidance through the valleys.
In 2016, Coach Pat Summitt, storied coach of women’s basketball at the University of Tennessee, died after having been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. In the days and weeks after she died, I was not at all surprised to hear former players and rival coaches speak of her deep skill, tenacity, and fierce care for her players. One of her former players, Abby Conklin, said, “There's something about that woman. She gets things out of you that you never knew were in you." Another player, Candace Parker said, “She taught me hard work. She's the hardest-working woman I've ever met in my life. She just didn't just say things; she did what she said. That was evident in the way she lived and the way she taught us as players." While I read those two quotes in an article by a journalist named Mechelle Voepel, they echoed something I always heard growing up in Tennessee. Pat Summitt was a really good coach.
Another article, though, showed me parts of Coach Summit’s career that I knew less about. Professor Jonathan W. Gray wrote about her for Fusion Network. He said, with a clarity that I appreciate as an East Tennessean, that Pat Summitt was the greatest college basketball coach of all time. He also said that it wasn’t just her impressive win record (She did lead the Lady Vols to 1,098 wins in her 38 seasons as coach) that helped her merit being called the greatest. He said, “her character and her quiet commitment to her players’ well-being, both on and off the court” was what made her the greatest. You see, Coach Summitt cared deeply for her players. She worked for the well-being of their whole selves in a way that few coaches have reproduced.
Dr. Gray argues that you can look at the diversity of the background of her teams, teams that she began cultivating in the 1980’s in East Tennessee, to see evidence of the trust she was able to build with her team and their families. She was able to convince black families from Chicago, New York, and Atlanta that her program would be a safe place where their daughters would flourish, even though it was in a smaller, less diverse, southern city. Many of these students flourished under her mentorship. Some of the players with the greatest legacies as Tennesse Volunteers are black women like Semeka Randall, Tamika Catchings, and Chamique Holdsclaw. They trusted her with their college careers and she made sure they could thrive in Knoxville. Coach Summitt would also find great players in rural and small towns across the country, many of them white, and convince their parents to send them to a city, any city, to play. They may have never even had a conversation with someone who was black, much less played on a team with black players. And, Coach Summitt would take all these players under her wing and teach them to be a team.
Dr. Gray held up Chamique Holdsclaw as a particularly powerful example of Coach Summitt’s dedication. While she was a Lady Vol, they won three back to back national championships. She has also been called the best women’s basketball player of the 20th Century. Holdsclaw played professionally after college, too, but struggled with physical injuries and significant mental health issues. At one point, she didn’t believe she should live anymore. At her lowest, she was arrested and ended up on probation for three years for assault. She is doing better now. She has a treatment plan for her bipolar disorder and depression and has worked hard to help break the stigma around mental illness. In talking about her recovery, she has talked about Coach Summitt’s role in her life.
Holdsclaw began to have depression symptoms while she was in college. She came to Coach Summitt and Coach made sure she could go to a therapist off campus, where she felt more comfortable. Holdsclaw herself talks about hard it was for her to actually engage with that first therapist and she didn’t go for very long. She would have another low point several years into her professional career, disappearing into her home and not responding to anyone who came to check on her. Coach Summitt came to her city to try to help. Later, after her arrest for assault, Coach Summitt asked her to come to Knoxville to check in. Holdsclaw credits that conversation as being a start to a recovery of her health. When Coach helped her see that she’d need to work hard to be well and work with a healthcare team, Holdsclaw would begin put in the work she needed to, with this different kind of team, to get to a better place.
Also important to this story is that Chamique Holdsclaw had come out as a lesbian while is college. It wasn’t widely known in the media, but her coach knew. It was not easy to be an out college student in the late 90’s, especially with all the attention that was on her for her basketball skills. Other coaches during that same era would demand their players be in the closet and would recruit players by assuring homophobic families that there were no lesbians on their teams. At least one division 1 coach actually had a reputation for forcing players who she assumed were gay off her team. Coach Summitt never did that. She never insisted her players remain closeted. She never chased them off her team. She just coached them.
An author named Heath Hogan told me something that helped me figure out how to tell this story. Chamique Holdsclaw wore number 23 on her jersey when she played for the volunteers. In that era, most people assumed she did so because it was Michael Jordan’s number and he was her favorite player. But, she actually wore 23 because of Psalm 23. Her grandmother June was deeply religious and had raised Holdsclaw. She had been a deep well of support for her whole. Chamique Holdsclaw wore 23 because Psalm 23 was her grandmother’s favorite Psalm.
Today, when I hear these words from scripture about a God who is a good shepherd, I think of Coach Summitt’s work as a shepherd to her players, Chamique Holdsclaw in particular. Imagine what Holdsclaw’s life could have been had she ended up with a coach who did not support her mental health or tried to run her out of basketball because she was a lesbian. Imagine how things might have been had her coach not continued to care for her long after her college ball days were over. It seems clear that, even when her life was the hardest, she was confident, with Coach Summitt, that she was always welcome at the table... That she would be offered mercy... that in their relationship, that she could find stability in the valley of the shadow of death. When I hear this story, and the Divine Spirit that connected these two women, I am sure that it is one place where scripture comes alive.
Right now, we are living in our own deathly shadows. Those of us who are lucky have safe homes to shelter, flexible jobs, and family and friends that can run errands for us if we are sick or worried about getting sick. We have working phones and internet to keep us connected. And, even if we are lucky, we’re still fearful for our health, the health of the people we love, and the health of our nation and world. It is good to be reminded of the ways that we see the Good Shepherd reflected in the good shepherds in our midst, be they be basketball coaches or the directors of the Maine CDC. It is good to be reminded that good shepherding looks like hard work and fierce care for the most vulnerable. And, it is good to be reminded God is here, in our valleys, with us. And, if our Good Shepherd is here, we can find a way into the green pastures. May we find comfort this valley as well as a path to get us out of it.
Sources I mention in this sermon
So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’
Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’
Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’ Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ They left the city and were on their way to him.
Yesterday, a friend of mine shared an article with an incredible video in it. The video is of the singer Maurizio Marchini serenading the rooftops of his hometown, Florence, Italy. Marchini is an opera singer and a tenor. In the video, he is singing a song called “Nessun Dorma” by the composer Puccini. It is from the opera Turandot. I don’t speak italian and have no idea what he is saying. But, I read that one of the most important lines is “Vincerò!” which means “I will be victorious!” He repeats that line, son on his hip, singing to his city. Let’s watch the video together:
Then, I saw a post from the folks at Lilac Catering and Mixology. Because of the importance of social distancing in slowing down rates of infection by Covid-19, they have found themselves with several canceled events and a lot of product they could share. The Phinneys, who run the business, said that they care a lot about the folks who live at the Apartments at St. Mary’s, an independent living facility for seniors. They took the food and other supplies they had lined up and shared with the residents there. Then, they posted a picture of a giant pile of toilet paper they took around to share with everyone. It wouldn’t cover the whole building for two weeks, but it would help people get by until they could find something more long term or until Hannaford gets restocked and people quit panic buying all the paper goods.
Cable companies and public utilities and some very generous landlords like Nathan Nichols in South Portland have decided they won’t kick people out or cut off their water or internet if they can’t pay their bills this month. There are even some distilleries that are taking the alcohol that they would we using to make various vodkas and whiskeys and turning it into hand sanitizer instead and then giving the hand sanitizer away for free.
Tenors are singing from the balconies, caterers are sharing their food, landlords are refusing to collect rent all because we, not just as a nation, but as a world, have found ourselves in the middle of a virus outbreak. We have no immunities to this virus and no vaccines. The people who get the sickest from it end up in the hospital because they need help breathing. The best way to take care of our neighbors is to live like we are already infected and want to try really hard to not get anyone else sick. So, we move large meetings, like church, online and onto our phones. We cancel afterschool activities. We take walks in the woods but skip party invitations. We make some space between us and anyone we might make sick. Then, we try to figure out how to take care of each other from afar.
When I began the season of Lent, introducing the idea of this as wilderness time where we could practice paying attention to the ways that God shows up in wild places, I didn’t realize that the wild places would be grocery stores, school board meetings, or our own living rooms as we try to navigate the best way forward and care for the most vulnerable people in a time of pandemic. I didn’t realize that the unfamiliar wilderness terrain that we would be navigating would be the quest to figure out how to have meaningful Christian worship if we can’t be in the same place or touch each other. If this wilderness were just the woods that surround my home, I would know what to do. I have been a person in the woods before. I haven’t pastored in a pandemic before. We, as a church, haven’t had to navigate extensive social distancing measures before.
Thank goodness we have the story of the Woman at the Well. While all people in those days went to well for water, women didn’t usually go by themselves. Scholars tell us that if she is by herself, talking to Jesus in the hottest part of the day, she has probably been ostracized by the other women in her community. They don’t help her with this hard chore and don’t welcome her to do it at the same time as they do. So, she hauls water alone at a time when she knows she won’t see anyone else. It’s also strange that Jesus is talking to her. They are not of the same ethnic background. In fact, Jesus would have been taught from childhood that this woman from Samaria was best ignored. Distance from her would have been required, especially given her reputation.
And, yet, the two of them, alone, made a connection. First, Jesus asked her for help. He asked her for water. Then, through the course of a surprising conversation, where she reminds them of their ancestral connections and of the God they both love, he helps her, telling her about his mission and what he had come to do. She ended up preaching about him in Samaria, undoubtedly forging new, strong relationships between Samaritans and this wild Jewish stranger who had just asked her for water.
This story tells us that isolation doesn’t have to be the last word. Whether the isolation is a product of social injustice, historical bad feelings, or medical necessity, it doesn’t have to keep us from doing what we are called to do. Had Jesus been bound to the unhealthy isolation he had been taught, he never would have gotten the water he needed. Had the woman not responded to his request with generosity and curiosity, she would have missed out on the new kind of life he offered and the possibility of reconciliation between their people. They show us a way to be together, even when we have been separated, that is powerful.
I hope that in the coming weeks, you will ask for help when you need it and will help others in kind. I hope you can find pieces of new life growing even as we great each other from balconies and rooftops. I hope that you can make the calls and send the letters that will keep us connected, even as we are apart. While our separation is necessary, the unnamed Samaritan woman’s was not. And, yet, we find ourselves by the well with her, this time with six feet between us. May you meet Jesus by this well in the wilderness. And, when it is over, may you go back to your city transformed and praising his name.
Resources Pastor Chrissy used in developing this sermon:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.