The readings for Lent 5A are from Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; and John 11:1-45. A video recording of this sermon is on YouTube. The manuscript for this sermon is below. It was given on Sunday, March 29, 2020 at Evergreen Lutheran Church.
If you’re looking for a playlist to accompany your week here are some of my favorite rock and folk tunes that speak to these themes: dry bones / new life, waiting, and no good deed goes unpunished, by The Black Keys, Lost And Found, David Bowie, Gungor, David Wilcox, Johnny Cash, John Mellencamp, King’s X, Ha Ha Tonka, Bruce Springsteen, Shane & Shane, Hanjin, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, U2, and Mindi Abair and the Boneshakers.
Calling in the Midst of Crisis: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished – A Sermon for March 29, 2020
Yes, this is a long reading and all of chapter 11 in the Gospel of John is important, even the last few verses which we don’t have in our reading today are important. You’ve likely heard the saying “no good deed goes unpunished”; I think this saying may have its roots in this weeks Gospel. It’s right after Jesus raises Lazarus that the last verses of this chapter note the pharisees response of: “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” Then later in chapter 12 these same religious leaders hatch a plot to kill Lazarus whose very breath is proof of their blindness.
Hear this, it is as true today as it was in Jesus day, the powers and principalities of this world get scared when Jesus comes ‘round. When the Spirit of Christ starts raising people to new life she shows little concern for the borders of holy places nor nations, especially when those borders divide Gods children.
Now “no good deed goes unpunished” may or may not have it’s roots in the 11th chapter of John, but there is a common phrase attached to last week’s healing of the blind man: “here’s mud in your eye.” Last week Pastor Vera reminded us that we have something in common with the blind man whose sight is restored: “his conversion was messy” and so is ours.
As our lives are put on hold, as our celebrations of life and love are suspended so too are our communal laments of re-membering put on hold and social distancing becomes dis-membering, making us less able to respond with compassion in a world of great need. It starts to feel like the mud, the cure, maybe is worse than the disease. Or in our context today, it’s not the mud, but it’s the waiting that may be the hardest part. But we must be careful to not let our needs and our selfish deeds supplant the needs of our most vulnerable neighbors.
In 1527 the Bubonic Plague hit central Europe including the town of Wittenberg. Martin Luther was asked about whether it was right to stay in town or flee to the country. His response is useful even today and readily found online (links at the end of this post). Hear what Luther’s response is to the plague of 1527: “If the people in a city were to show themselves bold in their faith when a neighbor’s need so demands, and cautious when no emergency exists, and if everyone would help ward off contagion as best he can, then the death toll would indeed be moderate.” Well, that sounds a lot like the good directives we’ve all received from our synod, bishop, and Colorado’s state leaders and local officials!
Luther continues, “But if some are too panicky and desert their neighbors in their plight, and if some are so foolish as not to take precautions but aggravate the contagion, then the devil has a heyday and many will die. On both counts this is a grievous offense to God…” Unfortunately, we have also witnessed how some have deserted neighbors in time of need or aggravated the contagion through ignorant words, actions, or inactions.
For our context as a congregation seeking a way to be the Church of Christ in the midst of the coronavirus this 1527 writing on the plague is best read next to Luther’s Treatise on Good Works published in 1520. Here he states that any so called “good work” including the work of gathering together in community to pray, praise, receive and give thanks is not ultimately good if it is devoid of faith. It is the gift of faith which then confirms us in the good work of not meeting for a season. As Luther writes, “Where the Spirit of Christ is, there all is free. For faith does not permit itself to be bound to any work, nor does it allow any work to be taken from it, but, as the First Psalm says, ‘[God] brings forth [God’s] fruit in [God’s] season.’”And this work of waiting must be enough for us. As we do our faithful work well, both Luther and our community leaders state that the real suffering of our neighbors and those in greatest need will be averted, yet we will have no way to prove that the crisis may have been worse without our faithful response. Still our waiting is not passive. Christ, the resurrection and the life, is present and working even now. In the Gospel of John “belief” is always a verb. It’s always active. Likewise our not meeting together is an active and faithful response. Let’s return to the text for some thoughts on what our posture might look like towards God and one another in the coming weeks.
When Jesus calls Lazarus from the tomb the very next thing Jesus does is command the assembly to “unbind him, and let him go.” This assembly seems to include Jesus’ most ardent followers (Mary, Martha, and the other disciples) and mourners who in the custom of that day have been compensated to grieve with the family over their loss. For a moment let’s put ourselves into this assembly. Either we have a direct, familial connection to Lazarus or a cultural and economic one. Some of us have likely just stepped forward to roll the stone away from the mouth of the cave that is Lazarus’ tomb. We’ve gotten close enough to smell the decay that is his body. We cover our mouths and noses as best we can from whatever disease might be part of that smell. We’re not at all certain that this is where we want to be right now but something is happening, both in that dark cave and in us.
Lazarus steps into the light, and it’s not a pretty sight. Remember, conversion is messy for everyone. Yet I can’t help but think that whatever’s on the other side of this death plague, we might just be a better community for having witnessed it all, both the death and the life together. Jesus issues his command to help Lazarus gain his freedom from what has bound him and some of us instinctually step forward in faith while others instinctually step back in faith. Both are faithful responses. Both honor God in their witness to the work of God in our midst as the resurrection and the life. You may be an actual first responder as a health care worker or hospital chaplain or provider and sustainer as a grocery clerk or pharmacist. As you step forward in faith to do what God has called you to do know that this community bears witness to your service and prays for your continued safety. You may be an unofficial caregiver who is being nudged by the Spirit of Christ to reach out to far flung family and mere acquaintances with a personal invitation to be community at a distance. There is no telling how that simple invitation to a group chat or zoom meeting or just checking in with your neighbor may flower once it is safe for us to again greet one another face to face. In these faithful responses and many others Christ is with us.
Let’s do one more exercise in placing ourselves into this story. We are Lazarus. We have awoken in a dark place, stiff, sore and blind, uncertain of how we came to this lowly place, still we hear our name being called. Lazarus come out; rise up; there is faith-filled work to be done. Thanks be to God in Christ who calls us by name. Amen.