Sylvia Plath and John 11:1-45
2011-04-08 by David von Schlichten

Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) was an American writer known for her bitter, dark poetry and for her fierce struggle with mental illness, a struggle she lost when she killed herself at the age of 30 by sticking her head into an oven while her children slept in the next room.

One of Plath's best-known poems is "Lady Lazarus," in which the speaker recalls two times that she almost died and says that she is in the midst of number three. The first time was an accident, but the second was a suicide-attempt. She laments that that doctors were able to save her and states that she is now a demonic phoenix who will eat the men who try to save her.

Some people just don't want to live, do they? Jesus calls us out of the tomb, but many of us choose to stay dead. Jesus also calls us to roll away the stone and unbind each other, but we don't always do that, either. 

For Sunday's sermon, I am pondering the following:

1. What kills us?

2. How does Jesus bring us back to life?

3. How are we to roll away the stone and unbind each other?

David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator

Lazarus and the Planet and Unbinding Each Other
2011-04-04 by David von Schlichten

Christ brings life to Lazarus and to all of us, including creation (cf. Romans 8). Perhaps one way to go homiletically this coming Sunday is to use the raising of Lazarus as a springboard for preaching about our call to help care for the planet. Christ brings life; we are to go and do likewise, including for the planet (with God empowering us!).

In  general, the Lazarus text does not only show us that Christ brings life -- although that's plenty. The text also indirectly calls us to be those whom God uses to bring life.

God also calls us to unbind one another and let each other go.

So who is stuck in death? How does Christ call them to life? How can we unbind them?

Yours in Christ,

David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator

From this week...
2011-04-03 by David Howell

Preaching John 11:1-45

by Anna Carter Florence

When Jesus had said this, he cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out." The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with bandages, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, "Unbind him, and let him go."

Resurrection is a divine initiative. But unbinding? That may be up to us.

If you are like me, you have read this passage over and over again. The words are haunting; they rise up to meet you, whether you summon them or not: Lord, if you had been here, my brother would never have died! Is there any story in the gospels more to- the-point, and more heartbreaking, than this one? John writes that even Jesus wept. We do, too, because the gospel writer so perfectly captures the human experience of death. God, how could you? Why would you? If you had been there, God, my beloved would never have died!

Once again, maybe this is a survival impulse: to accuse God of absence. The alternative—that God was there, but simply passive, or inactive in the face of death—is intolerable. It flies in the face of simple faith. It spits in the eye of faithful trust. John 11 is the crux of that most wrenching of human dilemmas: how can bad things happen to good people? How can tragedy come to the homes of God’s faithful ones? Why would God not intervene, when any of us would? Why would God allow senseless loss, absurd violence, when none of us would ever choose it? God, how could you? Why would you? Oh God, if you had been here, my brother would never have died!

Theologians have spent centuries ripping their hair out over these issues, precisely because they have witnessed the intense pain of their sisters and brothers. And while there are certainly many brilliant and helpful systematic proposals (as well as some exceedingly unhelpful ones), none can protect us from the agony of the experience, when it comes. And it does come, to each of us. John 11 is our story.

But notice this: John 11 is Jesus’ story, too. Even Jesus feels the heartbreak of grief, when his friend Lazarus dies. "Jesus began to weep," says verse 35, and it is the Bible’s shortest verse, perhaps because there are simply no words to describe pain this deep. When death comes, there is nothing you can say. There are only oceans of pain to feel. Jesus, because he is human, feels it, too.

Of course, Jesus is also God. So in this story there is a resurrection, a divine summoning of the dead man to come out of his tomb. Lazarus rises from the dead, and his sisters’ prayers are answered. This is not something the human Jesus could ever do; this is the power of God-in-Christ at work. John 11 is the prime example of Jesus’ human and divine sides at work, simultaneously, on our behalf. Weeping, yet raising. Coming to us, yet moved by us. Calling us out of our tombs. And telling us to unbind him, and let him go.

This is what struck me, upon reading the text this time: God raises the dead, but we are the ones who have to unbind them. God calls us out of our tombs, but we are the ones who have to let one another go free.

Pull the thread a little further, and you may land here: Resurrection is not the last act, in this story. The last act is unbinding, and God gives it to us, to do on behalf of one another.

No one goes willingly into a tomb. The community puts you there when you are dead. The community wraps you with strips of cloth, swaddling you with layers and layers of bandages. This is absolutely fitting, if you are dead. But if you are alive, or if you are miraculously raised—and who among us has not witnessed a miraculous raising to new life of one who had long been given up for dead?—then these bandages are problematic. No one can move if they are bound head to toe with strips of cloth. No one can be free if they are swaddled in layers of stuff.

Jesus does the God-work of resurrection, but he tells the mourners to do their part by unbinding Lazarus and letting him go. It is an odd command, if you think about it: why should a resurrected man need any more help? Then I do think about it:

How many resurrections have you witnessed that have failed, ultimately, because the resurrected one could never undo all those bandages by herself?

How many times have you seen a miraculous recovery turn into a relapse, because the community didn’t do its part to let the recovering one "go free" of the old patterns and habits that kept him in bondage?

How many mourners have you met who rather enjoy the task of mourning at their loved ones’ tombs, rather than the task of unbinding them and setting them free?

There is nothing more tragic than a miraculously resurrected human being—one who has been touched by the divine grace and power of God—who trips and suffocates on her own bandages. And in the church, we see this: people eager to come out of their tombs, yet unable to move. Families praying for healing, but unable to let go.

The grace of God is a gift we can never replicate. But we can sure muck it up. Human beings can certainly hold one another back in the walk toward new life.

What a Lenten story that would make.

Anna Carter Florence

Help a Seminarian
2011-03-30 by David Howell

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2011 Graduating Seminarians submitted sermons to be eligible for the 2011 GoodPreacher Seminarian Sermon Award. The top 2 vote receivers have prepared a YouTube version of a sermon. The person with the most votes will receive a complimentary registration to the Festival of Homiletics in Minneapolis, $200.00 in expense money, and be recognized at the Festival on Monday evening. Vote for one sermon by April 15. The winner will be announced by May 1.) 

Preaching John 9:1-41
2011-03-27 by David Howell

by Anna Carter Florence

Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?

Why does it always come back to this question?—"Whose fault is it?"

You’re doing dishes in the kitchen when a baseball flies through the window with a crash. Picking your way through the broken glass, you peer through the hole in the window and see two boys, frozen in horror. One holds a baseball bat; the other wears a glove. They are both speechless for exactly five seconds, and then each begins to shout, pointing at the other:

"I told you not to hit it toward the house!"

"What?! You’re the one who made me stand in this spot!"

"But I didn’t hit the ball, stupid!"

"You pitched it! And it was your idea to play in the first place!"

As their voices rise in decibels and the shouting match turns ugly, you realize they are waiting for you to decide: Whose fault is it, that the baseball went through the window?

The couple sits down in the doctor’s office, waiting for her report. They have been trying for two years to get pregnant, with no success; now, they want to know why. Last week they came in for the battery of tests that will begin to give them some answers, but as the doctor sees the tension in their faces, how they are unable to look at one another or hold hands, she knows how the couple is framing their questions:

Is she the one—is it her inability to conceive?

Is he the one—is his sperm count too low?

Is it her organs that are malfunctioning?

Is it his stress that is interfering?

The doctor opens the folder in front of her and takes a deep breath. The question hangs heavy in the air: Whose fault is it, that we cannot have a baby?

It’s your twenty-fifth high school reunion, and you can’t wait to catch up with your old friends. It’s been years since you were all together. Everyone is there—everyone except Joe and Beth. "Aren’t they coming?" you ask, and your friends shake their heads, sadly. "I guess you haven’t heard," says one; "Joe and Beth are getting a divorce." You sit in stunned silence. "No!" you say, numbly; "not Joe and Beth!"

Was it an affair?

Was it a midlife crisis?

Did he hit her?

Did she drink?

"What happened?" you whisper, not even sure you want to know the truth. And there is that question again: Whose fault is it, that this marriage didn’t last?

Maybe it’s human instinct, to find fault. Maybe it’s a coping mechanism, to keep the great void at bay. If we know whose fault it is, at least we have a way to understand what has happened. At least we have a way to explain our part in it. Even better, we may find a way to excuse our part in it—which is to say, to put the responsibility squarely on another’s shoulders. If our only job is to find out whose fault it is, we can be assured of some retributive satisfaction: someone will pay for what goes wrong.

Do you see this, where you are? When the basement floods, when the church budget comes up short, when the sermon falls flat, why are we so quick to ask, "How could this have happened?" And when we determine whose fault it was, why does the fault-finding so quickly turn to blame?

I’m not sure the disciples are looking to lay blame in this scene, by the way. They aren’t out for blood and retribution; they’re just curious. They really want to know...(continued in

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