Sunday, April 02, 2017

Signs of New Life

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
April 2, 2017

Year A: The Fifth Sunday in Lent
Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 130
Romans 8:6-11
John 11:1-45

Signs of New Life
            One of the great privileges of being priest is the chance to be invited into other people’s lives, especially at some of the most important moments.
            This really is a privilege, but it can also be a burden when those moments are almost unspeakably sad – when a relationship crumbles, or a bleak diagnosis is given, or when death itself arrives, quickly and prematurely.
            I once knew a woman who was struck by cancer in the prime of her life, but rather than listening to a doctor and facing the familiar and, yes, terrifying, menu of radiation, chemotherapy, surgery, she chose to follow the advice of someone who practiced “alternative medicine."
            Unfortunately but not surprisingly, this alternative route didn’t work and eventually the cancer had spread so much and had become so painful that she ended up in the hospital.
            By then, there wasn’t much that the doctors could do, and, despite the fervent prayers of her devout family and so many loving friends and parishioners, there was to be no miracle.
            Her decline was mercifully quick.
             The last time I saw her was when she was receiving hospice care at home. I prayed with her as she lay in a hospital bed against a wall in her kitchen, drifting in and out of consciousness, with just a few more hours to live.
            It was a terribly sad and tragic experience for all who knew her.
            Sometimes, when I think back to that experience, I wonder about the person who suggested, or maybe even promised, the “miracle” of alternative medicine, who gave this lovely woman the false hope that some dietary changes would heal her cancer.
            There are lots of people like that out there, right?
            People, maybe sincere or maybe not, peddling all sorts of miracle cures, lotions and supplements that will supposedly cure what ails us.
            And, there are a lot of supposedly religious people who claim to have special healing powers, promising that if you just say the right words - or make a generous donation - miraculous healing will occur.
            And, the same was true back in the day of Jesus. Probably, there were even more of these supposed wonder-workers in a time before there was science or much medicine at all.
            There were all sorts of supposed miracle workers wandering around from place to place, gaining fame and probably some wealth because of their self-proclaimed wonders.
            And, at first glance, people back then and maybe even some of us today would lump Jesus in with that crew.
            But, the gospels make it quite clear that Jesus is different.
            In many cases, after Jesus has performed a miracle, he orders people not to say a word about it. He’s not looking for fame, wealth, or earthly power. Just the opposite.
            And, you know, in the Gospel of John, which we’ve been reading these past few weeks, Jesus does all sorts of amazing things.
            At Cana, he turns water into wine.
            If you were here last week, you’ll remember that we heard the story of Jesus giving sight to the man born blind.
            And, today, we heard Jesus do the most amazing thing of all, raising his friend Lazarus from the dead.
            These deeds and more really are amazing, but John declines to call them “miracles.”
            No, there’s something even more important going on here.
            It was an incredible gift for the people partying at the wedding in Cana to drink that most delicious wine, but Jesus didn’t go around to every party providing drinks as needed, though, presumably, he could have done just that (and made a lot of friends, too).
            It was an incredible gift for the blind man to receive his sight, but Jesus didn’t go around healing every blind person he met, though, presumably, he could have done just that.
            It was an incredible gift for Lazarus to be raised from the dead, but Jesus didn’t go around raising every dead person, though, presumably, he could have done just that.
            No, for John, and for us, these amazing acts of Jesus are signs – signs pointing to what God offers us all the time: abundance, and vision, and, most of all, new life.
            Signs of new life.
            And, those signs of new life aren’t just confined to the pages of the Bible.
            No, God continues to offer us signs of new life, all around us, all the time.
            The other day after the last of the dirty old snow had finally melted, suddenly there were beautiful little flowers popping up all over the place, flowers that had been growing all along, hidden and in less than ideal conditions.
            Signs of new life.
            And, just look at St. Paul’s. It was just a few years ago that people, including some of us, wondered if this old church had much life left in it, yet now, thanks to God and the work of so many, we are unbound, healthy and vibrant, drawing many people to our community, doing all kinds on exciting ministries - just this past Friday serving a beautiful lunch at the homeless drop-in center, and last Sunday afternoon hosting an amazing Jersey City Together action.
            If you were here, you know that the action itself was a sign of new life, as over 175 people came together to speak truth to power, to give voice to the voiceless, to offer new life to people and places long abused, ignored or forgotten.
            So many signs of new life.
            But, of course, the raising of Lazarus gets us thinking about another empty tomb, draws our attention to the central event of all time, to the heart of our faith: the raising of Jesus from the dead on Easter Day.
            Unlike the wine that eventually ran dry again - unlike the eyes that eventually grew dim with age - or even unlike Lazarus who eventually died again, the Risen Christ remains for all time, the ultimate sign of new life.
            This Easter, we at St. Paul’s are so blessed that three little boys are going to be born into new life in the water of baptism. Liam and Luca and Luca (yes, you heard me right!) will be marked as Christ’s own forever and, just like us, each in our own way, they will be called to be, expected to be, signs of new life, too.
            A few last thoughts about the woman with cancer.
            You know, she didn’t get her miracle, but, even in the midst of suffering and death, she was a sign of new life, too.
            She knew she was going to die, and she was sad that she wouldn’t get to see her child grow into adulthood, sad about all that she would miss out on, but, remarkably, she wasn’t afraid of death. In fact, especially considering how much fear she earlier had about her illness, she faced death with great confidence, talking about the people she was sure she would see in heaven.
            And, as she was dying, and for the long time since, a whole incredibly generous community was inspired to come together to care for her and for her grieving family.
            Even in her tragic death, this woman became a sign, a sign pointing to what God offers us all the time: abundance, and vision, and, most of all, new life.