Set free to love and serve the Lord

John 11:1-45

In 1988, a controversial movie, The Last Temptation of Christ, was released. It was based on a novel written in 1960 by Nikos Kazantzakis, and is, in reality, the author’s and director’s great “What if …?” exploration of the life of Jesus. “What if,” they ask, “Jesus had given in to temptations offered him? What if he hadn’t died on the cross?”

I can tell you that many, many people were quite upset about this movie, because it is very challenging to them. The question of “What if …?” forces you to examine your faith, and to examine everything you know about Jesus.

But regardless of how you feel about the movie as a whole, there is one scene in it that is absolutely stunning in its power, the scene of the resurrection of Lazarus.

In this scene, Jesus goes to the grave of his friend Lazarus, the one whom he loved, led by Mary and Martha, followed by his disciples, surrounded by mourners. Once there, he orders the people there to remove the stone at Lazarus’ tomb.

Remember, Lazarus has been dead for four days by now; Lazarus’ sister, Martha, objects, warning Jesus of the stench. (I do so love the King James Version of this Gospel: “Lord, by this time he stinketh!”) And indeed, when some of the men open the grave, the stench of Lazarus’ rotting body causes everyone present to gasp and cover their noses and mouths, and watching, you find yourself waiting for that next scene, showing people becoming ill.

But that doesn’t happen.

Instead, Jesus takes a deep breath, goes to the entrance, to this black hole cut into the side of a hill, says a prayer to his Father in heaven, and calls to Lazarus: “Lazarus, come out!”

Unlike in today’s Gospel, where Jesus cries out in a loud voice but one time, Martin Scorsese, the film’s director, has Jesus call twice, in a much gentler voice: “Lazarus. Lazarus! Come out. Come out!”

But nothing … happens … So Jesus crouches by that black opening of the tomb, staring into the darkness while the silence – and the tension – builds. The only noise is that of the flies, buzzing around the body in that lightless tomb.

For 15 … seconds … nothing happens.

Jesus stares into the darkness and twice more, very gently, calls out: “Lazarus … Lazarus …”

Still, nothing happens … for another … 10 … seconds …

And then … suddenly …

… a hand shoots out of the grave!

Everyone jumps back in shock, including Jesus …

… who then reaches into the grave with a trembling hand, takes Lazarus by his decaying hand, and begins to pull him out. But Lazarus resists and actually pulls Jesus part-way into the tomb. So Jesus uses both of his hands and braces himself and tugs Lazarus out of the darkness of death and back into the light of life …

… Thus proving, in no uncertain terms, that it is never too late …

… It is never too late for Jesus to reach into the darkness of our lives, into the graves in which we find ourselves buried, to resurrect our lives and to give us new life.

It is never too late for Jesus to unbind us from all that holds us in our graves and in the darkness and set us free

Even when we have been in the graves of our lives so long that decay has set in, even then, it is never too late for Jesus, because we are never beyond his reach.

• • •

Russian Icon. The Raising of Lazarus. 15th century. Novgorod school. The Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia

This recounting of Lazarus’ death and resurrection, which appears only in John’s Gospel, is a story of resurrection, of new life, of being set free – by God – from everything that buries us, from everything that binds us, everything that separates us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, everything that keeps us from living the life that God dreams of for us.

Face it, we all spend time in the grave, we all live in darkness at times, we all find ourselves bound up … by fears, by anxiety, by grief and mourning, by despair and loneliness.

This is the Washington Metro area, and we know what it means to live with anxiety. We’ve been stuck at Orange Terror Alert since September 2001. We know that, right? For us, it’s just the norm. But anyone who comes here to visit from someplace that is not under Code Orange wonders if there’s something going on that they should know about.

How many of you pay any attention any more?

And how many of you drive on (Interstate) 95, or 395 or 495, and see those signs, “Report suspicious activity”? Really? How do you define “suspicious”? I’d love to report people speeding and weaving in and out of traffic, but I don’t think that’s what Homeland Security has in mind.

How many of you here ride the Metro? I know we take the Code Orange level for granted, but how would you feel if you saw someone get off one of the trains and leave behind a knapsack under a seat? Would you feel anxious? More anxious than normal?

And how many of you receive a paycheck from the federal government? Or have someone in your family, or know someone, who gets one? Talk about anxiety and fear! I don’t get a paycheck a federal paycheck, and I was checking every 10 minutes on Friday night, waiting to find out if the government was going to be shut down, or if an agreement could be reached. How much anxiety and fear did you experience on Friday, wondering if you would have enough money to pay your mortgage come Tuesday, or whether you would be able to make the down-payment on the tuition so your high school senior could go to the college of her choice? Or feared you would not be able to pay your credit card bill? All because our leaders seem to have forgotten that they are supposed to be servants of the Lord, and are not Masters of the Universe?

And then at the last possible second, just in time for the 11 o’clock news, our leaders announced that they would not shut down the government and we could all breathe a sigh of relief.

Oh, yes, we know anxiety here and we know how it can plunge us into the depths of darkness and feel like a grave to us. We know what it means to be bound up.

But I am telling you, Jesus is standing right here … right here … this very minute, with us, calling each of us by name, reaching into the graves of our lives and pull us out of that darkness, using both hands if necessary, so that we can be restored to the light.

Jesus is right here, because he loves us just as he loved Lazarus.

And he is crystal clear: “I am the resurrection and the life.” And all who believe in him have life … because he loves us.

Now, I don’t want you to leave this place today and say that the preacher told you could wander through life, throwing your arms in the air and proclaiming to everyone, “Jesus loves me! Isn’t life great?”

Because Jesus does not pull us out of the grave just so we can wander around and practice happy-clappy Christianity. Because Christianity is not supposed to be happy-clappy. And for darned sure that isn’t what it means to be an Episcopalian. Resurrection is serious business.

Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life, and he is in our lives, giving us the same gift he gave to Lazarus: new life so that we can go forth into the world to love and serve the Lord!

This new life that Jesus gives us is a life of service. It’s a call to us to delight in God’s will, to walk in God’s ways to the glory of God’s name!

Being set free is not about us – it’s about God and God’s dream for us.

We are set free so that we can exactly what God is calling us to do …

… to feed the hungry and give water to the thirsty …

… to make the blind see and the deaf hear and the mute sing and the lame leap with joy …

… to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor not once every 50 years, but every year!

Jesus is standing at our graves, my friends. He has said the prayers over us. And he is calling us – each of us – by name.

He is reaching into the darkness of our lives, grasping our already decaying hands and pulling us … tugging us … dragging us out of our graves …

He is taking us out of that darkness that binds us, and setting each one of us free.

He is calling us …



Do you hear him?


• • •

A sermon preached on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A, 10 April 2011, at St. George’s Episcopal Church, Arlington, Va.

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Losing our fear

For the last four weeks, the world has been transfixed by the events taking place in North Africa and the Middle East.

After 23 years in Tunisia and 31 years in Egypt, the people rose up and through mostly peaceful but still costly protests overthrew their leaders. In Libya, 42 years of oppression have brought about more protests, ones that have turned brutally violent, in an attempt to overthrow their own leader, Col. Moammar Khadafy.

Protests are also taking place in Bahrain, Morocco, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Oman and Jordan. In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad is making changes to avoid the same kind of protests. The grandson of the founding king of modern Saudi Arabia, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, acknowledged publicly – in the New York Times no less! – that changes need to happen, that the governing philosophy of same-old, same-old no longer will suffice.[1]

In each country, the people have said that they are tired of their governments ignoring them. They want, the people say, jobs, freedom, opportunities to grow. They want to govern themselves.

But none of these demands are new. The people who are changing the world aren’t suddenly being confronted by a lack of jobs, or freedom, or opportunities. Those issues have been the order of the day for decades.

So what changed?

What happened to make people who for years were oppressed and subdued suddenly rise up and topple governments that were seen as secure?

If you listen to the protesters in each country, they all say the same thing:

“We have lost our fear.”[2]

In country after country, the people were able to rise up against injustice and oppression because, they said, they had lost their fear.

• • •

My friends, for the last five weeks, we have been immersed in Jesus’ magnificent Sermon on the Mount, where he has told the people, in every way possible, that it is time for them to lose their fear.

Nowhere in this sermon does Jesus actually use those words. Nowhere does he proclaim, as angels and prophets before him have proclaimed, “Fear not!”

But a key underlying message to this sermon truly is just that: “Fear not!”

And what is Jesus telling us to not fear?


Do not be afraid … to love.

To love God and love one another.

Those blessings Jesus laid out at the beginning of this sermon, in the Beatitudes? Those were given to people who were afraid – afraid that they were not loved, and afraid in turn to love.

That saltiness and light that Jesus commended us to be? If that’s not a message of “fear not,” I don’t know what is.

Those legalisms, all those Law-on-steroids[3] that we have heard for the last two weeks, the “you have heard that it was said … but I say to you” directions? That wasn’t Jesus trying to be more Pharisaic than the Pharisees. That was Jesus telling the people: Go beyond the Law … to love!

And now we come to today’s Gospel, the end of our five weeks of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus tells us, “Do not worry” … about what we are to eat or drink or wear … or even about tomorrow, “for today’s trouble is enough for today.”

If we listen to this Gospel on its own, considering not that which preceded it, it would be easy to equate this message with Bobby McFerrin’s. You remember his song, right?

(sung) Don’t worry … be happy.[4]

In every life we have some trouble

When you worry you make it double

Don’t worry … be happy.

It’s a happy-go-lucky song that makes you feel good, right?

Now that I’ve planted those lyrics in your head – Don’t worry … be happy – go back and read the Gospel from Matthew again, and you can see how easy it is to think, “Why, they’re both about the same thing: ‘Don’t worry’!”

But my friends, Jesus is not telling us we should never worry … and that’s a good thing, because if he were telling us that, the truth is, most of us would not listen.

Because we do worry.

We worry about our health … our finances … our families … our friends … the economy … jobs … safety … We worry about the food we eat (“Is this good for me?”), the water we drink (“Is it clean?”), the clothes we wear (“Does this outfit make me look fat?”).

If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that on any given day, we probably spend at least a few hours of it worrying.

So when Jesus tells us, “Do not worry …” our first reaction most likely, at least in private, is, “Yeah, right …”

But if we do that, we’re missing the point.

Because he’s not telling us to worry not.

He’s telling us to lose our fear. He’s telling us to be like those protesters in Tunisia and Egypt and Bahrain and Yemen and Libya, where protesting has cost many of them their lives.

Jesus wants us to stop being afraid all the time and to start focusing on the things that really matter.

He’s telling us to “strive first for the kingdom of God and [God’s] righteousness.”

Because when we do that – when God’s justice rolls down like waters and God’s righteousness like an everflowing stream[5] — then indeed, we will not have to worry about what we are to eat or drink or wear (“Does this outfit make me look fat?”).  Because in God’s very just and righteous world, all of us will have enough food to eat, clean water to drink and decent clothes to wear, for then we shall no longer live in a world where scarcity is king. Instead, we will inhabit a creation where God’s abundance reigns.[6]

Listen to how Biblical scholar Eugene Peterson has translated today’s Gospel in The Message:

If you decide for God, living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don’t fuss about what’s on the table … or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion. … What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. … Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out … Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now.[7]

When we spend all of our time worrying about what we have and don’t have, we are not living a life of God-worship. We’re living a life of fear.

Fear that what we have is not enough.

Fear that someone else might have more than we do, or something better than we do.

Fear that someone else might try to take away what we have.

Jesus wants us to stop being so afraid that we lose sight of what God wants for us. He wants us to set aside our fear and remember God’s promise to us: “Yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hand.”[8]

Jesus wants us to love – boldly … passionately … wildly … radically – the way God loves us.

When we worry … when we are afraid … when we spend our days focusing only on ourselves and our belongings, and not on God and God’s other beloved children, and what they need, we cannot love.

It’s OK to worry … we’re human beings, and worry is part of our genetic make-up.

It’s not OK to let those worries consume us, to keep us from seeing God’s abundant love in our lives – and from acting on that love, from living that love.

My friends, we are created by God to love.

We are created … by God … to love.

That’s what Jesus is saying to us: Live in love.

And if we want to live in love, if we want to live as Jesus tells us to live, not worrying but loving, the first step we have to take is become like those protesters all over the Middle East and North Africa, the ones who have inspired us and kept us glued to our TV sets for weeks on end.

First, we must lose our fear.

Thenthen … we can love.



A sermon preached on the Eighth Sunday after the Epiphany, 27 February 2011, Year A, at the Episcopal Church of Our Savior, Montpelier, Va.


[1] Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, chairman of the Kingdom Holding Company and the Alwalaeed bin Talal Foundations, “A Saudi Prince’s Plea for Reform,” The New York Times opinion page, 25 February 2001,

[2] Sarah A. Topol, aolnews, “Egyptian protesters vow they will remain: ‘We lost our fear,’” (See also numerous other reports in February from Egypt and Bahrain.)

[3] David Lose, Marbury E. Anderson Biblical Preaching Chair, Luther Seminary, on

[4] Bobby McFerrin, Don’t Worry, Be Happy, released September 1988, lyrics from

[5] Amos 5:24

[6] Paraphrase from Lose, “Picture This,” at,

[7] The Message (MSG), © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson, via

[8] Isaiah 49:15b-16a.

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