Completed any miracles lately?

On All Saints Sunday, Jesus is clearly asking us to finish the miracle he began in bringing Lazarus back from death.

So the question I have for each of us is this:

Completed any miracles lately?

The video of my sermon at St. Matthew’s, Sterling, Va., is below.


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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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Leaps of faith

Luke 16:19-31

I am a rich person.

I know this because I looked it up on, where I entered my income from last year and discovered that I rank in the top 13.74 percent of the wealthiest people in the world.[1]

U.N. wealth-per-capita chart

According to this web site, I am the 824,785,999th richest person in the world, this out of the approximately 6.8 billion people now living.

That is an amazing ranking, isn’t it? I was astonished when I found out how rich I am, when compared to the rest of the world.

At the same time, I also am a poor person.

I know this because I looked in the Census Bureau’s Poverty Report that was released a few weeks ago.

According to that report, I am incredibly poor.  I am so poor that I inhabit, according to the Census Bureau, something called the “poverty universe,” along with more than 40 million other Americans.

One report says I am rich. The other says I am poor.

Let me clear this up for you a bit: For the last five years, I have been an Appointed Missionary of The Episcopal Church. I served for four years in the Diocese of Renk of the Episcopal Church of Sudan, and for about one year in the Diocese of Haiti. During that time, I was paid, by The Episcopal Church, $6,000 per year.  $500 per month. I raised money during that time to help support me, so for both of those reports I consulted, I raised my income to $8,000 last year.

On a worldwide scale, I am rich.

In the “poverty universe,” I am poor.

Census Bureau Poverty Index

Somehow, I have managed to span the great chasm between rich and poor, the chasm of which Jesus speaks as he tells the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke’s Gospel.

The story he tells is not a new one. It is, in fact, much older than Jesus himself, coming out of the Egyptian tradition. But regardless of its age and provenance, the story Jesus tells is an important one, not just for the disciples and Pharisees who are listening then, but to us now.

Let’s get something straight right off the bat: Jesus – God – has no problem with wealth. We know that because the Bible tells us so. In this very story, Lazarus, the poor man who had been abandoned outside the gates of the unnamed rich man, is sitting next to Abraham, the patriarch of the people of Israel and indeed of the three great faiths of the world. Abraham was a very wealthy man, far beyond simply being rich. He had land, animals, money … By reading that Lazarus, a poor man in such bad shape that he was covered in nasty sores, so weak that he was licked by dogs (that most despised of animals), simply by reading that Lazarus is sitting in paradise next to Abraham, we know that wealth in and of itself is not a bad thing in God’s eyes. By hearing Abraham tell the rich man, “Sorry, you’re out of luck, Lazarus can’t help you,” we know that in God’s eyes, Abraham the wealthy man is also Abraham the exalted man.

So wealth is not the problem that Jesus is highlighting in this story.

The Rich Man and Lazarus

What Jesus is focusing on is the great chasm between wealth and poverty, between those who have, and those who do not have.

For it is that chasm that gets in the way of God’s will being done in God’s very good creation.

I know a lot about this chasm. I knew a lot about this chasm before I went online and found out that I am simultaneously rich and poor. In my time as a missionary, I have lived among some of the poorest people on earth. I have seen the poverty, and I know what it is like to be on the wrong side of the chasm.

In South Sudan, I lived in a mud hut, with no running water, very little electricity, lots of disease, limited food to eat. And I lived a life of privilege in Sudan, compared to the average person, who lived in a hut made of grass, who had no electricity ever, no clean water and no way to clean the water she had, frequently far too little to eat and no way to make enough money to ensure her children could grow up healthy and strong. I once had to explain to some U.S. government officials who wanted to learn what life was like in South Sudan that, no, there really was no functioning economy there, that most people were poor beyond belief, that there was never enough of anything, and no hope of getting any more. The Americans simply shook their heads in disbelief.

In Haiti, I lived in the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. The area in which I lived was surrounded by terrible slums, where people had very little, and even less hope of getting any more, while at the same time they were surrounded by people of wealth. Compared to my life in Sudan, my life in Haiti was full of riches. But when my colleagues saw where I lived, and how I lived, they could only shake their heads and ask me why. Why didn’t I have electricity all the time? Why did I haul water up three flights of stairs? Where was my air conditioner? My TV? (Hint: No electricity, no AC, no TV.)

So I know something, quite a bit, actually, about the poverty that Jesus is attacking in this story we call “The Rich Man and Lazarus” but which one commentator says more accurately should be called “The-Indifferent-Man-Who-Could-Have-Listened-to-Moses-and-the-Prophets-and-Followed-God’s-Way-of-Life-and-Been-Welcomed-Into-Paradise-by-Father-Abraham-But-Chose-Not-To and Lazarus.”[2]

The rich man, who is given no name in this story, knew what he was supposed to do. The Torah, the Five Books of Moses, told him: Care for the poor, the sick, the widows and the children. Leviticus says to love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength. Deuteronomy says to love your neighbor as yourself. You cannot do the former if you do not do the latter. The Prophets who came after Moses said the same thing. Micah asks, “What does the Lord require of you, o mortal, but to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8) Proverbs say that “If you close your ear to the cry of the poor, you will cry out and not be heard.” (Proverbs 21:13) Isaiah quotes God thundering, “What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?” (Isaiah 3:15) followed by a promise from God to never forsake them. (Isaiah 41:17) Jeremiah laments: “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.” (Jer. 8:21), then asks, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why has the health of my poor people not been restored?” (Jer. 8:22) Ezekiel proclaims: “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” (Ezek. 16:49)

Moses and the Prophets continuously spread God’s word: We are to care for the very least among us.

In telling the story of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus continues in that same prophetic vein:

You see someone in need, you help him.

You feed the hungry. Give water to the thirsty. Make the lame leap for joy, the blind see, the deaf hear, the mute speak. Visit the sick and those in prison. Clothe the naked.

Lord knows – and it is true, God truly does know – that there is a great chasm in this world between the rich and the poor, between the have’s and the have-nots. You and I know it, you and I have seen it, some of you and I have lived in it.

But just because it exists does not mean we can’t do something about it.

Rich or poor – or both, if you are like me – we can cross that chasm – in this life – and we can do something about it, if we so desire. In this country alone, more than 44 million of us inhabit what the Census Bureau now calls the poverty universe. More than 85 percent of the world inhabits that same universe.

Is that what we want?

Is that what God wants?

The real question we have to ask ourselves this morning is this:

Are we willing to cross that chasm ourselves?

The only way to answer that question is to figure out what exists in our lives that keeps that chasm there, and keeps us from crossing it. We may not want to cross it because the poor are too much like Lazarus, covered in ugly sores, so weak that the dogs – the dogs – are able to lick his wounds without hindrance.

We may not want to cross the chasm because to do so would mean leaving our comfort zones, and we are afraid.

We may not want to cross the chasm because we may feel, in our deepest secret places, that sometimes, the poor deserve what they have, or rather, what they don’t have. We may feel that far too many of the poor are poor simply because they refuse to work.

(But know this: In this story that Jesus tells, Lazarus is so far gone that he didn’t go to the rich man on his own to beg. He was placed there because he was so far gone that the people who put him there knew the rich man was his last hope. So in this telling, Jesus is quite clear that he is not talking about people who refuse to work; he is talking about people who cannot help themselves.)

Whatever reasons we may have for not wanting to cross the chasm, we have so many more for doing so.

It doesn’t take much to become poor; we all know that. The economy in this country and around the world went from riding high to sinking like a lead balloon almost in the blink of an eye. We all know someone – and generally more than one someone – who lost their jobs, and then their savings, then their homes. Going from being a rich person to poor, which is so often outside our control, is frighteningly easy. In other words, one very personal reason for crossing the chasm is that because we could have been, and still might be, the ones on the far side, the ones who need help.

We know, too, that while there is nothing wrong with being rich – however you define that term – there is something wrong, in God’s eyes, with not using our wealth to help others in need. We may not be in a position to join Warren Buffet and Bill Gates and all those other billionaires who are giving away half their fortunes, but surely we are able to give something to those who have less.

And we may not be the ones who are called to work directly with the poor. Our call may be to use our wealth – however big or small – to help others help the poor. There is nothing wrong with that – each of us has different gifts, and some people’s gift is to fund the work of others.

Whatever our gifts are, the important question we always have to consider is this: Do we want to cross the chasm?

Because that surely is what Jesus is calling us to do today.

To make the leap of faith and cross the chasm.

Are we willing?


A sermon preached on the  18th Sunday after Pentecost, 26 September 2010, Proper 21 Year C, at Christ Church, Millwood. 

[1] cf

[2] The Rev. Dr. George Hermanson, “Paying Attention,” on David Ewart’s,

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