Confirmation is coming up again next September! 7 eager youths, excitedly anticipating a year of learning about their faith! Now, when some people think about what you’re supposed to learn in Confirmation, they go immediately to the Ten Commandments. Thou shall not kill. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not speak falsely about others. …Thou shalt not sass thy sainted mother (my favorite) Important lessons if we’re going to have a society that works.
But the most common type of story in the Bible is not the giving of laws and the ‘Thou shalt nots’. The most common type of story in the Bible is where God turns what people expect upside down. Situations don’t end the same way they begin… Genesis: Chaos is turned into a new creation. Exodus: Slavery is transformed into dancing freedom. And the whole New Testament: Death resurrected into abundant life.
That’s what God is all about: turning the world as we know it upside down. And the weak become strong, and the poor become rich, and the dead become… alive.
That’s what we hear today in the story of Lazarus. Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, are dear, personal friends of Jesus. Their house is where he always stays when He comes to Bethany. Theirs is the company He seeks when He needs a friend. That’s Mary, Martha and Lazarus.
And one day, Lazarus gets sick- really, really sick. His sisters send a messenger to find Jesus and tell him to come back to Bethany and heal their brother. He heals everybody; they know healing Lazarus will be no problem. They have faith in Him.
And the messenger finds him, and tells him… but Jesus won’t come. Jesus waits around another two days until He knows that Lazarus is actually dead. Then He starts His way back to Bethany. Four days later, He ends up on Mary and Martha’s doorstep.
They are so hurt. They are angry, and bitter. “Why didn’t You come when we called You, Jesus? Our brother would still be alive if You had come. You could have cured Him. Why did You wait?” Their anger gives way to tears of grief, and Jesus says, “Take me to his tomb”
And they reach the tomb, and Jesus Himself starts to weep and says, “Move the stone away from the tomb.” And Martha, ever the practical one, says, “Lord, Lazarus has been in the heat of that tomb for four days.” I love the King James translation that comes next: “Lord, he stinketh!” Four days- she’s right that the body will be stinketh-ing! But it’s not just that. In Jewish tradition, after 3 days a person’s spirit leaves to go to sheol. Before that, the spirit lingers around the body; we can still sense our loved one’s presence. But dead four days- the spirit is gone. The body is decaying. Death is final.
Lord, Lazarus has been dead for four days- he’s no longer here. And Jesus says, Move the stone. “But Lord, he stinketh.” Move the stone. And they roll the stone away from Lazarus’s grave, and Jesus calls out: Lazarus! Arise and come out!
And like some kind of zombie movie, the body of Lazarus, still wrapped in its funeral shrouds, his head still bound with cloth, comes out of the tomb. And Jesus tells his sisters to unbind him, and let him go. And the weak become strong, and the poor become rich, and the dead become… alive. Because that’s what God is about: turning the world as we know it upside down.
Of course, the world doesn’t really like to be turned upside down. Right after this, the priests and Pharisees called a council and said, “We’ve got to get rid of this guy.” And they mean not only Jesus, but Lazarus as well. Because you can’t have people rising from the dead. It disrupts the status quo. And so the powers of this world will do most anything to keep dead people dead.
I’m thinking of the Milwaukee Journal article on yesterday’s front page (Sat, March 10, 2018)- “Oconomowoc School To Limit Discussion of Social Privilege.” On Martin Luther King Day this past Jan. 15, students at Oconomowoc High School took a simple test to help them see things that they just take for granted.
“While some of the questions focused on race- for example, ‘When I go to a store, people believe I am trustworthy and I will not steal something’- others touched on privileges related to gender (and) physical ability.” (Milwaukee Journal, “Privilege”, pg 2A)
The 12 questions included, “Using public bathrooms and going up and down stairs in public spaces are easy for me”- a kid in a wheelchair has to answer no to that; but an able-bodied kid never has to think twice. It’s a privilege able-bodied people don’t even have to think about. Another one is “When I am taught about American history or about contributions made, I am sure that I will see and hear stories about people who look like me. “If you’re an Anglo boy, that’s absolutely true. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, FDR, Ronald Reagan: they’re all white guys. But if you’re a girl, or a person of color, you’re not going to hear many stories about girls or people of color. Most of the role models are white men.
The vast majority of the kids thought this was a helpful exercise. They thought it opened their eyes about things they’d never thought before. It was like the raising of Lazarus, except instead of being raised from the dead, the students had their consciences raised.
But like the Lazarus of the Bible, being raised has its consequences. “Oconomowoc Superintendent Roger Rindo said he was directed by school board members during a closed door, executive session not to allow future activities around the topic of privilege.”
We can’t think about these upsetting things; we can’t upset the status quo, where everything is hunky dorey, and there is no racism, no sexism, and no privilege, and, unlike in the Bible, things never get turned upside down.
I know there are those who will say I’m getting into politics, and we don’t do that here. Emmanuel is a safe place for people of differing beliefs and opinions. But friends, I don’t believe this is about politics; this is about justice. This is about making our community a safe place for all people, which means that each of us needs to think about where we are in all this mix. Do we have advantages that other people don’t, just because of where we were born, or who our parents were?
I know that just being born in the United States is a huge privilege- a great advantage. I think we can agree that everyone in this room is privileged in this way. That’s an easy privilege to see. Can you imagine what it would be like to be born in… Rwanda? Or Ecuador?
Being born into an English-speaking family is a huge privilege. We can read the signs, the books, the instructions. We can understand what people are saying to us. Can we imagine what it is like to not be able to understand what is being required of us? Kids catch on quickly, but for adults to become fluent in a new language- it’s not easy. Being able to understand… is a privilege.
Being born into a white family is a huge privilege. We can live wherever we wish; red-lining has never applied to us. Sunset laws that said we had to be out of town by sunset never applied to us. We had access to federally-backed mortgages that could be accessed only for homes in white neighborhoods.
The GI Bill gave us access to college and home-ownership; black GIs didn’t get the GI bill education or mortgage benefits. And so while we white citizens got to move up into a strong and healthy middle class back in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, citizens of color were left without higher education, stuck in low-income jobs and ghettos.
It’s how the system worked, how our society was organized. And what we got, we passed on to our children as their inheritance: a middle class inheritance for white kids; an inheritance of poverty for black kids.
But at Oconomowoc High School, we’re no longer able to get together as a whole and talk about these things, because if we talk about them we might get uncomfortable. Things might begin to change, and God may turn our world upside down. But not talking being able to talk about racism and privilege is just not right. If we can’t openly discuss these basic issues of justice, how will our country ever move beyond our history of racism? We do what we’ve always done, and we get what we’ve always got.
And that’s just not right. It’s not about politics, about Republican or Democrat or Libertarian or Independent. It’s about doing the right thing. And sometimes, when we’re blind to what the problem is, we need help in seeing what’s right in front of us, so we can properly see our own part in the problem.
We are called to be like Lazarus- raised by Jesus to come out of our dark places and into the light; raised by Jesus to have the cloths uncover our eyes and unbind our bodies. But the scripture also tells us what happens when miracles like that occur: this is what it says in John 11, right after Lazarus was raised from the dead:
“Many of the Jews who had… seen what Jesus did believed in Him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, ‘What are we to do? This man is performing miracles! 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.’ …So from that day on they planned to put Him to death… (John 11:45-53) (And) the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and believing in Jesus.” (John 12:10-11)
Those who rise up face stiff opposition. Those who question the status quo are silenced. But if we do not question, if we do not rise up, how will things ever change?
Dear friends, I have no desire to preach politics from this pulpit. But I do need to preach the gospel of resurrection, of life, of justice. And you and I need to engage the hard issues of the day, with the intention not to further divide, but to seek the healing of God’s world.
Because Christ would have us arise, in the power of the resurrection, to bring God’s life, and light and justice into God’s world. Because if we take the Bible seriously, one way or another God wants to turn this world upside down.
In the name of the One who would raise us into life; even Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Resources: Milwaukee Journal, March 10, 2018, “Oconomowoc Schools To Limit Discussion Of Social Privilege”, pp 1A, 2A