Sunday, April 6, 2014

Sermon Lent 5A

Lent 5A – April 6, 2014
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45
St Stephen Lutheran Church
The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz, STS

In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

At this moment, imprisoned in the Allegheny County Jail,
is someone just like me.

Unless you have been living under a rock for the last week,
by now you have heard the story of Laurel Schlemmer,
a McCandless woman who is accused of and has admitted to
drowning her three-year-old son
and attempting to drown her six-year-old son
in the family bathtub,
while her husband was at work and her seven-year-old son was at school.
According to her report, she heard ‘crazy voices’
telling her she’d be a better mother to the older son
if the other two were in heaven.
And so, on Friday night I took my own ten-year-old son to the ball game,
without a care except whether or not it would rain,
and less than a thousand feet from where I parked my car
 is someone just like me
who is entombed in her guilt, entombed in prison,
entombed in a life that is no doubt now a living death –
the glassy-eyed stare of her arraignment photo now known worldwide.

Now this is no pious preacher’s prattle
or a mere theological construct.
When I say that she is just like me,
I mean exactly that:she is just like me.
I can say that because I remember Laurel Schlemmer.
In those days she went by her middle name, Michelle.
She enrolled at Grove City when I was a junior…
…not a close friend, but someone I talked to; I knew her by name.
In fact, I feel somewhat guilty describing her
as if she were just someone in the news that I can use in a sermon.
She had hopes and dreams that were, I’m sure, very much like my own…
She graduated, got a job, got married, had kids, and was active in her church,
a believer in Jesus Christ,
 just like me right up until last Tuesday morning.
She is so much like me that of course I am stunned by what she has been accused of doing
and the idea that this could happen to her.
What is so different about her than me?

Why does God so often come too late?
The miracle-worker, who opened the eyes of the blind man,
comes just in time to cry impotent tears at the grave of his friend.
Someone falls into terrible sin,
someone is overcome by addiction or illness
or is possessed by demons material or spiritual,
and God shows up just in time for the funeral.
There is a pastor who comes to comfort the remaining family
as the mother is led off to the prison cell
and the boy is carted off to the hospital
and the other to the morgue.
Too late.

When Jesus came to Lazarus’s tomb,
he came too late.
It had been four days since Lazarus had died.
In Jewish thinking of the time,
the soul hung around the body for three days,
maybe giving Martha and Mary a little bit of pause
even after Lazarus died.
Perhaps, just perhaps, if Jesus had responded to their urgent summons immediately
there was still time, still a little bit of hope.
Four days. Lazarus was really dead. No hope. Too late.

It’s the best argument for atheism there is.
God, at least in the great monotheistic traditions,
is seen as all-good and all-powerful.
Therefore, if bad things happen, as we know they do,
God is either not all-good, nor is he all-powerful.
Therefore there is no God, so the argument goes.

And so I don’t believe it’s the advances in science or technology
which means that fewer and fewer people believe in God.
I think it’s because people have decided that since God comes too late,
or doesn’t come at all, he doesn’t exist;
and the Church has lost faith in the answer that it has always given.
Where was God when his ancient people Israel rebelled and were exiled?
Couldn’t he have stopped them?
Where was God when Lazarus, Jesus’ beloved friend, fell ill and died?
Where was he when six million Jews were shot and gassed
and their bodies burnt in the Holocaust?
Where was God when his priests abused those young boys in their charge?
Where is he when you and I try so hard and pray so hard and still fail,
when our kids go astray or get hurt?
Where was God when someone just like me enters into a living death;
someone I knew by name
says that she heard voices and killed one of her sons and tried to kill another?
Why didn’t God stop her?
Is he not good or is he not omnipotent?

This is why we rush so quickly to blame and judge others,
for the alternative is blaming and judging God.
She is either lying or someone else is to blame for not noticing the signals of mental illness.
That’s how we try and let God off the hook.
And yet this is ultimately unsatisfying and begging the question.
God was too late, wasn't he?
And if he was too late for her, he is too late for me,
for I am just like her in everything but the details.

Martha comes to Jesus, and says, ‘It is too late.’
And then she says something incredible, unbelievable:
‘But even now.’
‘Even now, it’s not too late.
Even four days late, it’s not too late.
Just say the word and it’s not too late.
God will give you whatever you ask.’

Jesus cannot take us back, none of us can go back,
but as long as the God whom Jesus calls Father is present,
we can go forward.
In the face of sin and evil we can’t undo
and death from which we can’t escape,
God does not undo the past, but he makes a way forward.
If this seems trite,
we ought to understand that it is our only hope.

If we think that there is no way forward for Laurel Schlemmer,
that her sins are so grievous that neither God nor man could forgive her,
much less could she herself accept God’s forgiveness,
then we ought to be honest with ourselves
and go home from here.
But instead we are here.
We are here doing what Martha and Mary did,
what the church always does.
We come to Jesus bearing our pain and the pain of the world,
we hear in the Word of God the promises of Jesus, ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life.’
With Martha, we confess in the Creed,
‘I believe that you are the Messiah, the one coming into the world,’
and then we pray.
We pray that the Church which is broken may be made whole.
We pray that the world which is broken may be made whole.
We pray that we and all people may be made whole.

Like Martha’s sister Mary, we throw ourselves at Jesus’ feet and we pray.
We pray like those who hope without hope,
like those who have nowhere to turn
but to the one who seemingly has come too late.

And then we feast.
Why feast?
In the darkness of the world,
we feast because the light is coming.
In the shadow of death,
we feast because there is indeed a promise of resurrection,
despite all that sin, death and evil throw at us,
whether they work within or without.
We feast because God opened the graves of ancient Israel,
because he opened the grave of Lazarus,
and on the third day, the one who was buried in the tomb
sprang forth to new life.
And so we feast, for this life is ours whether death likes it or not.

So pray.
Pray for Michelle, that she would be brought from her living death to life.
I know her and she is just like me.
Pray for her surviving child and for the ones who have gone on.
Pray for her husband, her family and friends, her pastor and her church.
Pray with the faith that says, ‘Lord, even now your Father will give you whatever you ask.’
Always pray, never giving up,
until God at the last speaks the word that brings the dead to life.