Back to Life

November 21, 2015

A sermon preached by the Rt. Rev. Jeffrey D. Lee at Diocesan Convention 2015:

Last week I was in New York for a meeting of the board of Episcopal Relief & Development. As part of the celebration of the organization’s 75th birthday we also hosted there a symposium with partners from around the world, partners with Episcopal Relief & Development in extraordinary work going on in many places. Health services in Africa and Central America, climate-smart agricultural projects in Ghana, efforts to stem the terror of sexual and gender based violence in Kenya and Burundi. These are projects of and by the people who live in these communities, Anglican Christians, our sisters and brothers with whom we partner to accomplish miraculous results, life giving change for the good. The keynote speaker for the symposium was Jim Yong Kim, the president of the World Bank Group (I never dreamed I’d be traveling in company like this!) Among other things, Dr. Kim is something of a theologian, much influenced by liberation theology. I was not expecting to hear from the lips of the president of the World Bank the phrase "a preferential option for the poor."

He reminded us that while the news around the world is full of tragedy, crisis and challenge, it is also a time of remarkable progress and possibility. Indeed, for the first time in human history we stand before the real possibility of eliminating extreme poverty in most of the world. The UN Sustainable Development Goals commit the world to just this goal by the year 2030. And it is not a pipe dream. A challenge, but not a pipe dream.

Here are some facts that hardly ever get reported:

• Since the 1990s the number of extremely poor people in the world (those earning less than $1 a day) has plummeted - declining by 200 million over the last three years alone.

• In 1990, more than 12 million children died before the age of 5; this toll has since dropped by more than half.

• In the 1980s, only half of girls in developing countries completed elementary school; today, 80 percent do.

Even birthrates are affected by economic and social development and they tend in the direction of sustainability. In 1985 Hatitian women averaged six children; today the number is 3. In Bangladesh and Indonesia the average is just over 2. When the poor know that their children will survive, when they educate their daughters, when they access family planning, they have fewer children.

Now the world remains a dangerous place — it hardly needs to be said after the last couple of weeks. Terrorism, domestic and global, threatens to undo us. Inequality abounds in this country. Climate change is creating increasingly volatile conditions and we know that will only increase global displacement and various kinds of instability. I heard from Dr. Kim that by mid-century, as much as 40% of the arable land in sub-Saharan Africa will become unarable. But the fact is, despite massive challenges, we have made remarkable, even miraculous progress in the direction of human flourishing and we can continue to do so. God has not abandoned the creation.

Miracles are not absent from this world. This world. We have heard the stories of them from the women of Magdalene and Thistle Farms. Death is real — oh, who needs to be reminded of it? Whether suddenly from guns on the streets of our cities and on our college campuses, in acts of terror and in wars around the globe. Death can come suddenly. Or demonically slowly from the curses of trafficking and addiction and discrimination and poverty. Death is real. Jesus wept at its awful presence. Death is real … and so is resurrection. So is new life. So is hope. So is love. We see it in our presence here and now. And, dear friends, there is nothing stronger than love. Never make a mistake of believing the devil’s lies about that. Nothing is stronger than the self-giving love of the God who has loved us all into being in the first place. As our new Presiding Bishop says, “If it isn’t about love, it isn’t about God.” Oh, that that would become the refrain of the Episcopal Church.

Resurrected love is real. It is true in our lives. We have seen it. We forget, but we have seen it. I have seen it. In addicted lives restored to wholeness one day at a time. In relationships restored. In friendships kindled across the boundaries of race and class and culture. I have seen it in families and individuals. I have seen it in churches. I have seen it in this diocese. Churches that I thought were at death’s door, suddenly experiencing new life and growth. Churches reaching out across their own boundaries to try to bridge the ugly divides of racism. Churches that are thriving as they feed the hungry and house the homeless and give the hope of new life to people in their communities who have given up on ever finding it. Churches bearing faithful witness to the lavish love of God in the face of schism and exclusion. I have seen resurrection in our churches and in the people we serve. Have you? Don't forget.

And this doesn’t just happen. Resurrection made real like this does not just happen. It takes intention, it takes self-giving, it takes leadership — leadership like Mary’s. She was transparent to her grief, her loss, her apparent helplessness in the face of the brute “facts.”Andshe knew where to find hope and life and the love that reaches even through and beyond death. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.” She knew to go to Jesus. It’s where we need to go too. And that kind of leadership expands, it multiplies. Note, that Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb, but he gives the work of unbinding him to those standing nearby. “Unbind him, undo those windings, let him go.”

I have seen such unbinding. I have seen resurrection in our churches and that’s why I am so focused on trying to equip our congregations with the tools they need to make the way clear for the Spirit of God to move. Why I put so much emphasis on healthy leadership development, on identifying and encouraging leaders who will shape our conversations around what’s right with our life together instead of what’s wrong, keeping our focus on the abundance of gifts God lavishes on us instead of obsessing about what is lacking.

Too many people have given in to the very human tendency to accommodate death, to give up in its solemn presence. When John Danforth was in the diocese recently, he talked about the death of politics. "When I was coming up, he said, politics was about the art of compromise." Now any deviation from the party line and you're out. "Too many of us have given up," Danforth said.

Like sweet Martha in the gospel (bless her heart), we’re very good at making excuses for why new life could not possibly happen. “Lord the smell will be awful. Let’s just leave the stone firmly in place, don’t you think?” What if we invited those people to join our church? What if we organized to insist that Christians have something to say about the public health crisis called “guns?” What if we risked spending our money on setting a lavish table for the homeless? What if we move the pews?! Join the Diocese of Chicago?!! Become a parish??!! I understand Martha — it would be much easier to just leave the stone in place.

But friends, at what a cost. Without rolling away that boulder we would not hear the Lord’s voice, “Lazarus, come on out!” Unbind him. Let him go. Let my people go. We are all Lazarus. Every one of us needs to be unbound of something, let loose of something, freed from whatever it is that’s keeping us from standing up and walking out into the light of God. That's what the story is about. In rolling away the stone, we get to walk out of the tomb too.

Can these bones live? Can the bones of this old church be clothed with flesh and blood and breath and new life? Can this old old world come alive again? Listen. Just listen. Listen for the voice of the One who died and is risen beyond death and the grave. Jesus is waiting to set us all free. Let’s help him. 

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