Thursday, March 12, 2015

If you Believe! J. Herbert Nelson Preaches to Advocacy Community

Sermon, as prepared, for the weekly Chapel Service in the United Methodist Building, Simpson Memorial Chapel, Washington, DC, faith-based advocacy community, on Wednesday, March 11, 2015.

If You Believe!
Delivered by the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Director for Public Witness

When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’
-- John 11:32-44 (NRSV)

Our text for the day is taken from the Gospel of John and focuses on the Resurrection of Lazarus. Jesus came to the home of Mary and Martha, two grieving sisters whose brother died. It is clear that they are disappointed that Jesus did not come earlier when the word of Lazarus’ illness was received. It is obvious that the sisters believed that Jesus’ healing power could have prevented heir brother’s death. The scripture records Martha uttering the words more than once “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (v.11:21)

Martha was concerned not only for the healing that could have kept him alive, but also for the observance of the rabbinical tradition calling for the embalming of the body on the day of death, so that hovering soul of the departed could be reunited with the body. Jesus’ four-day delay in Bethany, a nearby city, marred any chance that Lazarus’ soul and body could be reunited, since this could have only occurred within three days after death, according to tradition. Although we like to think of biblical characters as having angelic thoughts in these moments, Martha’s concern regarding her brother’s resurrection is expressed in a sharp tone when Jesus says, “Your brother will rise.” She responds, “I know that he will arise on the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus then responds, I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

As we engage the work of justice in this place – Washington, DC, it is almost commonplace in these tough political times to raise questions about God’s activity among us. There are days when this work feels like an avalanche of concerns descending upon my desk. Calls from constituents who act as though I am the blame for the denomination’s problems; our office is the reason that numbers in the pews are decreasing; and that withholding their money is the only appropriate action that will make things better.

The fact of the matter is that the policy we advocate for in Washington, DC, as a denomination begins in a local Church (such as one of theirs) and we don’t work on it until it has been approved by the General Assembly. Our office never had a vote, never took a poll, never tweaked the language or offered the final version, however, it is our office that bears the brunt of the criticism.

I can imagine that Jesus understood what it was not to be responsible for the condition that angered people, but still be blamed for it – no matter how many healing miracles, or encounters with powers and principalities while doing advocacy work to stop federal programs from being cut or calling for affordable health care or fighting against a potentially disastrous Free Trade Agreement.

Think about it! He was Bethany being bullied by the Jews who even tried to stone him for blasphemy. Now, he arrives at the home of friends who blame him for not being there when their brother died; for arriving too late.

“Jesus, if you had been here my brother would not have died.”

“Jesus you came four days after he was in the tomb and you were two miles away.”

“Jesus, you spent your time with those people and we are your friends and you did not come in our time of worship.”

Why don’t we personalize this a little?

“You mean to tell me that your office is supporting an issue I do not like.  I am going to petition that we not give any money to your office from our Church.”

Amid the multiplicity of issues we face in this advocacy community, including the non-governance of our elected leaders who have become puppets for domestic and global corporations; Amid congregations and constituents who believe that their money ought to lead our work rather than God’s will through the Holy Spirit. Amid the growing tension in mainline protestant denominations regarding shrinking pools of money and members; Amid discussions over LGBT inclusion and entitlement among the wealthy; Amid the changing winds of our country’s landscape both racially and gender identity, police murders of African American boys and men, mass incarceration, gun violence, warring nations, and too many uneducated children, Jesus utters these command, “Believe.”

Jesus said to her, ”Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God.”

Believe that our limitations will be met by the power of God through Jesus Christ.

In our culture, we often live with the mentality of not having enough. Walter Bruggemann writes of us as living in a mindset of scarcity rather than abundance. We have more than enough, but we are locked into systems that are always reminding us of the need for more and the fear of losing what we have. The reality is that we are a culture of poor managers/stewards over what God has given us.

When I traveled to South Sudan back in January, I saw children sitting out in 100+ degree heat on handmade benches with a teacher who had a marker and a flipchart. No books, plumbing, paper, pencils, individual seating, electricity or computers. However, in our country, we have school buildings filled with resources and we’re told last March that over 70 percent of our schools could possibly not achieve No Child Left Behind standards. Where there is a Church, mosque, or synagogue on the corner, no child or school should be left behind. It is not a matter of resources for us, it is lack of will to educate every child in the United States.

The growth of the prison industrial complex in the United States is a by-product of our failure to educate all children. So, our children and whole communities are choosing jail over Yale – while our politicians choose profitability over integrity. It is important that we in the faith community remember that we are people of faith here in DC and not pseudo-political staffers in a religious office. Our work is to assist others (both politicians and our Church constituents) to trust that the power of God can assist us in overcoming all of our deficits. This is done by faith-filled advocacy that leads to transformation on behalf of the Lord our God through Jesus Christ.

Jesus did not panic in the face of Martha’s criticisms or the skeptics that might have filled that house of bereavement that day. No, he reminded them that resurrection was not bound by the four-day law regarding the body and soul reuniting, but in the hands of an awesome God who can take our moments and our days and let them flow with ceaseless praise. We must remember this in our work.

Believe that even in our apparent defeats, God is still in control.

I have seen many things since coming to Washington, DC, five years ago.  Readings of Green Eggs and Ham by sitting congressional leaders. Our President and his family maligned. Arguing over seating charts among our congressional leaders to determine who will sit next to the other during the State of the Union. And, while all of this is going on, we are inundated with Isis attacks; Apartheid in the Middle East (Palestinian/Israeli struggle) – Not to mention our own apartheid in the police killings of African American men and ongoing border arrests, deportations that make immigrants another source of filling jail cells and cheap labor. This environment gets overwhelming sometimes. I have to spend time with real people so as not to become overwhelmed with this place called Washington, DC.

I am saddened that our efforts to enact common sense gun laws were defeated, Obamacare may be overturned by this Court, fast-track may guide our next trade agreement, and a faithful budget may not happen. But I remain hopeful, because I know who is in control.


The Reverend Dr. J. Herbert Nelson is the Director for Public Witness at the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness in Washington, DC. He preached this sermon as part of the Lenten series of the weekly chapel services organized at the United Methodist Building in Washington, DC. The ecumenical advocacy community gathers weekly for worship.