The Awesome-Factor

Hand of God

“The Hands” in “The Creation of Adam”
by Michelangelo

The crowd held its collective breath. No one moved. All eyes were fixed on Jesus, who stood before the tomb of Lazarus, four days dead. With tears in his eyes, Jesus looked up to heaven to pray. He was surrounded by judgment and condemnation. Martha and Mary had complained that he did not arrive in time to heal his friend, their brother. The neighbors condemned him for the same. The authorities were plotting to kill him. Surrounded by the negative judgment of friend and foe, Jesus lifted up his voice with ringing authority, and proclaimed God’s judgment upon Lazarus and all of them with the summons, “Lazarus come out!”

The dead man came out, very much alive. All who witnessed this awesome miracle were likewise summoned to come out of the tomb of their fear and to leave behind their judgmental attitude. In his command, “Come out!” Jesus pronounced God’s judgment of life and affirmation, and he set in motion the Gospel code of conduct of grace and reconciliation.

Today Jesus judges you and me by calling with a loud voice, “Come out!” For we are all prejudiced and are all tempted to condemn others. Complaining can be a habit, but it is not a holy habit. Jesus judges us as he judged Lazarus, Martha, Mary, their friends, and his foes, with God’s judgment of acceptance, forgiveness, and life. We are respected, but not perfected. Each of us remains weak and broken. I confessed some of my brokenness in last week’s sermon, for Lent is a time of Christian reconciliation. I trust you are doing the same.

Without God’s judgment of love and forgiveness, without the voice of Jesus calling, we will remain in the tomb of negativity, fear, and prejudice. Daily we need God’s judgment of grace, and so we cry with the psalmist, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within us.”

We trust that Jesus weeps for us. We trust that God judges us with magisterial forgiveness. We trust that Jesus causes the stone to be rolled away from the tomb, and we trust that Jesus constantly calls us into the life of divine grace and love.

Part of our brokenness is that we are all prejudiced. The first step in our Lenten confession is to acknowledge that we are guilty, and that our society is structured around the power of that fear. We are the neighbors who participate in and unconsciously perpetuate prejudice. We cannot help it, and only by God’s undeserved intervention can we be set free. Only by the voice of Jesus calling us, “Come out!” can we emerge from the tomb.

A vivid lesson about my own prejudice came when, at age twelve, I visited the market in our new home of Enugu, Nigeria. Attracted by the exotic items in various stalls, I lagged behind my mother and sister, without noticing that they’d disappeared around a corner. I looked up and saw only black people. I felt like the only white person in a sea of blacks, and a surge of fear coursed through my body. That day I began to understand my own prejudices. Later, the market was a place of delight, where I would exchange smiles and greetings with many of those same people.

The first step in respecting the dignity of every human being is to acknowledge our guilt, and the second step is confession. Confession allows us to hear the voice of Jesus calling us into a life of grace. The third step is to expect the fear, to learn of its subtle snake-like craftiness, and to not allow the fear to drive us, to not perpetuate a habit of complaining or condemning.

This July our country will observe the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act that outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or country of origin. We can be proud of this act. Motivated by the civil disobedience led by Martin Luther King Jr., initiated by John F. Kennedy, it took his death to inspire the nation to make this momentous commitment. We are still living out the implications of the law, especially in the areas of race, sexuality, and immigration.

But only God shows us the path to truly fulfill that law. It is the path of accepting God’s judgment of mercy and embodying the grace of Jesus Christ. In the summons “Come out!” we are commanded to let the cross and resurrection banish our fear. He summons us to walk out of the tomb into a life of forgiveness.

In our market culture, we sometimes ask what the product of the church is. What is the product of All Saints’? Some might answer that our meaningful outreach ministries are our product. This week we assemble and give away Easter food boxes, and in less than a month we hold our important Small Bites fundraiser. Others might say our missions to school and Santa Lucia represent our product, while others might say it is the liturgy itself.

But the true product, our true mission, our raison d’être, is to be the Body of Christ, and constantly to be called out of the tomb of sin and gloom, into the light of Christ’s love. As I mentioned last week, what matters to God is who we are as individuals and as the Body of the Son. Our product is the Spirit of Jesus animating our relationships and infusing our ministries. So I call us to actively judge each other through the love of Jesus Christ, and to dedicate our energy to pronouncing the loving judgment of Jesus upon each other. Our purpose is to love others in the power of the Spirit, so that we may go into the world and do likewise.

During my recent sabbatical retreat, I recognized that even my prayers were laced with anxiety. After being healed of fifty-year-old shame, I began to hear how anxious my daily prayers sounded. Then a comment by a young adult came to mind; he said, “I’m an awesome person.” So I began to use the “awesome factor” to orient my prayers in the judgment of God’s grace. What a difference it makes to pray, for instance, for my awesome mother. Now each day I use the awesome factor when praying, for instance, for our vestry: for awesome Wanda, awesome Elaine, awesome Sameera, awesome Bill, two awesome Susans, awesome Dave, awesome Jackie, and awesome Elizabeth. I pray for your awesome self, and covet your prayers for my awesome self. For we are prejudged by Jesus Christ, and are thus set free of our prejudice. Jesus summons us to judge others as we are judged, and to speak his message “Come out!” by who we are.

The Rev. Rick Matters, preached at All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Carmel