A Lasting Legacy

A Lasting Legacy

Middle Valley United Methodist Church

August 22, 2010

John 11: 32-44

2When 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.”

33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” 38Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus 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 four days.” 40Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I 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.” 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The 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.”

Years ago on a TV show, a guest appeared that was a body builder. He entered the stage with his huge muscular body, and the crowd went crazy as the body builder began to flex his muscles and show his power. The first question asked of him was this: “What do you use all those muscles for?” Without answering, the body builder again began flexing his muscles while the crowd cheered wildly.

A second time, the question was asked, “What do you do with those muscles?” Again, the body builder flexed his muscles and the crowd became almost ecstatic. After asking a third time, “What do you do with all those muscles?” the body builder just sat in silence. He had no answers. The man was all power but his power had no purpose other than to show off and bring attention to himself.

For something to have meaning, it must have purpose. We easily associate the meaning of Lazarus’ life with his walk out of the tomb after being dead four days; and how Jesus’ miraculous work in Bethany helped show his close association with God the Father. But Lazarus’ life, the events surrounding his death, and Jesus’ miracle in raising Lazarus from the dead have significance far beyond that single moment. Jesus wasn’t just flexing his muscles in a fancy show for the grieving crowd; he was showing us how to grieve, but also how to live.

Today, we mark the final worship service of Middle Valley United Methodist Church. This is indeed a solemn and sad occasion. The ministries of this church in the Middle Valley community have spanned six decades. Some of you grew up here, and some of you have joined this community only in more recent years. And in our gathering today, we remember the legacy of this church. We cannot engage in such remembering without acknowledging the feeling of grief, perhaps profound grief, that comes as we recall all that this church is and has been in our lives and in this community.

Grief is a strong emotion. It is sadness, but it is more than sadness; it is a sorrow that overwhelms the depth of our being, and it is unavoidable. As humans, one of the inevitable experiences of life is seasons of grief. This is one of the things that is important about the story of Lazarus’ death. Here is one of the few places in the Gospels where there is a deep show of grief from Jesus. We are told three times that Jesus was “deeply moved” or that he wept. In Greek, the usual usage for what is translated here as “deeply moved” is that of a horse snorting. With this in mind, we can only assume that Jesus was seized by such deep emotion that he let out a great involuntary groan from the depths of his heart. Jesus had lost his friend to death, and death is a difficult thing for those of us left in its wake. And in some sense, what we mark here today is a death; the ending of an era.

When my grandfather passed away 11 years ago, I was a sophomore in college. I returned to school after his funeral and the next day I went to the Wesley Fellowship. The campus minister, aware of my recent loss, approached me and putting his hands on my shoulders, he asked how I was doing. Tears welled up in my eyes, but as I tried to choke them back, he looked and me and said, “It’s okay to cry.” And so I did. Jesus wept when his friend died. We, too, can weep in the face of death. Yet even as we grieve, we can continue giving meaning and purpose to the legacy that has been built in this place by this congregation. We can help Christ’s church live on, even thrive, by honoring the impact this church has had in our lives. Certainly we grieve today, but we also celebrate the rich heritage of this church. What better way to continue the legacy of this church than by living out that inspiration in our own lives.

When we think of this church, we recall its early days meeting in a store front not too far from here. I’m sure some of you can remember worshipping in the old sanctuary, which now serves as the Fellowship Hall. Many of you recall those days a couple of decades ago, when the new sanctuary was built, and services were so full that folding chairs had to be carried in each week. Indeed, this congregation has a rich heritage. But I firmly believe that the real legacy is the people, each of you; those who walked out of these services on Sunday mornings and into the world, where you toiled away daily in the name of the Lord.

Just because this church is closing its doors does not mean that its legacy cannot continue. Together with many others, you all have worshipped here. You have studied and prayed together. You have grieved loss and celebrated new life as children were baptized. You have gathered at the Table and shared the Lord’s Supper. You have carried one another through hardships, and you have served this community well in the name of Christ. From this church have come many strong Christian leaders, one of whom may be returning here to lead a congregation of young people. Your legacy continues! In this place, you have all journeyed together and grown as disciples of Jesus Christ. This is a mark of who you are, and Middle Valley United Methodist Church has been a beacon of light in this community, revealing who Christ is! And though I have only been here a short time, the question for me now is how will I honor the legacy of this church through my own living? This is the question for all of us. How will we honor Middle Valley United Methodist Church in the days, and months, and years ahead?

For me, the answer to this question is that I will strive to follow Christ more closely each day. God wants the Church to grow and thrive, even though that might now be happening in new and different ways. God wants us all to follow and serve Christ and to inspire others to do the same, just as we have been inspired. We are ordinary people, but God wants us to be ordinary saints, and when we seek to follow God’s will in our lives, we honor the rich heritage of this church and all the saints who have gone before us. The Gospels tell us how to do this, and we can find direction even in the events surrounding Lazarus’ death and resurrection, and through the actions of Jesus and his disciples.

One of the great mysteries of this story is the fact that Jesus did not come to Bethany before Lazarus died, when Mary and Martha had summoned him with the news that Lazarus was sick. “Hurry up!” Mary and Martha say. But Jesus says, “Wait.” And when Jesus arrives four days later, as we heard, Mary tells him that if he had been there her brother would not have died. But Jesus’ late arrival does not indicate inaction on his part. The people rolled the stone away from Lazarus’ tomb and there was no smell. Before Jesus called Lazarus out, he lifted a prayer to his Father, thanking God for hearing him. And when Jesus summoned Lazarus out, he emerged a whole man.

When Jesus had received word of Lazarus’ illness, his response was this, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory.”[1] Biblical scholar Tom Wright says that we can only assume that in those days Jesus spent away before returning to Bethany, “he was praying: praying that though Lazarus would die, he would be preserved from corruption; praying that when eventually they arrived in Bethany, the body in the tomb would be whole and complete, ready to be summoned back into life. And when they took the stone away he knew that his prayer had been answered.”[2] And so Jesus thanked his Father for hearing his prayers.

This may not be what we wanted. We think, it would’ve been a lot better if: if people hadn’t left, if the recession hadn’t hit, if bills weren’t so high. But Jesus can still work with us, even apart from this building, even if we do not worship together in this place each week. We just have to pray for God’s guidance. You see, the clue to the miraculous raising of Lazarus from the dead was Jesus’ steadfast faith and fervent prayer. If Jesus needed to spend time in prayer, how much more will we as we seek to continue the legacy of Middle Valley United Methodist Church and follow God more closely in our lives?

Then there is a lesson from the disciples. Though there are some things that only God can do, like raising Lazarus from the dead, there are also those things that God wants us to do; those places where God wants us to participate in Christ’s work in the world. In the Gospel story, Lazarus really was dead, and today marks the final worship of Middle Valley United Methodist Church. Like Mary and Martha, we have to deal with grief in the face of real loss. And, unlike Jesus, we do not have the option of restoring life. Only Christ has the authority to command the dead to “come out,” to emerge with the breath of life once again filling their lungs. But once that miracle has been accomplished, Christ turns to the disciples and encourages them to join in that blessed work as he instructs them to “unbind [Lazarus], and let him go.”

Our church is closing, but God still has work for us to do. We are to be workers together with Christ. Jesus invites us to walk with him, and he also calls us to serve in his name; to continue the work that was begun in him. Middle Valley United Methodist has done such work faithfully for many, many years. We honor the legacy of this church when we seek to do the same, and we also draw nearer to being the saints that God would have us to be.

On this day of Decommissioning, we do well to grieve the loss this church that is so near and dear to us. It doesn’t do any good to hide grief, or pretend it does not exist. Jesus wept when his friend died, and we too should weep. But even as we say with the mourning crowd at Bethany “Come and see,” leading Jesus to the place of our deep grief and sorrow; he is also saying “come and see” to us, showing us that even in the deep sorrow there is a place of light and love; a place of resurrection hope that God wants all the world to know about. Jesus prayed that God’s glory might be made known when Lazarus emerged from that tomb, and he thanked God when it was clear that God had acted. We, too, should offer our prayers and thanksgivings to God just as Jesus did. And with Christ’s life-giving sacrifice and resurrection before us, we must follow his call and continue his work. Our task is to take the message of God’s light, love, and hope, into the world. When we engage this task, we honor in the greatest way possible the legacy of Middle Valley United Methodist Church.

[1] John 11: 4

[2] Tom Wright, John for Everyone: Part Two (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 15.

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