Conference preacher: Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead was meant to help us ‘to take our grave clothes off’
December 4, 2021
During a worship service at the Presbyterian Association of Musicians’ Worship and Music Conference, the Rev. Cecilia (Ce Ce) Armstrong told those gathered in person and online that she was not going to preach a devotional sermon.
“It’s not only to warm the heart,” she said, “but to promote devotion to God.”
Preaching from John 11:32–44, Armstrong, of St. James Presbyterian Church in Charleston, South Carolina, said she wanted to see something different in this familiar story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead — even as Mary rushes to Jesus saying, “Lord if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”
“We say that under our breath sometimes, don’t we?” Armstrong said. “But sometimes God makes stuff die, so that we can be free.”
Armstrong pointed out that in this biblical account, freedom can be obtained only after the stone to Lazarus’s tomb is removed.
“Sometimes life is a stinking mess,” she said, “where you have to uncover hard truths about yourself or others.”
For Armstrong, the real power in this story is when Jesus speaks to those around the one who was dead, saying, “Come and take his grave clothes off.”
“Notice that his hands and feet are bound,” she said.
Armstrong believes that because we get so caught up — and shocked — about a dead man coming to life, we sometimes forget this command that Jesus has for us. As a result, she said many people get turned away from Jesus because we don’t help those who don’t “look, walk, talk or smell like us.”
“But could it be they’re so bound by what they’re wrecked in? It is the church’s responsibility take their grave clothes off,” she said as applause rippled throughout Anderson Auditorium at Montreat Conference Center.
“Beloved child of God, what in your life has to die?” she asked. “What has to die when you go to church? What permission do you need? What is the prayer you are you praying that grants assurance? How are you helping others take the grave clothes off that bind us all?”
After each question, Anderson repeated the phrase, “You are free.” And then, as Phillip Morgan played, conference adult choir director Phillip Shoultz and Armstrong sang these words from “I’m Free” by the Rev. Milton Brunson:
“I am free
Praise the Lord, I’m free
No longer bound
No more chains holding me
Soul is resting
And it’s just another blessing
Praise the Lord
Hallelujah, I’m free”
The Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary continued her study of Matthew 18, looking at verses 15–22, where Jesus gives guidelines on what to do if a member of the church sins against you.
“This text is about the church itself,” she said. “It’s how to deal with people in your group to determine if you can do ministry together.”
By giving guidelines that include going to the one who offends you first; then, if they won’t listen, to go again with two or three witnesses; and then to the whole church if necessary, Aymer said that Jesus is after restoration instead of resentment.
“The call to reconciliation isn’t to make nice,” she said. “It’s a call to not slander, to not bear a grudge.”
A woman in the room talked about how hard it is to go to a person who hurt you.
“I mean, people talk in the parking lot,” she said. “What if you go that person to pray and find they don’t like you anymore. What if the person has power, and I lose power?”
Aymer said it’s really about trusting one’s community.
“That’s the hard part,” she said. “It goes back to the call [in Matthew 18:1–5] to become like vulnerable children.”
Paul Seebeck, Communications Strategist, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Morning Psalms 90; 149
First Reading Amos 5:18-27
Second Reading Jude 17-25
Gospel Reading Matthew 22:15-22
Evening Psalms 80; 72
Today’s Focus: Presbyterian Association of Musicians’ Worship and Music Conference
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Amy Dusatko, 1001 Apprentice, 1001 New Worshiping Communities, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Chad Dusatko, 1001 Apprentice, 1001 New Worshiping Communities, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Let us pray
Lord, help us to care for those in need. May we offer hope in the face of chaos, confidence in the face of uncertainty and joy in service to you. May all who endure loss be filled with your presence and confidence in your love. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.