Jacqueline Falk, M.Div.
Peace United Church of Christ
April 6, 2014
Please pray with me: O God, may your love fill the hearts of all who are speaking and listening here. Amen.
Big Stories. Week by week the gospel writer of John has been telling us stories, one by one these stories have been told, each story bigger and more intense than the last, Nicodemus came secretly to Jesus in the night seeking answers and left with new questions, the Samaritan Woman came to the well at noon day seeking drinking water, met Jesus, and left with her thirst for life satisfied by Jesus’ living water; the man blind since birth sat seeking nothing and left with his eyes opened by Jesus’ healing touch while the disciples and those of us watching from the crowd continue to wonder who can see, who can’t see and what indeed do any of us see clearly?
Until today, when we arrive at this Big Story: the Raising of Lazarus. This episode takes place at a pivotal moment[i], a tipping point in John’s larger narrative. Jesus’ conflict with the Jewish Legal Authorities has intensified. Our text today begins just after Jesus narrowly escapes death in Jerusalem. The Jewish Legal Authorities took up stones again to stone him[ii] and then they tried to arrest him again, but he escaped from their hands.[iii] Jesus and his disciples are on the run. They have fled across the Jordan “where John had been baptizing earlier, and there they abide.”[iv] Readers, Listeners and those living in the way of Jesus know what lies just ahead: Soon He will make a triumphal, but short-lived, entry into Jerusalem, Palm Sunday. It will be the first of the events that unfold to fill the coming days of Holy Week.
But it is not Holy Week yet. For now we are here at the Raising of Lazarus and the primary goal of this Big Story is to display Jesus’ power: to demonstrate, as a seminary colleague observed to me, “Jesus isn’t much impressed with death.”[v]
Now Jesus may not have been much impressed with death, but I am. And I know I am not alone. Over dinner last week with a dear friend my age, a friend so dear that after we had caught up on the external, the concrete realities of our lives…How are your children? What are your summer plans? and of course this year, How are you surviving this never-ending winter? Our talk deepened, sinking into the interior and the spiritual eternal of our lives. We grieved and longed to eliminate persistent foot pain, tortuous anxiety, and existential dread from our own lives and the lives of all those whom we love. We began to talk of the dark spaces, the lurking shadows keeping us awake or waking us too soon: the presence or absence of God, our fears of dementia or loss of physical mobility, the dread of losing those dearest to us, the melting polar ice caps, suffering children, and the nagging question of what it will feel like to die.[vi]
So now I wonder. I am curious about the friendship Martha, Mary, and Lazarus shared with Jesus. I wonder if in their home in Bethany, Bethany just two miles from the dangers of Jerusalem, if quick-witted Martha, intuitive Mary, little brother Lazarus shared the same kind of easy comfort, warm familiarity,[vii] and indeed love with Jesus that my friend, Jane, and I know. I tend to think so. Just as the conversation between Jane and me reveals our tested bond of trust, so too in John’s story. Deep, intimate conversation and heart-to-heart silences drive this story forward and carry us along with it. We hear their intimacy in Mary and Martha’s first words to Jesus, “Lord, the one whom you love is ill.”[viii] More meaning is carried by the words left unspoken than the words that are. There is no frantic request: “Come quickly! We need you.” No capital letters. No evident expression of urgency, just the factual observation: “Lord, the one whom you love is ill.”[ix] Martha and Mary sent the message off certain that no additional detail was necessary. Jesus’ love for them, Jesus’ love for Lazarus would bring him instantly to their side. Martha and Mary knew that Jesus would not want to be absent at a time of need such as this.
On the other side of the Jordan the Jesus we find is not the Jesus we met at the beginning of John’s gospel in the first of John’s Big Stories. There at the wedding feast in Cana, Jesus turned water to wine, but not until his mother, another Mary insisted. Jesus resisted revealing the power and depth of his abiding connection to God; he protested that his time had not yet come. Here by the Jordan we meet a tested and seasoned Jesus, Jesus is confident of his power, secure in his embeddedness in God, but again Jesus protests that the time has not yet come and he waits, and the disciples wait, and while they wait, Mary and Martha must wonder why they are burying Lazarus. Not me, not you, not Jesus, can leap ahead of God’s Grace.[x]
But just as Jesus will not leap ahead of Grace, once the waiting is over and the time has come, neither will Jesus delay his response to Grace just because a return to Jerusalem means a threat to himself. Neither leap ahead of Grace nor resist Grace and all the while, Jesus is unimpressed by death, whether it is the death of Lazarus or his own.
At news of Jesus’ coming, the proactive Martha does not remain at home, as custom would require. She goes out to meet the tardy Jesus privately on the road and gets up close and personal with the forthright speech of solid friendship: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.”[xi] Reassuring Martha, Jesus replies: “Your brother will rise again.”[xii] But Martha misunderstands thinking Jesus is speaking of Lazarus’ post-mortal future: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”[xiii]
So Jesus corrects her; he re-directs Martha from future hope into present action: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who trust in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and trusts in me will never die. Do you trust this?”[xiv] Staying right with Jesus, the brightly-intelligent Martha, like the Samaritan woman at the well recognizes Jesus: “Yes, Lord, I trust that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming [and bringing life and love] into the world.”[xv]
Martha’s private, deep, analytical conversation with Jesus over, it’s Mary’s turn. She has a nearly silent reunion with him in the center of a grieving crowd. After a brief “if only you had been here, Jesus” Mary collapses at his’ feet and she and all those with her weep. Their weeping compels Jesus to weep. He sinks into mourning and lament with Mary, weeping, not gentle, dripping tears, but great heaving sobs of pain of grief and love. Jesus’ weeping is a thin place in this Big Story. All Big Stories have thin places – the moment when light and dark, human and holy, life and death are so fused one does not know where one begins and the other ends. Jesus wept with Martha and Mary and all who have ever wept or will ever weep.
When I was in my early ‘30’s, I believed that I had a free pass on mortality, at least for awhile, because I was mother to three small children. Then my friend Lucy’s cancer returned a third, final time. Her tumor was ugly, disfiguring, and as it progressed it stank; it gave off a putrid odor sometimes difficult to bear. I was not in Lucy’s inner circle, but close enough that I spent a time or two a month helping her. I sat at her feet one morning, a basket filled with her family’s clean socks between us to sort and to fold as we talked. First analytically, like Martha and Jesus, I asked her simply “How? How do you live with cancer?” Lucy replied, “Not easily. Not everyday. But one day at a time, by faith and by choice. I try to remember I have infinite opportunities to choose life and be grateful for something.” Then like Mary and Jesus, Lucy and I had no more words. In silence, we sorted socks; we cried; we folded socks. Lucy taught me to begin to pay attention to the difference to be found between mortality and death.
We see Jesus weeping and then reaching into the depths of who he is, pouring himself out on behalf Martha and Mary and Lazarus, the ones whom he loves.[xvi] “After Jesus prayed, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’[xvii], But Jesus’ was not the only one to act. Others took away the stone. Others did not flee at the sight or the stench of Lazarus. Jesus calls Lazarus into the arms of the Beloved Community. Sisters, mourners, neighbors unwound his bindings so that he might be free to live and love among them. Raymond Brown observes that in the gospel of John, “resurrection is not an other-worldly affair but a this-world promise: “Instead of entering the kingdom of God as a place, [John’s gospel asserts that we] need to in here in Jesus here in the Beloved community.”[xviii]
The raising of Lazarus is a Big Story. John calls them Signs. It unfolds in the context of human expectations, relationships, choices, and personalities that deliver everyone to the Thin Place, the Sign, the moment that Jesus weeps. The Sign whose meaning is more important than the miracle of raising Lazarus itself.[xix] The meaning of the sign? Maybe that Jesus is weeping over us, because we dwell in places that may have once been safe shelter, but have become suffocatingly tomb-like. Because we have wrapped ourselves in layers of habits that once fit us; that were once beautiful, but are now long past their usefulness, insulating us, restricting us, and veiling us from the presence of God.[xx]
My seminary colleague was right in saying Jesus isn’t much impressed with death. It is because Jesus is so much impressed with Life,…Jesus calls us out of an existence of fear, of living in tomb-like hiding from our mortality. Jesus calls “Come out! Unbind one another! Brave to choose life that has pain and sorrow, but is also the life abundant[xxi]. Pour yourself out in love and you will be filled, because I love you.”
[i] Jan Richardson, Lent 5: Unbinding Words, March 7, 2008, http://paintedprayerbook.com/2008/03/07/lent-5-unbinding-words/#.U0bt4F5UNBU (accessed April 3, 2014).
[ii] John 10:31
[iii] John 10:39
[iv] John 10:40
[v] Ibid. Jan and I were in class together the summer of 2011 at United Theological Seminary.
[vi] Reviewed in preparation: Learning to Walk in the Dark, lecture at Rothko Chapel, September 13, 2013, by Barbara Brown Taylor
[vii] Richardson, Ibid.
[viii] John 11:3
[x] Sr. Helen Prejean, “Keynote by Sr. Helen Prejean,” in Nobel Peace Prize Conference, March 7, 2014,(St. Paul: Minnesota Public Radio)
[xi] John 11:21-22
[xii] John 11:23
[xiii] John 11:24
[xiv] John 11:25-26
[xv] John 11:27
[xvi] Richardson, Ibid.
[xvii] John 11:43
[xviii] Robert Hoch, Commentary on John 11:1-45, April 2, 2014, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1986 (accessed April 3, 2014).
[xix] Karoline Lewis, “Living by the Word,” Christian Century, April 10, 2011, http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2011-03/sunday-april-10-2011.
[xx] Richardson, Ibid.