April 2, 2017 | | Rev. Nancy Talbot –
One of my early experiences of death happened when I was in high school. Our local dentist, whose daughter happened to be a good friend of mine, died suddenly after a massive heart. It was the first time I experienced a close friend’s grief. Journeying with a teenager who had lost the father she dearly loved certainly had an impression on me at a young age, but what has really stayed with me, isn’t so much that journey through loss, it’s a story that circulated in our community in the days following the tragedy.
After Dr. Kennedy collapsed in his dental office, he was rushed by ambulance to our local hospital. There he was taken into the care of the only resident surgeon in our small town, Dr. Warma. Not surprisingly, because we lived in a small town, the two health care professionals were golfing buddies. I can still remember my parents telling me the night Dr. Kennedy died, how hard Dr. Warma had worked to save his friend doing everything he could to bring him back to life, but it was just not enough.
This week, as I was reading the story of the raising of Lazarus, I found myself thinking about the death of Dr. Kennedy for the first time in years. I’m sure what triggered the memory wasn’t the way Jesus revived his friend Lazarus but Dr. Warma couldn’t revive his friend. I’m sure what triggered the memory was the way Dr. Warma did everything he could to save his friend before he died, while it appears in this story that Jesus did not do the same for his friend.
In the 45 verses of scripture it takes to tell the story of the raising of Lazarus in John’s Gospel, the only repeated phrase is spoken first by Lazarus’ sister Martha and then a few verses later by his sister Mary. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. ” Underneath these words we can hear the subtext “We called for you two days ago when we knew how ill our brother was. What took you so long? If you loved him so much, why didn’t you do everything you could to save him?”
Over the years, I have consoled more than a few caregivers, medical professionals and family members who wondered if they had done everything they could have to help someone who ended up dead. For the most part they had done everything humanly possible.
The way the story of Lazarus reads, not only did Jesus, who is supposed to be the ultimate caregiver, healer and friend, delay arriving at the side of his friend who was ill after being sent for by his sisters, he delayed coming on purpose. Listen again to verse 5: “although Jesus loved Martha, her sister and Lazarus, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” Why? “because this illness is for God’s glory” or, as Eugene Peterson says in a slightly more helpful way in his translation of the Bible, The Message “so that it will become an occasion to show God’s glory.”
When we think about the well known story of Lazarus our inclination is to go directly to the moment Lazarus comes out of the tomb and yet that event occupies only 2 verses of the entire 45 verse story about him. We’re naturally drawn to this moment because it’s the dramatic conclusion. In the following verses of scripture we discover according John’s Gospel it’s the reason the authorities became resolved to put an end to Jesus. But it’s also the most difficult section of the story for most of us to relate to. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had over the years with people who have struggled with this story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the grave. Just a couple weeks ago in anticipation of this morning’s reflection I was given a fascinating interpretation that related the raising of Lazarus to a practice in the early Essene community in which people who had committed a serious wrong were excommunicated by being wrapped in graveclothes and buried in a tomb. They translated the story of Lazarus in a way that identified Jesus as the one who calls us out of the bonds of our brokenness and restores us to community. It’s a helpful way of viewing the story.
Because many of us just can’t get beyond the fact that people who have been dead for three days do not come back to life. If God or Jesus can literally breathe life into the dead on this side of the grave, then why haven’t any of our loved ones returned home from the funeral home?
I actually did find online this week a news item about a man in Mississippi who was in the embalming room after being declared dead when suddenly his heart started up again giving everyone around him more than a bit of a start. However, the fact that it was an international news item indicates this is not your everyday occurrence. Aside from these rare instances, this kind of thing just doesn’t happen, not in real life anyway.
What does happen in real life, what we can relate to in this story, is the experience Mary and Martha have of praying beyond all hope for their brother to survive his illness. Lots of us here today know what it is like to wait at the bedside of a loved one or sit in the waiting room of a hospital or pray for a family member or a friend we are desperate not to lose or who we know we’re going to lose but we have no idea when. We know what it’s like to wait and wait and wait again for refugee families we have sponsored to get out of tent and into their new life. Some of you know what it is like first hand to watch and pray for an end to war or an end to apartheid. And when we are in that desperate mode of waiting, we know what it is like to want to shout at somebody and sometimes to make our protests known, to yell out why aren’t you doing something about this? God, where are you?
O God that would tear open the heavens and come down and make my sister well again, or bring an end to the violence and the fighting the duplicity and the dishonesty in our world, stop the floodwaters from reaching my house or make the doctor tell me the cancer has been cured. O God please do something, anything to make it not be so!
Most translations of the line in which Jesus says that although he knows Lazarus is ill, he’s going to stay where he is for a couple days, use the words stayed or remained to convey the meaning of the original Greek word “meno” which actually means abide. Some people think the word “tarried” better describes what the writer of John’s gospel was trying to convey about Jesus inaction at this moment. Jesus wasn’t just held up, he intentionally dragged his feet. That meant Lazarus would have been in the tomb a total of four days before he got there, meaning his spirit, which according to Jewish tradition of the time stayed close to the body three days, would most certainly be gone.
So whatever the writer of John’s Gospel is trying to convey to us the reader through this story, he wants to make sure we know that what happens is of God. And so he purposefully evokes our recognition of those moments in our lives when we have felt that God is tarrying, those moments when all we feel is the absence of God and it almost and sometimes does overwhelm the trust and belief we have in God’s eventual arrival in the form of redemption or healing or simply a return to hope in life again.
One of the things I am coming to love about this story of Mary and Martha and Lazarus is what happens when Jesus fails to arrive, when it appears that God has abandoned the scene. When all sense of God’s presence steps out, the community steps in. Mary and Martha may have been without the physical presence of their friend Jesus when their brother took ill and died, but they were not alone. People had come from Jerusalem because they heard that Lazarus was ill and then had died. When Mary rushed out to find Jesus they rushed after her presuming she was going to the grave to weep, not wanting her to be left alone.
It’s what we do when friends and family suffer a terrible loss isn’t it? We bring casseroles and bake cookies, we send cards and emails, flowers and make financial donations. Half the time we don’t have a clue what to say to the people who are grieving and most of the time it doesn’t matter because just being there says we care. That’s what we do when we can’t do anything else to make it better isn’t it? We show up. When God delays, we show up with our prayers and with our selves and with our shared grief.
There’s something very powerful about the way Jesus breaks down and weeps when he finally does show up at the graveside of his friend Lazarus. It signals to us the way God so often does show up in our lives, is not with miraculous acts of power, but in moments of vulnerability, in times of weakness. God weeps alongside us when we weep, when the suffering is raw and the loss is deep. That’s what Jesus tears convey to us in this story.
And then after Jesus has wiped the tears from his eyes he goes to the cave where they have placed the body of Lazarus. And here’s something I never really noticed before, he doesn’t go inside the cave and haul Lazarus out. He doesn’t touch him at all before, during or after the miracle of his rising. He simply says these words in a loud voice “Lazarus come out” and Lazarus does. And then he turns to the community that has gathered and he commands them to unbind him.
Lazarus’s return to life is dependent on two things: his response to the voice that calls him and the community that participates in his unbinding. One of the messages of this story is that we have to participate in our own redemption. That’s not to say that people who die from their illnesses and don’t return to us from the grave stay dead because they’ve never responded to the voice of Jesus. Because this story isn’t really about the resurrection of people who really and truly are dead, it’s about those of us who live as if we are already dead in one way or another on this side of the grave and the ways we either do or don’t respond to the call to life.
It’s about those of us who in our grief stop living or in our fear stop believing in the possibility of all that has yet to be or in our apathy stay dormant while our planet and its suffering people slip away. It’s about the call to come alive again, to be alive, to respond to the invitation to be set free and to participate in the unbinding and the redemption of those both near and far who have been entombed by the death dealing ways of our world.
At the heart of this story is the paradox spoken to Martha by Jesus: I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me (which is more helpfully translated as trust) Those who trust in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and trusts in me will never die. Death pervades in life and life pervades in death.
It’s important to note that the writer of John’s gospel who is the only gospel writer that includes the story of Lazarus in his telling of the Jesus story, places it at the end of his series of “signs” that point to who and what Jesus is all about. The raising of Lazarus, this potent call to life and reminder we are not alone even in our darkest and most desperate moments sets in motion the move to send Jesus to his own grave. So threatened are the authorities by the power of a presence that can instill hope in the despairing and empower people to come together to unbind and set one another free they plot to overthrow him.
As we enter these last two weeks of the season of Lent, as we turn our faces towards Jerusalem and enter into the heart of the Christian story, immersing ourselves in abandonment and betrayal, complicity and crucifixion, may the story of Lazarus and his rising remind us that even when we have given everything we’ve got to give for the sake of life and it still not enough, even when it seems that God’s delay will never end, there is a power greater than us all calling us by name to life, equipping us for the unbinding of our world.