Sermon - March 9th, 2008
Lazarus, Come Out!
Rev. Gwen Drake
Scripture: John 11:1-45
Prayer: We give thanks, O God, for sacred stories. Through the holy scriptures you nurture our imaginations, increase our awareness, and challenge our assumptions. May the words of my mouth and meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
The story of the raising of Lazarus is one of those great stories in the Bible. Have you ever noticed that it is located in chapter 11 of a 21 chapter book? It is in the middle of the Gospel of John, a very prominent place, put there for a literary purpose. It is the last of the signs and miracles reported in John's Gospel The writer saved the greatest for the last in the process of revealing who Jesus was.
It is another of those long, detailed, finely crafted stories. Once again, I had only about half the story read this morning. That's so I can preach a longer sermon, of course. (smile) Let's review the story.
Lazarus was sick over in Bethany. Bethany was not a safe place for Jesus. It was only 2 miles down the road from Jerusalem. The authorities in Jerusalem were after Jesus. He had even escaped a stoning there just a few days before. When he received the message about Lazarus, Jesus was safe across the River Jordan.
Now, Lazarus was the brother of Mary and Martha. Mary was the impractical woman who wasted a whole bottle of expensive perfume on Jesus. Martha was the practical sister who made her own matza from scratch and was good in the kitchen. She is famous for reprimanding her sister who is famous for sitting at Jesus' feet and listening to what he had to say.
The sisters were the ones who sent an urgent message to Jesus about Lazarus being sick. Jesus took his time going to Lazarus. W hen he arrived Lazarus was dead and Jesus had missed the funeral. Martha ran to greet him. And it wasn't, "Oh, I am so glad to see you!" It was: "If you had been here on time, my brother would not have died!"
Jesus was a non-anxious presence. He calmly assured Martha that Lazarus would rise again. Martha was not to be consoled, though. "I know all about the resurrection of the dead. I'm talking about right now. Lazarus is a goner and there is no hope in ever seeing him again in my lifetime. What do you mean, 'rise again?'"
Then along came Mary who said the same thing to Jesus, "If you had been here, my brother would still be alive!"
The writer of the story is making a point here for the readers to get. Jesus is not here now, like he was in the gospel stories. So, how in the world is he going to save us? He isn't here. And the storyteller plans to answer it for us. Jesus, if you were only right here, right now, you could solve all our problems!
And then comes the answer from Jesus himself, "I am the resurrection and I am life; those who believe in me, though they die, yet shall they live." And then comes the punch line, "And whoever lives and believes in me shall never die." Not whoever sees, not whoever touches, but whoever believes. Whoever lives and believes Which means that new life is not dependent on Jesus' being here physically. It's dependent on living and believing in Jesus--meaning being in relationship with Jesus now, today.
You see, John is writing this gospel for us. It is for those of us who were not there. It was to tell us that new life is not dependent on Jesus being physically present . New life is available to all who are open to it. The power that raised Lazarus from the dead scared the powers of this world and sent them scurrying and consulting with each other as to how they were going to get rid of Jesus. That power is here for us today too.
It is a power that can get us to come out of whatever tombs we might be in. It may be the tomb of grief that we are reluctant to let go of because we would rather live in the past. It may be the tomb of guilt that we hang onto. It may be resentment. It may be the tomb of an addiction. It is whatever has a hold on us, that we are powerless over, that sucks the life right out of us. It is whatever we tell ourselves that we will never get over, like they said of Lazarus, "He is dead and there is nothing you can do about it."
They went to the cemetetry where everyone was weeping. Jesus also, began to weep. Then Jesus ordered, "Take away the stone." The practical sister warned Jesus of the smell of death and decay. But Jesus went ahead and cried out in a loud enough voice to raise the dead, "Lazarus, come out." The crowd watched. And out came the dead man. His hands and feet and face were bound with strips of cloth. He was all tied up, bound by death, like a mummy. Jesus then commanded, "Unbind him, and let him go." End of the story.
I think the lectionary committee gave us this story on the fifth Sunday of Lent to remind us that we have to walk through a graveyard to get to Easter. It is like a dress rehearsal for what lies ahead, where Jesus does for his friend what God will do for Jesus. It is to assure us that there is a power loose in the universe that is stronger than death, stronger than our fear of living--a power that is able to call us out of our tombs into the fullness and sweet mystery of life.
There was a woman named Matilda who has one of those inspiring stories. I hope we all have known someone like her. They are everywhere, even in this congregation. Matilda was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, which meant she gradually lost control of all her muscles. Her face was first, then her vocal chords, then her legs. For the last year of her life, she communicated by writing on an erasable white board. Sometimes she would get so excited she would write and erase faster than anyone could read. Matilda found a lot to be excited about.
Like watercolors. When she could not talk anymore, she taught herself to paint, until her kitchen walls were painted with tulips, peonies, daffodils, hi biscus. When people came to visit Matilda, they painted. It was one of her rules. It did not matter if someone gave her the "I have no-talent protest". Matilda stuck a paintbrush in one hand, placed a plastic egg container full of colors in front of the visitor, and they painted. The best part was afterwards. She admired the work, no matter what, by sticking her thumb in the air and giving the painter one of her loose grins.
It was painful for her friends to watch her die. Every time Matilda lost something she thought she could not live without, she found out she could. First there was a painful void that lasted an hour, a day, or a week. Then something new moved in to fill the empty place: a fresh series of painting, a new friend, a deeper sense of the presence of God. She wrote on her slate one day, "He is calling me like a bridegroom calling his bride."
Matilda embraced all of life in all circumstances and everyone around her saw it. When she set the cup of her life down it was empty--nothing was wasted. There was nothing left over to spill or lament about. She died with a clean slate and the people who sat by her bed that day said that their fear of death died with her Having known her inspired them to live and die like she did.
You see, we think we want a God who will cut our losses and cushion our failures, a God who will grant us a life free from pain, or a God who will rescue us and bail us out. We want a co-dependent God. But that is not the God we have. God does not rescue us from our humanity. God does not protect us from life. God loves us too much to take that away from us.
God is like the story Anthony de Mello tells where a disciple once complained, "You tell us stories, but you never reveal their meaning to us." The master replied, "How would you like it if someone offered you fruit and chewed it up before giving it to you?" No one can find your meaning for you. Not even the master.
We have a God who loves us enough to allow us to find our own meaning in our own story called our life.
The wonderful thing about the Gospel stories is that none of them have an ending. We don't know what happened to Lazarus after he was unbound and let go from the trappings of death. He is not mentioned again. So, the question becomes, what would you and I do, in response to a story like this? What do we do with a God who shows us that resurrection is possible in the midst of death and who shows us by Jesus' own example that the only road to Easter morning runs smack through Good Friday?
"I am the resurrection and I am life," Jesus said to the grief-stricken Martha. Not "I will be" but "I am"--right here, right now, resurrection and life for anyone, for everyone open to the possibilities. It is not safe story. It is a strong story, with the power to lead us through the graveyard and out the other side. Amen.