Preacher: Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Scripture: John 11:32-35, 39-44
Sermon from Sunday, March 29, 2020
Well, I miss seeing you all in person, but I’m so grateful we can worship this way and that there are many others joining us from around the country and around the world. We really are all in this together.
As some of you know, we have a high school senior in our household. As I’ve watched him process this crisis, I’ve been thinking about the huge sense of loss and sadness that he and others set to graduate this year are dealing with. Not only are these persons losing the opportunity to let loose a little bit in these last three months of school, they’re facing the loss of important rites of passage like walking across the stage, receiving a diploma, followed by that epic celebration.
Of course graduation itself, as much as it is a celebration, is also a kind of loss. I remember when I was a campus minister, each spring I would gather weekly with my seniors to prepare for this transition of letting go and saying goodbye. We would sit in my office as the sun went down and talk about what they were feeling and how to process it. These were some of the holiest moments of the year.
Inevitably, though, someone would share a story of an incredible drama with a friend or a significant other, sometimes even with a professor. Drama, I would share with them, can sometimes be used, even manufactured, as a way not to have to feel the feelings of what we are really facing. It diverts our attention and energy just enough so that we avoid the feelings of loss, of sadness and of grief.
We’ve got some drama going on in our scripture today. Our scripture lesson today from the gospel of John opens with Mary, Lazarus’ sister, blaming Jesus for her brother’s death. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” she says. Blame is a form of drama. It diverts. It happens when something hasn’t gone like we thought it was going to go. So instead of dealing with the loss, the sadness, and a world turned upside down, it’s so much easier to go to blame.
In the piece of John’s gospel just before what you heard read today, Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus had sent a message to where Jesus was and told him that their brother was near death. “Lord, the one who you love is ill,” the message says. They expected him to drop everything he was doing and hurry the day’s journey to be with Lazarus. To help him. To save him. But Jesus didn’t do that. The scripture tells us that he finished what he was doing, which took two days.
Two days later, when he told his disciples it was time to go to Bethany where Lazarus was, they were saying things that indicated they thought this was a rescue mission. But Jesus said to them plainly, Lazarus is dead.
So why did Jesus delay two days before they left for Bethany? This delay is what Mary and Martha both use to lay blame on Jesus. But in our scripture for today, you heard that when they got back to Bethany, they are told that Lazarus had been dead four days. Scholars believe it is likely that Lazarus died just after the message was sent to Jesus and was dead by the time the message reached Jesus. It is a day’s journey between Bethany and where Jesus is believed to have been at that time, in a land called Perea just beyond the Jordan River. One day’s journey out, two days of delay, one day back. Four days.
When they near Bethany, we have one of the most significant scenes in all of scripture. Martha hears Jesus is near and rushes to the edge of town to meet him. She opens with blame. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” But in this exchange, Jesus calls her out of this drama, this diversion, and pulls her into the bigger picture. Yes, Lazarus has died, but there is a way through it. “I am the resurrection and the life.” He says, “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
Shortly after that, Mary joins them and this is where our scripture for today picks up. Mary goes to the edge of town to see Jesus. Many of the others mourning Lazarus come with her. And Mary, too, opens with blame, but then, moves to tears. The others mourning Lazarus are also weeping. And the scripture tells us, in the shortest verse in all of the Bible, Jesus wept.
Jesus refuses to get caught up in the drama of blame and recrimination. He refuses to pretend that things are other than what they are. Lazarus’ death is hard and sad. This wasn’t how any of them thought it was going to go. Lazarus was a young man, with a vibrant life, a close family, a wide circle of friends. This wasn’t how his story was supposed to go.
Many of us are thinking the same thing right now. This wasn’t how this was supposed to go. March doesn’t look like this, schools cancelled, huddled in our homes with not even March madness to watch on TV. Friends, loved ones, church, distant. Medical professionals and essential workers facing off every day against the fear of an invisible adversary. And for some there is real illness and even death. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go.
But in his simple response of refusing to accept blame or look away, Jesus calls us back to life. In his tears, may we feel our tears. In his love for Mary, for Martha, for Lazarus, may we feel his love for us. In this love is the strength to go through what we are facing. What we know from the world’s religious traditions, and our own Christian faith, is that there is no way around grief, only a way through it. And after they had spent time in the sadness of their grief, laying aside the drama of denial and blame, Jesus and Mary and Martha went to the tomb.
There in front of the tomb, where Lazarus had been for 4 days, Jesus commands the stone be taken away, and the scripture tells us that he says, “Lazarus, come out.” The scripture doesn’t tell us how he says it. The text we read today has an exclamation point, but that’s a later addition, a convention of the way we write in English. My guess is that his voice was gentle, concerned, loving. It’s hard to come back from the dead. It’s hard to live again. And out Lazarus comes. We see him, blinking in the light, the cloths used to wrap the dead hanging off him. Jesus says, finally, “Unbind him and let him go.”
With God’s help we will get through this. What we learn from this story is that when we move through an experience of loss, even when we begin with blame and questioning of God, God doesn’t move away from us. God can take it. When we weep, God weeps with us. And when we stay with God, God shows us a way through our grief into life.
The words of Jesus about Lazarus are the words of Jesus for us too: unbind him and let him go. What we are learning by going through this time is that we have been very bound up in some death-dealing ways of being for a very long time. We have been bound by busy-ness, we have been bound by not recognizing the beauty and love that is right around us, we have been bound by a system that is not capable of taking care of everyone, even in the best of times, we have been bound by a sense of helplessness at the state of our climate.
And we see now, we can slow down. We notice the beauty of the purple bloom and the green-gold grass. We know now that if we have the will to change our health care and financial systems, we can do that. And we have been reminded what we already know: that God is with us in whatever we go through, in our blame and our weeping, in our joy and in our grief, in our death and in our life.
As we go through our days and our nights, our grieving and our weeping, may we hear Jesus’ voice, “unbind him and let him go” and know that God is with us in all that we go through, all that we endure, and all that we hope, as we move more fully into life, and life everlasting. Thanks be to God. Amen.