The last couple of weeks it seems that the lectionary gospel lessons have been longer than the sermon. (I wrote in my notes - pause here for applause). John writes complex and very involved stories. In this story like last week, He gives a lot of detail and explanations for peoples actions and he also adds (as we’ve said), retrospective theological perspective for those of us who are slower to understand - like moi.
The context of this story is that Jesus if not exactly hiding out, has taken a pause in his pilgrimage toward Jerusalem. He is very popular with the people garnering large crowds but is also causing lots of trouble and turmoil. The Jewish authorities are mad at him because folks are claiming he is a blasphemer - breaking the Sabbath, speaking as if for God, many people giving him the status of a prophet, perhaps even the Messiah. Jesus keeps repeating...actions speak louder than words - just check out what I am doing: helping folks, healing folks, including folks, teaching verbatim from the prophets, showing a compassion that somehow doesn't go down too well with custom, mores, and temple authorities - some kind of strange new radical compassion - that is upsetting the applecart. The authorities want to arrest him/stone him. They want to go after anyone who gives him sanctuary - and get them too. (Know any authorities like that?)
But also his disciples are not happy. Jesus has been talking a lot about his death lately and the fact that he will suffer. In the chapter before this, after he heals the blind man, he pictures himself as the good Shepard and that a good Shepard lays down his life for his sheep. Jesus says that this is a key element in my ministry, why he came; and this is why the father knows me - why God and I have such a close relationship - because Jesus is willing to give his life for those he loves. These disciples don't get it - and do not like it. They think it is morbid and un-king-like and leaves the impression that he may not be the type of messiah they were expecting- not redeem Israel and their lives from the pit but go deeper into it. And Jesus talk sounds more like being a loser not a winner- unsuccessful in life - if others kill him or he suffers at others hands - that he will just be another victim. Oh, once in a while a disciple will say - If that is the way it has to be -count me in - I will die with you. But in the main they are skeptical.
Can you blame them? Who chooses suffering and death as the better way? Who gives their life away for others? Instead of protect "it" at all costs. Doesn't sound like a great way to change the world. One thing Jesus does for us is to stand the word "victory" on it head. To change its meaning completely. Have us take a second look at "what it means to win in life?
We spoke last week about how John is very theological / very spiritual / very symbolic in his stories and all these stories leading up to Palm Sunday - entry into Jerusalem..the blind man, the anointing of Jesus with perfume, the death of Lazarus, are all "signs of the kingdom" - stories not only about others but also what is about to happen to Jesus. Jesus is intimately involved not just as a fixer- a teacher or healer- in John’s eyes they are Jesus’ story too. They predict but they also "involve" Jesus in a intimate way. He is living through what is about to happen to him - he is feeling and sensing the gravity of Holy Week and seriousness of the way he has chosen in a most personal way.
Jesus’ good friend Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha, is ill. So the sisters send for Jesus with the words "he who you love, is ill". Presumably Jesus did not need reminding that he loved Lazarus but that did not stop the sisters from being sure to mention it. But Jesus, John says, even though he loved not only Lazarus but Mary and Martha too; decides NOT to go immediately and stays two days longer where he was. John gives a couple of reasons: Jesus thought the illness would not lead to death. Jesus thought it may be an opportunity to glorify God when he got there later. The disciples also give a pretty good reason when they pipe up and say: "don't go they are going to stone you – it’s too dangerous to go". And if he is just asleep - to boot - why go? And Jesus tells them that it is more serious than that.
And so when Jesus gets there Lazarus has been dead for 4 days. Martha goes out to meet Jesus and can not hide her disappointment and bitterness toward Jesus and says: "If you had been there my brother would not have died". But it seems quickly she rethought her abruptness or perhaps like we would all have been, was conflicted and of two minds (was distraught but also held out hope) and she adds "But I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him". Jesus says: “Your brother shall rise.” She says: "yes he will rise one day with all the good Jewish saints on resurrection day". And Jesus speaks these now famous words: "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me will live". Jesus blurs the line between the future and the present/between death and life. Jesus ask her if she believes this? And she responds indirectly (perhaps still thinking about these powerful and complex words) She says "yes" what she believes is that that Jesus is the Messiah - the Son of God. To me, she is saying almost what all faith comes down to ---"I don't know. I am not sure how all this resurrection stuff works. I am so sad. But, but....... I believe in you" - And this great love that surrounds you and you so freely give - that you are from God - that you will and are changing the world. That is my faith and my hope.
Then Jesus encounters Mary. Mary was even deeper in grief. And when Mary came to Jesus and knelt at his feet and looking up into his eyes tears dripping on Jesus feet she said the same thing Martha did: "If you would have been here Lord"; accept she adds no complimentary sentence about Jesus power or closeness to God. She can't. She is too sad. And when Jesus experiences her grief and that of other close friends and he is invited to see the tomb - Jesus weeps too. He cries. Verse 35 is the shortest in the Bible I think (we read "Jesus began to weep") or simply: "Jesus Wept". It says too that he was greatly disturbed (agitated) and deeply moved.
Can we stop here for a moment? Maybe we should just stop here all together for today. We have all these mental images of Jesus in our minds - All these great works of art we have seen in our lives picturing Jesus (Yes they use to be all Caucasian - but hopefully you have seen ones closer to the truth or in Northern Africa /Middle Eastern fashion) I remember once seeing a picture of Jesus laughing - with a big belly laugh which many folks thought was sacrilegious but from the way he was described in the gospels as a glutton and winebibber I am sure Jesus l laughed out loud at times. But I do not think I have ever seen a picture of Jesus crying. In the later part of his life he cried more than once. He cried as he looked over Jerusalem down over the city - he cried or sweated tears of blood in the garden when he ask God if he could remove the cup. This time Jesus is weeping over the death of a friend. This one scene - this story should wipe away all of the BS we have learned about Jesus not being "all the way" human - of pretending to be human - of a super man swooping down to save us - above the fray - knowing and predicting everything devoid of all the uncertainty and angst we go through in life
And then dramatically Jesus makes his way to the tomb- still in great personal pain. Tells them to move the stone away and commands in a loud voice for Lazarus to "come out.” And Lazarus does; looking like paper maché with burial cloths hanging from his hands and feet and his face still wrapped; and Jesus says "unbind him and let him go."
You know that I do not raise my voice much from the pulpit (I guess you have gotten use to that a bit with me.) I know some of you wish that I would yell more - be a little more fiery. John makes a point of saying Jesus called Lazarus in a loud voice: “Come Out!” Those words have lots of resonance don't they? They call us from all sorts of tombs.
Dr King called people out. Tuesday this week April 4 is the 50th anniversary of his sermon at Riverside church where he bravely linked the Civil Rights Movement in the US to the freedom and empowerment of all people and the Peace Movement in Vietnam when he said: I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered."
Sometimes folks put us in boxes - ultimately in pine boxes but before that in everything from: who we are because of the color of our skin; or who we want to get married to; or where we immigrated from; even what bathroom stall we choose; or whether we got into trouble when we were young and have a record. Some boxes are imposed by others and some are self imposed (regrets, self righteousness, loneliness, self doubt). I think Jesus speaks these "Come Out" words so loudly because they are so imperative and so urgent. If we want to follow Jesus, we have no choice but to come out and come out now.
Henri Nowen has said: When we reach beyond our fears to the One who loves us with a love that was there before we were born and will be there after we die, then oppression, persecution, and even death will be unable to take our freedom. Once we have come to the deep inner knowledge— a knowledge more of the heart than the mind - that we are born out of love and will die into love, that every part of our being is deeply rooted in love, then all forms of evil, illness, and death lose their final power over us." The last verse (44) is about Lazarus - The other 43 we find Jesus dealing with pain and grief and the hard decisions of life, responding to others and being true to himself.
They are about how deeply Jesus felt about Lazarus and his other friends and followers - and also how he feels about you and me. - He loves them so very very dearly that it broke his heart when they were in pain and death. And he believed in God's power to change all that. In the miracle of God' love. And Jesus - not easily - not lightheartedly - not without struggle - made that love the direction and purpose of his life - no matter what the cost. We, like Lazarus know this about Jesus, the question for us is what do we do with our lives now that we are alive and free?
Sermon April 2, 2017 (John 11)