The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks–Lent 5—Year A (video link)
These are powerful passages today, and hard ones. There are things to be revealed, and places that are going to leave us wanting. Today, it’s about the big questions. Death, life, power, presence.
In both Ezekiel and John, there is death, very real death. So much death in Ezekiel that bodies have decomposed and all that’s left is a valley of dry bones. There is no possibility of life in a valley of dry bones.
In John, Jesus gets word that his beloved friend Lazarus is very ill. Jesus was very close to this family. Lazarus’ sister, Mary, had anointed Jesus’ with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair. They get word to Jesus that Lazarus is really sick; they need Jesus, and yet, Jesus decides to stay where he is for two more days, and in that length of time, Lazarus dies.
And this raises the first hard question for us—why didn’t Jesus hightail to his friends? Why did he withhold his presence from people he loved? He can say that Lazarus’ illness isn’t going to cause death, and that all this is for the glory of God, but those words ring hollow when your loved one is on the verge of death. And Jesus seems to make the calculation to stay based on the fact that he thinks Lazarus isn’t really going to die, that Lazarus is just sleeping. But Jesus got it wrong. Lazarus did die. And somehow, even from a distance, Jesus knew it.
Jesus then makes the decision to go to his friends. His disciples don’t like this plan. His friends live in Judea, and things had not gone well for Jesus in those parts—people had just wanted to stone him in Judea. But Jesus couldn’t not go. He’s got to go awaken Lazarus. His disciples are like, “Well, if he’s asleep, then he’ll be alright. We don’t need to go.” Jesus gets really real with his disciples—“Lazarus is dead. We’ve got to go deal with death.”
Jesus doesn’t even make it to the village before he’s confronted by Martha. “Lord, if you’d been here, my brother would not have died.” They then go a little abstract for my tastes. She says that she knows that God will give Jesus whatever Jesus asks of God.
Jesus promises that Lazarus will rise again.
She says she knows that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.
Jesus proclaims to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Jesus asks her, “Do you believe this?”
She says she does and that she knows he’s the Messiah, the Son of God.
From where I sit, Jesus being the resurrection and life is small comfort when your brother has died, and Jesus took his sweet time getting there.
Martha goes to her sister Mary and tells her privately that Jesus had come and was calling for her. Mary got up quickly and headed out to meet him. There’s another group of people that also head out with her—and this may be the first act of resurrection—those people who’d just been trying to stone Jesus. Yep, when they heard about Lazarus, they came to console Mary and Martha. When tragedy strikes, those things that divide us just don’t seem to matter as much, and we can meet each other, broken-hearted human being to broken-hearted human being.
Again, Jesus hasn’t even made it to the village yet when Mary meets him. Mary wastes no time speaking her mind, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Her grief gets to him. Her tears spring his tears. Jesus asks where they’ve laid him. Then they said, “Lord, come and see.” Wow. Just as Jesus said to those first would-be disciples who asked him where he was staying, now Mary and Martha say to him—“Come and see,” and that makes Jesus weep. Now, he has to follow.
They get to the tomb, and this completely undoes Jesus—he’s greatly disturbed, deep inside, his spirit is indignant. Death is an affront to Jesus, too.
He tells them to take away the stone. Now, it’s Martha’s chance to get really real. “Lord, already there’s a stench because he’s been dead four days; did I say ‘four days,’ it’s been four days.”
Jesus isn’t deterred. He’s got to open up this tomb of death. He needs Martha and Mary to trust him. Maybe he needs to trust himself. It’s one thing to proclaim “I am the resurrection and the life;” it’s a whole other thing to take away the stone that unleashes that stench of death and dare to call what has died back to life.
They took away the stone. Jesus looks upward, he thanks God for having heard him, he makes known to God that he’s always known that God hears him, but he tells God that he needs to say it out loud, for everyone around him to hear, so that they can trust that God sent him. God is not some faraway, distant God. God sent Jesus straight to this wrenching, stinking place of death to bear witness that God is here.
When Jesus had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”
The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
And many of those folks who’d previously wanted to stone Jesus, many of those folks who’d come out with Mary, when they saw what Jesus did, they placed their trust in him.
And this is where it gets hard again. It all works out fine for Lazarus. He dies, and Jesus brings him back to life again, after four days dead. That didn’t happen for my dad 26 years ago. We were crying out for Jesus to come. We were praying that God could bring him back from multiple codes. Jesus didn’t call him out of his tomb after four days. And I know, that in this room today, I’m not alone in thinking these kinds of thoughts.
I cannot tell you why Lazarus gets to live and my dad, or your loved one, did not. I can’t tell you why, sometimes, miracles happen, and other times, they do not.
I do know that, while Lazarus will live today, there will come a time when he is laid in that tomb and the stone will stay in place.
I do know that if I fixate on Lazarus’ resuscitation, I will miss understanding the heart of resurrection.
And that rests in the proclamation that Jesus makes to Martha—“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Somehow, the life embodied in Jesus is bigger than death; somehow, when we trust in this life he bears, we are knit into a life that transcends our mortal bodies and this mortal earth and tombs of death; we are knit into a life that transcends the realms.
The thing about death is that something in me dies, too. It doesn’t matter if it’s the death of someone I love, or the death of a relationship, or the death of a dream—something in me dies, too. And when that death is sealed away in a tomb, it’s all too easy for me to get buried right along with that death. We take our pain, our grief, and we try to seal it away. And day by day, that pain starts festering, and we get more and more bound up, unable to move forward, unable to live again.
Jesus weeps with us in our grief. Jesus stands outside our tombs. Jesus commands the stone to be taken away. Jesus is not afraid of the stench of our pain. Jesus commands us to come back out into life again. And Jesus commands the community gathered to unbind us, so that we can let go of that which has died; Jesus commands the community gathered to help unwrap all those places where we are so bound up, so that we can let go and live again.
Sometimes, we are those dry, dry bones that doubt if we can ever live again. God can breathe life into our dry, dry bones, and though we can’t fathom the possibility, we will dance again.
These stories today, they’re not about resuscitation; they’re about resurrection. They are about trusting that we can live again when death has wrecked us. They are about trusting that the life we share with the Presence of God made flesh in Jesus holds us when death has snuffed out all the light and our hope has died. They are about trusting that no matter how much we’ve lost and how much it stinks and how much everyone else holds their nose around our pain; these stories about trusting that Jesus isn’t afraid, Jesus won’t leave, he won’t let us stay bound up in that pain, and he’s called the community to do whatever it takes to unbind us, so that we can live again.
We’ll never have the answers to the hard questions about miraculous resuscitations, but resurrection is deeper than the questions. Resurrection promises that, even amidst the pain of our sorrow and despair and anger and relentless why’s and what if’s, resurrection promises that there is a Life and Presence that is bigger than death, and that Presence promises us, always, “I am holding you, and all that you’ve lost, and I won’t ever let go.” Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
April 2, 2017