The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; Lent 5–Year A; Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45
Well, we continue with our marathon readings from John, and today, we turn to the raising of Lazarus—it’s a powerful story.
In John’s gospel, it is clear that Lazarus and his sisters—Mary and Martha—are some of Jesus’ closest, most special friends. So Lazarus falls ill, and Martha and Mary send word to Jesus that his friend is ill. Illness in that time was a serious thing, often life-threatening. Now, if you heard that news, what would you do? What would most of us do? We’d hightail it to go see our friend. What does Jesus do? He stays put, right where he is, for two more days. Then, he determines it’s time to go to Judea. His disciples weren’t too keen on this plan, after all, there are folks in Judea who want to stone him. But Jesus explains, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” His disciples are pretty literal-minded, “Well, if he’s asleep, he’ll be alright.” Then Jesus says the truth of the matter as clearly and plainly as possible—“Lazarus is dead.”
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she ran out to meet him. Mary stayed home. Martha confronts Jesus, and based on that little Mary-Martha-Jesus exchange that we witnessed in Luke’s gospel where Martha is pretty daggone clear that Mary isn’t pulling her weight in the kitchen, I don’t imagine that Martha minced words with Jesus when she caught up with him. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus promises her that her brother will rise again, and she says that she knows he will in the resurrection on the last day. But Jesus is trying to tell her something that she can’t comprehend—he tells her, “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?” And she confesses that she does.
A few things to note here. First of all, I am not too sure that Martha went from the anguish of “Lord, you could’ve done something if you’d just been here” to “but I know it’s all going to be okay now that you’re here” in that short of a span. She has just voiced the “Where are you, God?!” question that rises in our hearts when we have lost someone we love. I know when that question has come into my heart, it doesn’t turn around to trust and faith that fast. Secondly, nowhere in this initial exchange does Jesus promise to resuscitate Lazarus. The language is still working with the wonderful vision of how we live in the life of God, even when our life on this earth has ended.
Well, Martha sends word to Mary that Jesus has come, and Mary comes and kneels at Jesus’ feet and shares her anguish, just as Martha had done, “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” This gets to Jesus. Seeing his friends in pain, this disturbs him, this moves him. He asks where they have laid him. He comes before the tomb. He weeps. He weeps. Jesus could call people back into life, but he couldn’t prevent death, and that will even be true when it comes to his own life and his own death. Death is still a reality in this world, and an excruciatingly painful one at that. He weeps for the sisters who grieve, he weeps for his friend who has died, he weeps maybe even for himself, at what he couldn’t stop. He weeps for the pain of it all.
He stands before that cave with the stone lying against it. “Take away the stone,” he says. Martha is like, “What?! Oh, Lord, what are you thinking? He’s been dead four days. It’s gonna stink. It’s really going to smell bad.” But Jesus will not be deterred. This is about something deeper than simply doing the 1st century equivalent of extraordinary measures to start a dead person’s heart.
“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 that, I think, is the heart of the matter. Let’s let go of our 21st century fascination with how-did-he-do-it?, how-did-Jesus-resuscitate-this-dead-man?; let’s let go of those questions, and enter this as a wisdom teaching. “Lazarus, come out! Unbind him, and let him go.”
I think there are several ways to come at this.
How often do we bind something up and strangle the life out of it until it is as good as dead? We can do this in our relationships. We can do this with our passions. We can bind up something so tight that it can’t move, and if it can move, it can’t breathe, and if it can’t breathe, it can’t live. And Jesus calls to us, “Unbind it, and let it go. Unbind it, so that whatever you have bound up is free to live, not on your terms, but on the terms of life that I have placed on that person, or passion, or situation.” We have to let go to discover the life that is waiting to be born anew.
Then, there is the binding that we do to someone who has died. Someone that we love, someone that we care about dies, and we wrap it up with layer upon layer of cloth. We wrap it up tight, and we seal it away in a cave, and we lay a stone in front of that cave so that no one can enter that place. It is a place in our heart that is off-limits. Maybe this is the only way that we can keep breathing. Maybe we do this in hopes that we can somehow move on. But in the dark, it festers; maybe that sealed away pain starts to smell. Jesus calls our grief out into the light, calls the memories forth, calls us to unbind the dead and let them go to live on their terms in the life that now is theirs to live. What if what Jesus is telling us is true? If the dead really do live in some sort of resurrection reality with him, if there is some mystical way that the dead are now alive and actually live on, we can actually miss the possibility of relationship across the realms because we are so bound to that person in their state of death; we are so bound to them in their death that we miss their current aliveness. And maybe this plays out beyond our relationships; maybe this is also true of other deep losses, other deaths that we experience. The point is, how do we bind up that which has died and seal it away, and how do we need to unbind that experience, so that that beloved, that situation, and we, may be free to live in a new way?
And, there is the binding that is done unto us, maybe even the binding we do to ourselves. How might we feel dead? Have we given up all hope that our life can be full and meaningful and alive? Has society wrapped us and our dreams up in bands of cloth proclaiming them unrealistic, dead-on-arrival? Has society told us that our deepest longings stink? Have we allowed that spark inside of us to go out and determined it’s just too much effort to try to get that fire going? Have we wrapped layer upon layer of cloth around our hearts and imaginations and gifts and passions? Have we retired to the cave and pulled a stone against the door because it’s just too much to risk another failure? Jesus calls, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Maybe this is what we are called to do for one another, to touch that which is raw and dead and painful and wounded, to undo the cloths that bind, to call back to life that which has died in each other. Maybe this is what Jesus calls us to do to ourselves, to unbind those parts we have sealed away, and to let them live again.
“Come out!” Jesus says, “Come out!” What inside of you is screaming to be set free? On this Fifth Sunday in Lent, can you open up the cave that has contained all of your losses, all of your deaths? Can you look there, can you stay present there, even if it smells really bad? Can you start to unbind those layers of cloth that have been so constricting? Can you allow Jesus to call you back into life again? Can you shed those graveclothes and dance your way back into life?
I don’t know how it is that Jesus resuscitated Lazarus on that day so long ago, but I do know that Jesus calls all of us back into life. I do know that we can bind ourselves up in ways that we can’t experience that life. “Come out. Unbind. Let go. And live. Dare to live the life that Jesus promises. Dare to live the life that lives underneath all those bands of cloth.” Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
April 6, 2014