Sermon – John 11: 1- 45
O Lord, open our minds and hearts
So that we may hear Your Holy Word,
Understand it and do Your Will
As we sojourn on this earth.
Over the past few weeks you may have noticed that our Gospel readings have been a group of particularly long readings from the Gospel of John. The readings have a depth and a power to them that has the ability to touch the core of our lives. In today’s reading we hear about death and new life, about the end of some things and the beginnings of others. Death is always a topic that is close to home, isn’t it? As we age it gets closer every year. As we approach Palm Sunday and Holy Week, it is particularly immediate.
Theologian V. Miles wrote that, “the tension between the hope of resurrection and the finality of death is palpable during this season of intense personal and communal reflection. Amid painful circumstances and death-dealing social realities, we yearn for resurrection and the unbinding that releases us to dream beyond the boundaries and experience life anew. To dream beyond the boundaries is to imagine a world in which wholeness, well-being, health, and prosperity are normative expressions of human existence and to partner with the God of life in making that dream a reality. It is to recognize that our world is not as it should be, while rejecting assertions that the socioreligious strictures that prevent persons from experiencing God’s presence in their lives are impervious to change. Our narrative, on this Fifth Sunday in Lent, invites us to consider the possibility of resurrection in the lives of the many persons and communities who deeply need God’s presence in the newness of our existence.”
Have you ever had a moment when there was something you needed to do or get done but for whatever reason, it just seems too insurmountable to even address and each time you’d take that deep breath and force yourself to face it, this task, it just seems to get bigger and bigger and bigger? So much so that pretending it doesn’t exist or ignoring it in the hopes it will go away seems to be the easy route to take.
Like that moment when you notice a mark on your left arm and immediately you think cancer. You know you should go to the doctor but you put it off. Not knowing, or pretending it isn’t there seems the easy way to go. Because it isn’t real until it’s diagnosed. But then you finally find the courage and you go to the doctor. And there you find out it really isn‘t anything to worry about or maybe it is but it is treatable. Do you remember that feeling as your anxiety melted away and suddenly this thing you were avoiding is no longer a mountain, no longer impossible?
One of the greatest hinderances to imagining possibilities is what is called ‘perceptual distortion”. This is when obstacles appear larger and more ominous than they are, keeping us preoccupied with trying to avoid danger rather than discerning alternatives. This is part of today’s lesson. The disciples have been Jesus’ constant companions throughout his ministry, traveling with him from one village, town and mountainous region to the next, yet they often appear more concerned with limitations than the possibilities of resurrection and life. Their interests are often at cross-purposes with Jesus’ ministerial focus, as in their concern in last week’s Gospel for the origin of the blind man’s condition – whose sin caused his blindness they wondered, rather than considering the curative potential of Jesus’ encounter with the man.
Having received the news of Lazarus’s illness and subsequent death, the disciples again struggle to come to terms with Jesus’ decision to make the treacherous journey to Judea after a two-delay. They question the wisdom of returning to Judea at all, recalling their narrow escape from stoning just a few days earlier. What is more, by Jesus’ own admission, Lazarus is already dead. Nonetheless, Jesus insists that they make the journey, emphasizing the fact that ‘this illness does not lead to death; rather it is God’s glory.” This statement of Jesus gives us a hint that Lazarus’s illness and subsequent death has meaning beyond the loss of a friend. Jesus tries to reassure the disciples that the journey will be a safe one, that the mountain isn’t really that big. Although not completely convinced Thomas encourages the others and says – “Let us also go, that we may die with him,” – these friends and companions will make the journey with him.
You can feel the lament that fills the air as family and friends gather to mourn Lazarus’ death. It has been four days since his death. There was a common belief at this time that 4 days marked the completion of the soul’s journey from life to death. Therefore, the soul no longer lingers near the body, indicating that Lazarus is truly dead.
The finality of death deepens the grief of Mary and Martha. We sense the sorrow both in Lazarus’ death but also that Jesus had not been present during his illness when they say – “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” A statement of grief marking their disappointment that Jesus was not there or perhaps a statement of great faith, acknowledging that had Jesus been able to be there, their brother would not have died. Martha and Mary consider Jesus a friend and believe that God would have honoured his requests – if only Jesus had been there. They trust him as a teacher, healer, miracle worker, and believe him to be the Messiah come from God. They unquestionably anticipate the resurrection of the dead on the last day and look forward to uniting with their brother Lazarus again. However, they are not familiar yet with the yet to be resurrection of Jesus and so don’t expect or even anticipate that there is another meaning to Jesus’ self-identification as “the resurrection and life.” Jesus is speaking of resurrection as a present reality – “I am the resurrection” – leaving Martha, Mary and their community confused.
As we observe Mary, Martha and their community from a distance, we too are drawn in and feel compelled to join them at the tomb. We listen as they wonder out loud if Jesus’ tears are indicative of love or regret: we hear the strain in Jesus’ voice as he instructs them to remove the stone that covers the tomb. We stand in nervous fear as we watch the stone being slid away and hear Martha worry out loud, ‘Lord, there is already a stench because he has been dead for four days.” We know the conclusion, and yet aren’t you waiting breathlessly as we watch to see Lazarus emerge from the tomb? Jesus cries: “Lazarus, come out. And the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in cloth.”
As Christians, we believe in the power of resurrection, having been formed in a liturgical tradition in which birth, life, death, and resurrection are cyclical occurrences. In baptism, the Eucharist and even in prayer we live and relive this cycle daily. Resurrection and life are central to the meaning that we make for our lives, informing our sense of Christian vocation. Author V. Miles makes the point that, “in this respect, resurrection confronts us as an urgent call, beckoning us to consider the possibility that those whom our world deems socially, physically, spiritually and emotionally dead might live into a new reality. We pray for the power of resurrection in the lives of persons and communities bound by the grave clothes of war, genocide, poverty, disease, dis-ease, systematic abuse, and systemic oppression.
Releasing persons and communities from the clutches of death also demands something of us, as did Lazarus’ resurrection of his community. Though Jesus called Lazarus from the tomb, he urged those who were alive and well to, “unbind him, and let him go,”
“Resurrected women, men and children today also require communities that are willing to nurture and strengthen them until they are able to walk alone; to remove the grave clothes of self-doubt, social isolation, marginalization, and oppression; to tear away the wrappings of fear, anxiety, loss and grief, so that unbound women, men and children might walk in dignity and become creative agents in the world.”
The refugee families that arrive here in that still bleary-eyed state of confusion, loss and fear, the friend who leaves an abusive marriage, the uncle who has just received a diagnosis of cancer, all of us who are living through this frightening time of Covid-19. All of us are bound in the grave clothes of doubt, fear, uncertainty, loneliness and loss. It is at this moment that we, hopefully, will hear Jesus’ urging us to unbind each other, to receive each other, to love each other and to (soon) welcome each other (in person).
Someone once reminded me, “to dream beyond the boundaries, to consider the possibility of resurrection, anticipating it so profoundly that as we stand at the tomb of suffering and fear, listening for the voice of Jesus, that we be ready to unbind ourselves and the others whom God delivers, now.