Sunday, March 29, 2020
Fifth Sunday in Lent
"If Only You Had Been Here"
Rev. Dr. Scott Landis
As you listened to the story from the gospel of John, I wonder what might have been going through your mind as you heard it today? Given our 21st century perspective, what was your reaction to the tale of a man, dead 4 days, and then raised to life, once again, by Jesus? Was it, “Wow, that’s amazing! I wonder how he did that?” Or was it more like, “I don’t know about that. I mean, I believe in Jesus and everything, but raising someone from the dead. I don’t know about that one.”
Whenever I read stories like this in the bible, ones that even I as a pastor find it difficult to wrap my head around, I remember a phrase biblical scholar Marcus Borg would often say when he led bible studies that dealt with the miracle stories of Jesus. Borrowing from a common prefatory phrase often used by Native American story-tellers, Borg would say, “I don’t know whether or not this actually happened . . . but I know that it’s true.” Did you catch that important nuance? You see, it’s the truth of the story that is most important, not the specifics. If we get hung up on the facts, we may miss the point. And it’s the Holy Spirit that invites us to seek the “Truth.”
So, I invite you to join with me today as we seek the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to understand the “Truth” of this story. What might be the truth that God seeks to communicate to us as we experience life very differently than those in the first century – in fact, as we experience life very differently than we did even last week?
The setting provides an important backdrop. Jesus, nearing the end of his own life, was making his way back to Judea – much to his disciples’ chagrin. They knew that going back was only asking for trouble. Folks were beginning to talk. The more Jesus taught, and the more healings he offered, the more miracles attributed to him – the more jealous and angry the religious authorities became. Already thinking of ways to try and get rid of him, Jesus’ life was in danger.
His decision to delay the invitation to go to Bethany was even more puzzling to them. Apparently, Lazarus was dying. Mary and Martha (Lazarus’ sisters) sent word to Jesus, imploring him to come immediately. Surely, they believed, Jesus could either heal him, or at the very least, comfort him in the last moments of his life – because they both said after the fact, “If only you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Which was a pretty direct way of accusing Jesus – his delay, they surmised, was the reason for their brother’s death.
That doesn’t seem fair, does it? But, before we get too judgmental and self-righteous in our thinking – consider what is going on today, and perhaps how we may have responded similarly. When bad things happen – we, more often than not, to seek some source – some reason, some person, our cause to blame. Consider the way some have tried to demonize the Chinese for the current viral pandemic. While such accusation may be completely out of line (and certainly does not help matters), at the very least, it may help you understand the need to place the blame on something.
One of the underlying gifts of this story is that Jesus does not simply dismiss the accusations as if they have no affect on him. Instead it says he got angry AND, eventually, he wept.
Those are some very important aspects of this story – and ones I don’t want to overlook. It’s difficult to go through what we are experiencing right now – individually and collectively. The stress is incredible. The fears are understandable. And the responses – while difficult to excuse are very human and need space and grace – whether we are on the giving or receiving end. So, as your pastor, I want to remind each one of us to “be gentle with one another” – always, but particularly now. Difficult decisions are being made on a daily basis – the very decision to get in our car and go to the market now requires energy, increased caution, and some well-founded fear – so, take time – often – to breathe (like we did at the beginning of worship today). Breathe and seek Holy Presence as we make these decisions, take action, and walk through this challenging time together.
And, further, notice the gift – the metaphor – or the “Truth” of this story. It did not escape my attention – in reading the story this week – that Lazarus was sealed in his tomb. How many of you are beginning to feel that way even after just a few days of adhering to the restrictions of “stay-at-home” orders? And this is only week one! Thank goodness for telephones, and FaceTime, and Zoom meetings, and even for solitary walks on the beach. The isolation may not exactly feel tomb-like, but the lack of contact, or physical touch and presence, particularly if loved ones are hospitalized or worse if a loved one dies, is very difficult to endure. It’s not natural to be forced to separate as we have, and it may feel like you are all alone in your own tomb of isolation.
But listen closely to Jesus’ word of hope, “Come out, unwrap him. Be set free!” It’s the next big “truth” of the story.
We’re not ready for that just yet. And we don’t know for sure whether that will happen even on April 30, but it will happen. Resurrection will occur. Freedom is coming! It reminds me of a famous South African freedom song sung by those in captivity that may serve as inspiration even today.
“Freedom, Oh Freedom. Yes Freedom, Freedom is coming, Oh Yes, I Know. Yes, I Know, Oh, Yes, I know. Oh Yes, I Know. Freedom is coming. Oh Yes, I know.
But notice a very important truth about how freedom is granted to Lazarus. Jesus said, “Unwrap him and Set him free!” Notice, Lazarus does not do this on his own. He needs help to be set free. He needs others to take off the grave cloths that bind him in order that he can resume life once again.
It all begs the obvious question as you sit in your homes today. Beyond the obvious stay at home order, what is binding you and keeping you trapped in your metaphorical tomb? What do you need help with so that you might be released and set free of your fears, your anger, or your tears?
Or, if you are in a position of strength, how might you assist in pealing the grave clothes of another – a loved one or even one you barely know? It can be as simple as a phone call, a card, a greeting of aloha, a prayer.
We all know a little more about life in the tomb this week – perhaps now more than ever. And we have a long way to go before we are fully set free, but we can help one another by sharing the burden – a gift that will open the heart – yours and the one you care for. It’s vitally important as we experience all realities and emotions that this pandemic has to offer, to see beyond the situational limitations (as suggested in the apparent death of Lazarus) so that we might catch a glimpse of the restorative possibility of resurrection and life.
I invite you now to bow with me in prayer as we ask God to guide us and to give us the strength we need to walk further on this challenging path to the day when we will truly be set free.