NRSV JOHN 11:1-44
11 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4 But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11 After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at
the place where Martha had met him. 31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”
40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 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.”
As a pastor, I have to deal with death. It’s there. It’s part of the job description. And when people I serve die, their families call, or email; or the funeral home calls and wants to know if I will do the service. It’s a humbling thing to do a funeral service, or as we call it in our faith tradition, a Witness to the Resurrection. It calls to mind that death does not have the last word; that through Jesus Christ we know that resurrection is God’s final answer over any death we experience.
We say that, even with the family in tears. We say that, even when some folks are still dealing with the shock of losing a loved one, sometimes with the abruptness of a slap in the face. We say that, even though people want to yell and scream and shout at the unfairness of it all. “Why would a loving God do something like this?” I have heard it over and over again. Don’t think because I am an ordained minister of the Word and Sacrament that I haven’t said it myself a few times. I also know that to such questions, at such a time, and with such emotions, there is no real answer.
Death is always out there somewhere. As a pastor, I walk with people through those dark valleys. And yet it is one of the most rewarding things I get to do. Because to do so means that people have given me permission to enter a really sacred part of their lives. They have given me permission to walk with them, let them cry or shout or whatever they need to do at that moment. It’s a very humbling thing, one I do not take lightly.
But then there are those times when death is not out there somewhere. It is here. It is on your front door. It is on my front door, and I become the one who needs to scream and cry and shout. It was there when my Mother died on July 7, 2004, and the wonderful people of Avon Lake Presbyterian Church gave me permission not to be a pastor for a while so I could drive 12 hours and be with family to sit and grieve and share stories.
It is also right here, right now. This is a grief. There is a death here. A death in that the opportunity to gather for worship, to preach, to hear, to sing, to pray together as the community of faith in the Resurrected One is not there anymore. Not forever, not for long, at least we certainly hope. But it is gone for now, and for how long no one really knows. It is not there. We know there is a good reason why it is not there; it is to keep us from giving each other this disease. It’s an insidious little thing; we do not know who has it and who does not. So for now we worship apart. And it hurts a little, or a lot.
For the last three weeks we have gathered for worship at home. Some of us have plugged into other churches, maybe ones we have heard about, or our kids are a part of in some far away place. Maybe some of us have worshipped by television in churches we have enjoyed when we’ve had snow days. I know Jim Somerville of Richmond First Baptist is a favorite for many of you – and me, too. But this is no snow day. This is a situation that stretches into the murky future, which makes it harder to endure. We don’t know when a vaccine is going to come, when there will be a break in the contagion, or when we will feel safe enough to gather in groups.
It’s missing that gathering thing that makes me grieve. And I don’t think I am the only one. In a beautifully written piece in The Christian Century, Melissa Florer-Bixler, pastor of the Raleigh Mennonite Church, admitted her failure as a contemplative. Listening for the still, small voice of God appeals to me, but she reminds us all that not everyone gets that. But she certainly wrote for me when she penned: “…mostly I love people. My spiritual practice is to hold space for the celebration and sorrow of people’s lives. I love the pitch of human laughter and the varying temperatures of palms pressed into mine. I love the texture of skin, the complications of long relationships, the tone of voices woven together in song, the tracks of tears on skin … I’ve tried my best to overcome solitude by attending Facebook concerts and operas. My children have connected with quarantined friends through cell phone play dates … But these are mere substitutes for the life I love, a people-d life. There is no replacement for humans.”
I’ve thought about that every time I go into our empty sanctuary, with the thought that, literally, God knows when we will next gather for worship. Next month? Beyond that? Before or after I leave? There is an emptiness in the building that matches the emptiness in my soul. There is no replacement for humans, especially those you have grown with, laughed with, gotten angry with, have had them get irritated with you, over ten-plus years. We miss being together. There is no replacement for God-created humans and God-blessed communities of faith.
I’ve read and preached on the 11th chapter of John many times; I’ve read it and I know you all have heard it in countless funerals. But I just have to wonder if we have ever heard it like we can hear it now. There is no replacement for humans. There is no replacement for certain, special humans; those who have befriended us, those who have let us be who we are, warts and all; those who have shared our joys and our sorrows, those we could confide in.
Maybe Lazarus was like that to Jesus. Maybe he was a good friend he could let his guard down with. We don’t know. We just know that this family was close to Jesus. The fact that we have heard this story over and over again may obscure the pathos of it all; that both Martha and Mary chide Jesus for hanging around Galilee a little too long, instead of realizing that he was putting his life on the line to make this trip so close to the religious authorities in Jerusalem plotting his demise.
But the part that really strikes me is at the end, after Jesus has asked for the stone to be rolled away. In that culture it was thought that the soul hung around for three days, and on the fourth day the person was not only certified dead, but the body was in the process of decaying. After the part where Jesus prays to God, giving thanks that Jesus is heard. After Jesus raises his voice, and then Lazarus comes out, bound still by his grave-cloths.
What happens next? Do people gasp in horror or delight? Do people fall all over each other in amazement over what they have witnessed? We don’t know. We just know that the next words spoken by anyone are from Jesus himself: “Unbind him, and let him go.”
The words have come to mean so much to me personally because of people I have known. One person in particular was a colleague in my days in Michigan. His wife was the pastor of a neighboring church, and Don was a minister-at-large, doing counseling work, sitting down and talking with ministers who had hit roadblocks, as we ministers often do. I remember one time I hit a major one. I am sure the idea that I would do something dumb is no surprise to anyone here, but at the time, in my mid-40’s, I guess I still had visions of being the perfect pastor. Don sat down with me, gently let me look at myself and my shortcomings, and assured me that Jesus hadn’t given up on me and that he wouldn’t either. Time to pick up the pieces and start over.
I think I said thank you but I’m not sure. Unbeknownst to me he had had severe pulmonary issues for years, and it wasn’t long after his time with me that he got a bug that sent him crashing into the hospital’s ICU. He lingered for a few days before he finally died. At his funeral, we gathered to say good bye to someone who had meant so much to us. Just like Jesus we wept, and we wept at the death of a friend, a friend who was not going to come back to us, on this side of the grave, anyway. At his Witness to the Resurrection service, several people brought out this text and said that Don had been one of those who followed Jesus’ teaching to unbind others; to take off the grave-cloths that so many people were wearing so that they might live. I knew that; I had been wearing those grave-cloths, and sometimes in my worst moments I still do. But I remember that there are people whom Jesus commands to ‘unbind him,’ and I am thankful for people like Don Wells, people who hang in there with me in my moments of deathly hopelessness, who remind me that Jesus has called me from my grave to live again.
How about you? Haven’t there been times in your life when you felt dead to the world, wrapped up in grave-cloths? And someone, anyone, came along and offered a word, a cup of coffee, a listening ear, an attentive presence that allowed you to confront your death and be resurrected. I think we all have; and we give thanks for those who followed Jesus’ command and have unbound us that we might taste the sweetness of life and the warmth of love.
But I think another part of this is also true. We can be among those who, like my buddy Don Wells, can be used by Jesus to unbind others who are deep in death’s clutches. Not just those in the ER or the ICU. But those who have lost hope. Those who have lost connection. Those who have lost a sense of their place as God’s beloved child.
In these days of social distancing, in which we are far apart and yet near in heart, we have a calling from Jesus – either to be unbound by the threat of this potentially deadly virus, or to help others see that they can yet live in new life, too. Jesus’ voice and Jesus’ power gives us what we need to live, even in our isolation, even in our quarantines, and yes, even if we contract this deadly illness. It is not a death sentence. For most folks it is time away from others but time spent just like it was when we were kids and we caught something, and our parents made us stay home from school.
But even for those who do suffer from the worst cases of this virus we can still be among those whom Jesus commands, “unbind them and let them go.” Even if it is from a distance. By calling, by writing, by maintaining contact; by praying. One of the saddest parts about this illness is hearing about those who have to die alone, without contact from their loved ones. Jesus calls on us not to give up on anyone, especially those who are suffering, those who are sick, those who are isolated.
Even in such a time as this, we can let others unbind us from our death and hopelessness. And by God’s grace and the voice of Jesus, we can be that for others, too. Amen.