Sunday, April 6, 2014

Let Him Loose

John 11:1-45
April 6, 2014

Gone From My Sight
Henry Van Dyke
I am standing upon the seashore.
A ship at my side spreads her white
sails to the morning breeze and starts
for the blue ocean.
She is an object of beauty and strength.
I stand and watch her until at length
she hangs like a speck of white cloud
just where the sea and sky come
to mingle with each other.
Then, someone at my side says;
"There, she is gone!"
"Gone where?"
Gone from my sight. That is all.
She is just as large in mast and hull
and spar as she was when she left my side
and she is just as able to bear her
load of living freight to her destined port.
Her diminished size is in me, not in her.
And just at the moment when someone
at my side says, "There, she is gone!"
There are other eyes watching her coming,
and other voices ready to take up the glad
"Here she comes!"
And that is dying.
            This is a poem that I’ve used in other sermons.  Some of you may have heard me quote it already.  The difference between those other sermons and today’s is that I usually only refer to this poem when I’m officiating at a service for someone who has died; a funeral, or as it is known in our Book of Common Worship: a Service of Witness to the Resurrection.  I first read this poem in a small book about the stages of dying.  It was a book given to the families of someone placed in hospice care.  It has become a favorite poem of mine, because I think it is an eloquent, lovely, and comforting metaphor about dying.  That’s why I return to it again and again. 
            But it seems odd to read this poem in a “regular” sermon; especially one that is being preached so close to Easter.  Why are we reading about a resurrection when the resurrection is only two weeks away?  It’s not like we need a warm-up resurrection to get us ready for the big event.  Yet the lectionary brings us to this particular story from John’s gospel; the raising of Lazarus from the dead.  So, with Easter only 14 days away, we read another story about death and resurrection.
            Biblical commentator and Johannine scholar Gail R. O’Day, proposes that the most obvious and fundamental question readers have of this story is “Did it really happen?”  Are we really able to accept that something this supernatural, even for Jesus, was possibly imposed upon the natural?  According to O’Day, it is not just a question of whether this happened historically, but whether or not it could happen at all.  It becomes a metaphysical question, and metaphysics deals with truth.  What is the truth of this event, this raising of Lazarus from the dead?  Certainly we can ask this question about any of Jesus’ healings, miracles and divine happenings.  But there is no other gospel story that parallels the raising of Lazarus, so the question of its truth takes on greater importance.
            The basic plot of this story is that Lazarus of Bethany, brother to the sisters, Mary and Martha, is ill.  The sisters send a message to Jesus to let him know of this.  Although the women do not specifically ask Jesus to rush to Lazarus’ bedside, it is implied, especially by what is said later in the text, that Jesus’ presence would be most welcome.  However Jesus hears the message and says, “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.”  Jesus, as in other passages, sees what is happening as an opportunity to show how God works through our human realities.  And because of this, he stays two days longer in his current place, rather than make his way to Lazarus and his sisters. 
            In the next verses, when Jesus does decide to head to Judea, the disciples try to dissuade him from this idea because of the danger he is in from the Jews.  Yet Jesus is determined to do God’s work while it is day.  His friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but Jesus will go and wake him up.  The disciples take this literally, but the reader knows that Jesus is not referring to sleep but death.  Lazarus has died.
            When Jesus and the disciples arrive at Bethany, Lazarus has been dead four days.  This is not just to give the reader an indication of how chronologically long Lazarus has been dead.  In Jewish tradition, it was believed that a person’s soul or shade hovered above the body for the first three days after death, waiting to see if an opportunity would come to reinhabit the body.  After the third day, the soul would make its way to Sheol.  If Lazarus had been in the tomb four days, he was dead.  Really, really dead.  This wasn’t just a resuscitation of a man who was near death.  Lazarus was dead.  Jesus raises him from that death.
            Both Martha and Mary greet Jesus assured that had Jesus been there Lazarus would not have died.  But Martha also tells Jesus, “but even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”  For Martha this is a confession of faith.  Jesus could have prevented the death, she knows that.  But she also knows that Jesus can do the will of God.  Yet even with her profession of faith, when it comes time to roll away the stone from Lazarus’ tomb, she warns Jesus that the body is already beginning to decompose.  It’s going to stink.  Even Martha, who believed in what Jesus had the power to do, could not fully comprehend what Jesus was about to do.  The truth was elusive even in the wake of her faith.
            Jesus has them roll the stone away from the entrance to the tomb.  Then he prays, giving thanks to God for always hearing him.  Jesus reiterates his knowledge that God always hears him, but he wants everyone else standing around him to know that as well.  At the end of the prayer, Jesus cries out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”  And with those words Lazarus steps out of the tomb, with cloths binding his feet, his hands, and covering his face.  Jesus says, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
            I find it interesting that while this story is known as “The Raising of Lazarus,” the actual raising is accomplished in two verses at the end of the story.  The verses leading up to that moment of resurrection are about interpretation.  It seems to me that this raises another question.  Keeping in mind the question that O’Day puts forth about this passage, “Did it really happen?” I also think we need to ask, “Why does it matter”?  Why does it matter, especially when we read this unique story two weeks before the real resurrection? 
            After Martha tells Jesus of her certainty that had Jesus been there, Lazarus would not have died, Jesus tells her, “Your brother will rise again.”  Martha replies, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”  Jesus says in response, “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.”
            I am the resurrection and the life.  I am.  Present tense.  I am.  It seems to me that Jesus is telling Martha that resurrection isn’t just something saved for the future, for the end times.  Jesus is telling Martha that resurrection is here, right now.  New life is here, right now.  I am the resurrection and the life. 
            Maybe this means that Easter isn’t just a day or even a season.  Easter is ongoing.  Easter is a state of being.  Resurrection isn’t just a one-time event for which we wait.  Easter is right now.  I am the resurrection and the life. 
            In The Message, Eugene Peterson paraphrases these last verses this way,
40 Jesus looked her in the eye. “Didn’t I tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
41-42 Then, to the others, “Go ahead, take away the stone.”
They removed the stone. Jesus raised his eyes to heaven and prayed, “Father, I’m grateful that you have listened to me. I know you always do listen, but on account of this crowd standing here I’ve spoken so that they might believe that you sent me.”
43-44 Then he shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” And he came out, a cadaver, wrapped from head to toe, and with a kerchief over his face.
Jesus told them, “Unwrap him and let him loose.”
“Let him loose.”  It seems to me that Jesus isn’t just manifesting the idea that resurrection and new life are already in our midst, ongoing in our midst; he is also involving the community in resurrection.  Jesus could have done it all himself.  He could have called Lazarus out of the tomb and removed those death clothes with a wave of his hand.  But this wasn’t a magic trick.  The people there weren’t an audience to be spellbound.  They were the community.  Lazarus was resurrected into that community.  Jesus calls upon them to, “Let him loose.”  And so Jesus calls us.  We have a part to play.  We are called to participate.  We are called to, “let him loose.” 
            David Lose, in his Working Preacher article about this story, quotes a question that was sent to him in an email.  “What would happen if we believed that the smallest things we do actually make a difference?”  Think about that for a moment.  What would happen if we believed, really believed, that the smallest things we do actually make a difference?  It’s easy to spout platitudes about everyone having unique gifts and talents to bring to the larger group.  But do we believe it?  I think our response is an answer to why this passage matters.  It matters because the resurrection is present tense, and we are called to participate.  It matters because Easter is more than one event and more than one day.  It matters because Jesus exemplified, time and time again, what it means to live in community, in relationship.  It matters because we are called to be that community; to live in the kind of relationship Jesus modeled.  We are called to be the community that manifests new life.  We are called to participate in the resurrection. It matters because we all play a part in letting one another, and indeed the world, loose.  Our smallest actions do make a difference.  Let us believe.  Let all God’s children say, “Amen.”

No comments:

Post a Comment