A Sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
November 4, 2018
University Baptist Church
My name is Lazarus. Brother of Mary, brother of Martha, good friend of Jesus. We live in Bethany, about 3 miles from Jerusalem. Whenever Jesus was in town, he stayed with us. He and I became good friends.
People know me because of the “miracle.” I like to be known as Jesus’ friend.
You wanna hear about the miracle? Okay here goes.
Jesus was out on his preaching circuit and I got sick. I ate some bad fish and got indigestion. The healers tried bleeding me, but it didn’t work. Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus. They said, “the one you love is sick.” Jesus got here as quick as he could. But by then, I had been left for dead. They even put me in a tomb and wrapped me up with grave clothes. They say I died. I don’t know what happened. By the time Jesus arrived, I had been in the tomb for four whole days. They tell me that Jesus wept outside the tomb and then called me to come out. I did, to everyone’s amazement. They took off my grave clothes and then just kinda stared at me. I wanted things to go back to the way they were. But they never really did. Jesus died about a month later and God came up to his tomb and told him to get up.
But what I want you to know about me is that I saw Jesus for who he truly was. I wasn’t a disciple, none of that baggage. I wasn’t a seeker or a follower. I was his friend. With me he could let his hair down. He could complain about the disciples, the Romans, the leadership, the crowds. That’s the kind of relationship we had. He had a passion about him. An impatience for people to get it. And “it” is this elusive reign of God, the idea everyone is loved and that God wants people to be healthy and fulfilled. Such a radical idea. Radical and dangerous. Just like this resurrection thing.
The difference between you and me is that I’m still here while Jesus is supposed to be in all of us. I’d love to have a bit of Jesus here in my life right now. It might make things make a little bit more sense.
On All Saints Day, we pause to remember those who have gone before. Sometimes we think we are done with grief, but it comes back like the tide, knocking us over and threatening to suck us into its undertow. We come here today to not scamper away from death, but to remember, to feel and to be surrounded by those who feel in a similar way.
This week, we come together and we are still reeling from the deaths at the Tree of Life Synagogue. Gunned down in a sanctuary of all places. Their crime was being Jewish. We remember the two people killed in a convenience store in Kentucky. Their crime was being black. We think of the people who received pipe bombs in the mail. Their crime was belonging to a party that opposes the actions of the current president.
The common denominator is that the perpetrators were all white men, loaded up a steady stream of hate from talk radio and the endless attack pieces that appear as the news. And those same people say that we should be afraid of the immigrants when most of the violence happens at the hands of white men. Heavily armed white men, I might add. Maybe it’s time to address this sickness in our culture instead of the misdirection that immigrants are the ones to fear the most. I know some are going to the polls this week with all of this in mind.
Here’s what else I know. Any death can remind us of another death. And we can have similar feelings that we felt when a loved one died. It’s that trauma part of our brains, that hippocampus that reminds us of it and we are re-traumatized. And if the grief is unresolved, it can be even worse.
I wonder if that is what happened to Jesus in today’s scripture story.
“Jesus wept” is the shortest verse in the Bible. It shows up in the eleventh chapter of John’s gospel. And the occasion is the death of Lazarus. John’s gospel is the one that is the most concerned with Jesus’ divinity. Jesus is described as being one with God before the world was formed. In John’s gospel, Jesus is the way, the truth, the life, the true vine, the lamb of God, the bread of life. Everything he did seems to be a sign of something greater. Whether it’s changing water into wine or whether it is raising Lazarus from the dead, it shows that Jesus has an intimate connection with God.
But in those two words, “Jesus wept”, we see a very human side of Jesus.
Jesus wept, that most human emotion, which we all know too well. Sometimes it comes at expected times and sometimes not. I felt tears well up within me as I was in a sacred Harp singing on Tuesday night. Still reeling from the weekend shootings at Tree of Life Synagogue, I led #133 which asks “Where are the Hebrew children (3x) safe in the promised land. Though the furnace flamed around them, God while in their trouble found them; He with love and mercy bound them, Safe in the promised land.” We sang it slowly and solemnly, not like most songs in the old red hymnal. I wanted us to reflect, to mourn to grieve for those Hebrew Children in Pittsburgh and for all of God’s children who are bound up in fear.
Jesus wept twice that we know of. Once was at the state of the great city of Jerusalem which kills its prophets. It was tears of great frustration and angst. The other was at the death of his friend Lazarus. Was he crying because he hadn’t gotten there in time? Was it because Mary had laid a guilt-trip on him, “If you had been here, he wouldn’t have died.” Ouch.
Was he crying because he could see in Lazarus’ tomb his own impending death?
Was he crying because he really needed to talk with his friend Lazarus and he was no more?
Was he crying because the weight of the world was on his shoulders and he couldn’t imagine doing such an important ministry without his friend Lazarus, who he could always trust to give him and honest perspective?
I’ve told you before that Jesus would go to Bethany whenever the going got tough. When he got out of sorts, he would hibernate in the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. It was an oasis in the midst of despair. In my mind’s eye, I imagine when Jesus was struggling with his mission and up against the bull-headedness of the disciples, he went to his buddy Lazarus to kick back and hash it all out. Mary and Martha both seemed to have agendas, like which way was the best to follow, listening or cooking. But we hear none of this in Lazarus. What we do hear is that Jesus loved him.
There’s a clue in the Greek. Verse 5 of chapter 11 says that Jesus loved Mary, Martha and Lazarus. The word is Agape. It’s the word reserved for the love of God, the unique love embodied in Jesus and the ministry he evokes. But when Mary and Martha send word that Lazarus is ill, they use a different word.
They call him the one you love, Philea. This is the kind of love that is of an equal, a brother, a companion. Not Agape, holy love. Not Eros, romantic love. Philea, the love of a friend. It’s a human love. A grounded love. Mary and Martha were disciples. Maybe Lazarus wasn’t.
Lazarus, I imagine, was someone who could challenge and support Jesus at the same time. Someone who would listen to him and give him a loving and honest response whenever it was needed, without being asked. Jesus trusted Lazarus.
Jesus must have loved Lazarus in a way he couldn’t or wouldn’t love the disciples.
At Bethany, Jesus could just be Jesus Josephson, not Jesus Messiah, Jesus Christ, Lamb of God Savior of the world. I can see Jesus talking with Lazarus late into the night about his calling, letting out self-deprecating belly-laughs and shedding tears. Lazarus, I imagine, saw something in Jesus that Jesus couldn’t see in himself. That’s the way it is with really close friends. I bet Lazarus encouraged Jesus to come out of his Nazarean closet and get down to the business of his ministry. I can see Lazarus saying, "Yes Jesus you have to go down and see John the Baptist and get this ministry started. You’re almost thirty for crying out loud. You’ve been talking about this for years. Yes, it’s going to be hell. But it’s also going to save your soul and maybe someone else’s too.” Jesus was eternally grateful for Lazarus’ love, honesty and trust.
Leave behind the resurrection piece of the story for a moment.
This scripture says that it’s important that we grieve and grieve together.
I went to Cleveland, Ohio a couple of weeks ago to perform the memorial service for my uncle Bill. I put his bell on this banner today, just like I had his wife Eleanor two years ago. Between them, they lived almost 200 years and they were the last of their generation. As the ordained one in the family, I get called in these days for weddings and funerals, touchstone moments for joy and grief. My cousins were left to deal with the grief and I reminded them to be kind to themselves.
I told them there is no road map to get through grief. It’s a kind of madness. And like most madness we can’t get through it alone. We need people to surround us. We need people to support us. We need people to pick up the slack for us when we can’t do it ourselves anymore. We need people to cook for us, to remind us to eat, finish our sentences when we are so filled with grief that we don’t know what to do.
Uncle Bill was not a saint, in the way we usually think of saints. He did not have a holiness to him, unless you consider holy wrath. We laughed about his life, his stubborn and exacting expectations of others. We reminded each other that he got gentler as the years passed. It was a funeral for someone who had lived a long and full life and so I recited this poem, written a hundred years ago by Canon Henry Scott-Holland.
Death Is Nothing At All
Death is nothing at all
I have only slipped away into the next room
I am I and you are you
Whatever we were to each other
That we are still
Call me by my old familiar name
Speak to me in the easy way you always used
Put no difference into your tone
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow
Laugh as we always laughed
At the little jokes we always enjoyed together
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me
Let my name be ever the household word that it always was
Let it be spoken without effort
Without the ghost of a shadow in it
Life means all that it ever meant
It is the same as it ever was
There is absolute unbroken continuity
What is death but a negligible accident?
Why should I be out of mind
Because I am out of sight?
I am waiting for you for an interval
Somewhere very near
Just around the corner
All is well.
Nothing is past; nothing is lost
One brief moment and all will be as it was before
How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!
This poem seems to minimize the grief, but I think it actually helps us come to terms with the reality of death. It’s a natural part of life. Yes, we grieve for the loss we have, but we also celebrate the time we shared and how their time on earth shaped our lives.
We come to church today acutely aware of the saints that have passed before. We see their names on these ribbons. We hear their tones as the bells tinkle. We remember them and we are humbled that we need to carry on the work they have left undone. They are our guardian angels, our inspiration, our cloud of witnesses.
Frederick Buechner said: “To be a saint is to be human because we were created to be human. To be a saint is to live with courage and self-restraint, but it is more than that. To be a saint is to live not with the hands clenched to grasp, to strike, to hold tight to a life that is always slipping away the more tightly we hold it; but it is to live with the hands stretched out both to give and to receive with gladness. To be a saint is to work and weep for the broken and suffering of the world, but it is also to be strangely light of heart in the knowledge that there is something greater than the world that mends and renews.”
When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the people took off the burial cloths from Lazarus. Jesus said, unbind him and let him go. Let him go. He would not live forever. None of us would. He didn’t unbind him and let him go back to the way things were before. He unbound him and let him go.
Jesus said, unbind him and let him go. He was talking about Lazarus, but I also think he was talking about us. We who are so bound by expectations, by cowardice, by despair, by loneliness. Jesus tells us to unburden ourselves from all of this. And by the power of God, go on. But remember that you don’t go on alone. Other people unbind you. Other people have gone before you. Other people believe in you. Other people are in solidarity with you, with what you will become, with what you are becoming.
My brother Mike surprised his daughter Emma by traveling to Pennsylvania so he could take her to dinner for her birthday. The hug that they shared communicated so much. He wanted to let her know that he was with her and had her back. And that when the winter conjured up memories of her brother’s suicide two years ago, they needed to be together, to not only unbind each other but to strengthen the bonds that give and celebrate their lives.
Listen. The saints are as close as a ringing bell. And they remind you that you are beautiful. You in all of your expectation, your enthusiasm, your luxury of time and breath. Use it well. Unbind him, unbind her, and let them go. And remind them that they are never alone. We’re as close as these bells, reminding us to recognize beauty. Reminding us to let the better part of your best angels fly free. That’s how you remember them. That’s how they are raised. That’s how they conquer death. It’s all about what happens in you.
So unbind yourselves. Set yourselves free. Weep, laugh, work in their memory and make them proud because of who you touch and how you do what even they had not imagined.
And once you have unbound yourself, go and unbind someone else. Take off their grave cloths. Remind them of their true beautiful selves. When we do that, then life truly goes on. Thanks be to God.