Scripture Reading John 11:1-45 (CEB)
11 A certain man, Lazarus, was ill. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (2 This was the Mary who anointed the Lord with fragrant oil and wiped his feet with her hair. Her brother Lazarus was ill.) 3 So the sisters sent word to Jesus, saying, “Lord, the one whom you love is ill.”
4 When he heard this, Jesus said, “This illness isn’t fatal. It’s for the glory of God so that God’s Son can be glorified through it.” 5 Jesus loved Martha, her sister, and Lazarus. 6 When he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed where he was. After two days, 7 he said to his disciples, “Let’s return to Judea again.”
8 The disciples replied, “Rabbi, the Jewish opposition wants to stone you, but you want to go back?”
9 Jesus answered, “Aren’t there twelve hours in the day? Whoever walks in the day doesn’t stumble because they see the light of the world. 10 But whoever walks in the night does stumble because the light isn’t in them.”
11 He continued, “Our friend Lazarus is sleeping, but I am going in order to wake him up.”
12 The disciples said, “Lord, if he’s sleeping, he will get well.” 13 They thought Jesus meant that Lazarus was in a deep sleep, but Jesus had spoken about Lazarus’ death.
14 Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died. 15 For your sakes, I’m glad I wasn’t there so that you can believe. Let’s go to him.”
16 Then Thomas (the one called Didymus) said to the other disciples, “Let us go too so that we may die with Jesus.”
17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Bethany was a little less than two miles from Jerusalem. 19 Many Jews had come to comfort Martha and Mary after their brother’s death. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him, while Mary remained in the house. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. 22 Even now I know that whatever you ask God, God will give you.”
23 Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again.”
24 Martha replied, “I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die. 26 Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
27 She replied, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, God’s Son, the one who is coming into the world.”
28 After she said this, she went and spoke privately to her sister Mary, “The teacher is here and he’s calling for you.” 29 When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to Jesus. 30 He hadn’t entered the village but was still in the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who were comforting Mary in the house saw her get up quickly and leave, they followed her. They assumed she was going to mourn at the tomb.
32 When Mary arrived where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”
33 When Jesus saw her crying and the Jews who had come with her crying also, he was deeply disturbed and troubled. 34 He asked, “Where have you laid him?”
They replied, “Lord, come and see.”
35 Jesus began to cry. 36 The Jews said, “See how much he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “He healed the eyes of the man born blind. Couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying?”
38 Jesus was deeply disturbed again when he came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone covered the entrance. 39 Jesus said, “Remove the stone.”
Martha, the sister of the dead man, said, “Lord, the smell will be awful! He’s been dead four days.”
40 Jesus replied, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory?”41 So they removed the stone. Jesus looked up and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me. 42 I know you always hear me. I say this for the benefit of the crowd standing here so that they will believe that you sent me.” 43 Having said this, Jesus shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied, and his face covered with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.”
45 Therefore, many of the Jews who came with Mary and saw what Jesus did believed in him.
I was especially blessed yesterday. I was a participant in the Relay for Life. Jane Ono had invited me to give the invocation, which was a great honor all on its own. But because I am a cancer survivor I was celebrated. I got a T-shirt and breakfast and a bag full of goodies and even a medal! The first lap was the Survivor’s Lap, and as we walked around the Fowler High School track the other participants and the Bandits Cheerleaders circled the track and cheered for us. Some of us were pretty healthy and walked the lap easily. Some were using canes or walkers, or were supported by caregivers, and it was a little harder for them. Among the survivors was a woman who had come all the way from LA to join us, who walked very slowly, and who was determined that she was going to complete the circuit. When she crossed the finish line the applause and cheers were louder than ever, and tears were flowing freely. It was awesome! It felt like watching a miracle happen right in front of us.
As I walked that lap I realized that 18 years ago this week I had the first of many surgeries for my cancer. I knew that because the Sunday after my surgery the elders from First Christian Church in Orange, California came to pray with me, and the scripture they read was the story of Lazarus. It meant a lot to me that day, as I was feeling as if I had gotten my life back.
This particular passage always means a lot to me. Every time it comes around in the lectionary it impacts my life in a different way. My freshman year at Chapman I attended worship on this particular Sunday at All People’s Christian Church in LA and Pastor TJ Bottoms preached a sermon titled, “Move the stone”. He talked about not letting obstacles stop you from doing what God has called you to do. I kind of needed to hear that as a 44 year old college freshman, and a woman called to enter the ordained ministry. Both of these things were going to be difficult, but his message that day kept me going through the hardest times. I even kept a little note on my refrigerator for years that said, “Move the stone,” just in case I forgot.
This is always a pretty hard passage to deal with. First of all, it’s long. It’s very long. There is so much to unpack that a 15-20 minute sermon simply cannot do justice to the totality of this passage. Second, it has Jesus exhibiting emotions we aren’t used to seeing in him. In the beginning he seems indifferent to his friend’s illness. Jesus, who had gone immediately to heal a little girl and a centurion’s servant and many others, stays where he is when he hears his friend is sick. What was that about? We think he did that so he could bring Lazarus back later, but it just seems strange that Jesus would let his friends, Mary and Martha, suffer so when their brother died. He becomes deeply disturbed, some translations even say angry, when he sees Mary weeping and when he approaches the tomb. He cries, something most of us do when we are deeply moved or grieved. We tend to think of Jesus as always serene and calm . . . well, except maybe during that one visit to the Temple. He was pretty angry then . . . But most of the time, he seemed, you know, Christ- like. In this passage, however, he goes through all kinds of changes. He exhibits all kinds of emotions. And lastly, after he goes through all of these emotions and then he makes it very clear to all present that he is not raising Lazarus through his own power, but that God is doing it in response to Jesus’ prayer. By the way, if anyone still doubts that Jesus was fully human, this passage really should convince you of that fact.
Jesus’ disciples thought he was going to his death, but decided to follow him back toward Jerusalem anyway. It is worth noting that the one who said, “Let’s go die with him,” was the very same Thomas whom we call “Doubting Thomas” because he questioned whether Jesus had appeared to the others after the resurrection. (There may be a quiz on this the week after Easter.)
This time the title in today’s Lenten devotional, which I am sure you all read diligently this morning, took my mind in a whole nother direction. Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.”
One of my preacher friends this week wondered how on earth Lazarus managed to walk out of the tomb with his entire body tightly bound as they did in those days. Someone said “The same way Morticia Adams walks in her tight skirts”. Someone else said that he lost weight during the 4 days in the tomb so they fell off. Another suggested he hopped like a bunny. One even said something silly like, “With God all things are possible” which in this case is not a good answer. Because Jesus does find it necessary to say “Untie him.” So the bindings were still there. They hadn’t fallen off due to weight loss. God didn’t mysteriously remove them. He probably did walk the way Morticia Adams does. Or the way prisoners walk when they are shackled. One of the translations I looked at this week even said, “He shuffled out of the tomb.”
Untie him and let him go. I like the way Lynette Johnson spoke of this phrase in our devotional. She said, “Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb, but he instructs the others present to unbind, to set Lazarus free. Jesus renews his life, but it is up to others — his sisters, his friends and neighbors, the leaders of his synagogue — to set him free.” (Society of St. Andrew Daily Lenten Devotional 2017, pg. 28)
I can’t help but think of all the people who have come forward lately to join the church. Many of them (but not all) are quite young - high school and young adults. Some have been coming around for years, and some are pretty new to the whole idea of church. Some of them have come here because in this place they can freely be themselves. Some of the younger ones have come here because in this place they aren’t told, “You are the future.” They are told, “You are the Church - now, today.” Some, maybe even most, come from a different tradition, but find that this congregation and this denomination are the best fit for them. All of them have said they are willing to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world. All of them have said they are willing to serve this congregation they best way they can, with the gifts and talents that God has given them. All of them have heard that still, small, voice telling them, “It’s time to go forward and become an official part of this family,” (even though I suspect sometimes that voice is Jordan’s.) It is so exciting to me that in this place where I have been called to serve, God is reaching out to such diverse and talented people.
Jesus has renewed all of these folks, and put them into our hands. It is our job to untie them and set them free to be the people God intends for them to be. It is our job to make sure there is a safe place here for them and for all others who come. Coming to this place, especially for those who are kind of new to the idea of being part of a church family, is pretty exciting. Now. But what about later? Some can’t be here every week, or even most weeks, because of work or family obligations. How do we continue to nurture them and set them free, if they can’t be here on Sunday?
Someone said to me recently, “I know I’m ok right now. It’s the long term I’m worried about.” When a person has made a significant change in their life, and the excitement of the new thing has worn off, that is when we are most needed. For Lazarus, everyone would be all over him on this day and for the next week or so, maybe. But there would come a time when it’s just Tuesday. The wonderment of his return to life has died down and he has to figure out how to just get from day to day in this new reality. He was dead! And then he wasn’t! And that has to be weird to live with. After I healed from my surgery and my friends stopped coming by to check on me and help with daily chores, I had to find a way to deal with my new reality, one in which the cancer might come back any time or not. I could ignore it or I could worry about it or … I didn’t quite know what to do, how to live one day after another, in this new reality. I knew my life would never be the same again. I had faith in God, of course, and I knew that no matter what, I would be ok. But what I needed was to have people around who were willing and able to be supportive, even in the ordinariness of daily life, because I really didn’t know how to do ordinary any more, any more than Lazarus knew how to do ordinary anymore.
Similarly, many among this church family and in my own circle of friends have lost loved ones recently. Almost before we know it, the services are over, the flood of loving family and friends is gone, and suddenly life is back to “normal,” except that nothing will really be normal again, in the way we’ve always defined normal before. Ordinariness is taking on a new appearance. New routines are being developed.
The work of the church, our work, is best done in the ordinariness of every day. After the resurrection, after the excitement of new membership, after the surgeries and treatments, after the loss of our loved ones, after whatever it is that marks a new beginning to a life, that is when the work of the church begins. The work of the church begins in earnest once the excitement has ended, in the day to day setting free of those who now face a new reality. To paraphrase Lynette Johnson, we must be the ones who unbind them. We must be the ones who nurture and encourage them as they go forward into their new reality. We must e the ones to whom they can turn in their new ordinariness. When you go out, remember those for whom life has become different - reach out to them, let them know that they are not alone. Just as our Lord has set us free, let us also be the source of freedom for those who need us in their lives.