5 Lent A – sermon in a time of pandemic: Lazarus and the Community
The Rev. Jo Page, St. John’s-on-Sand-Creek, Albany, New York
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ 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.’ Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the religious leaders were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ 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. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘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. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’
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.’ And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The neighbors 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. 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.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the neighbors said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 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 for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. 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.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ 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.’
There is a short Hindu prayer that goes “Lead me from the unreal to the real.” I like that prayer a lot. I turn it around in my mind a lot. In Lutheran fashion I ask myself over and over, what does this mean?
“Lead me from the unreal to the real.”
The story of Lazarus is a step-by-step journey from the unreal to the real.
Which is strange when you stop and think about it. The story begins with sickness and death. These are pretty real to us. There is not one person I know who has not thought about or struggled with a fear of death. There is not one person I know who has not struggled with illness–our own or a loved one’s illness or both.
So the story of Lazarus doesn’t appear to begin with the unreal at all. Indeed, it appears to begin with those things that are so real to us: Sickness. Death. And never more so than right now.
And the story ends with Lazarus, four days gone to rotting, crawling out of a tomb alive.
It ends with Jesus telling Lazarus’ friends and family–his community–to unwrap and free a living mummy. That’s what seems unreal, not the death and sickness, which we know all about.
But what they would find beneath those ointment-soaked, grave-musty winding strips? What would Lazarus look like? Smell like? Would he come back to life still as gravely sick as he was before?
Would he be only merely not dead? That is not at all same thing as being alive.
It was for the community to solve this problem, not flee from it. But it was nothing the community had have ever been asked to do before. Sound familiar? Sound like something we are experiencing now?
The raising of Lazarus is a story that asks at every turn, “what will happen next?”
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Long ago, I lived in New York in a pretty little brownstone on the Upper East Side. My room-mate, Diana, and I scrimped to afford our one-bedroom place–I slept in the living room–because the neighborhood was safe and convenient to our jobs. One morning as we were leaving for work, we pushed open the hallway door into the foyer. But the door stopped, only half-way open. I looked through the sheer curtain the foyer.
There was a woman’s body lying on the tiled floor, blocking the door shut.
A body, I thought. There is a dead woman in our foyer.
Only–as I was thinking that, the woman began to sit up, to rise to her feet, disoriented, sleepy, maybe hungover or just off her medication. She muttered something to us and left the foyer right as we did.
On the train to work Diana and I reasoned that maybe this homeless woman had camped out in the foyer of our building for the same reason we had chosen to move that neighborhood: because the upper East Side was safe for young single women such as Diana and me; perhaps this lone, homeless woman’s reasoning for being on the upper East Side had been the same as ours.
When we returned home that night our upstairs neighbor came down to see us. For a tiny, pretty blonde woman she carried a lot of anger with her. In fact, she was fuming.
“Did you see that there was a bum, a bum in our foyer this morning?” she demanded. She had evidently been making the rounds of all of the apartments in the brownstone, asking the same question.
Yes, we said, we did.
Well, she said, she was going to call our landlord and she was going to make sure that he knew about it and she was going to make sure that there was a lock on the outside door as well as the inside door, no matter how many keys it meant we had to carry. She didn’t want any more bums in our building.
Well, finding that homeless woman in our building at 7:00 am wasn’t very nice. And this is not a feel-good story. Because solving the real problem wasn’t about getting our landlord to put locks on all the doors. The problem of homelessness was–and remains–bigger than that. And without the voices of the community speaking together–and with compassion–that problem wouldn’t and won’t be solved.
This is a true fact: you really can’t lock out the world.
* * * * *
The raising of Lazarus is also not a feel-good story. It is a story of faith and fear and risk. It begins in sorrow with Lazarus’ sickness, Jesus’ distance and Lazarus’ death. But the end of the story is not like the other stories of healings where Jesus does everything himself to cure the blind man or the lame man or the woman with a flow of blood.
This story ends with a blend of confusion and opportunity as Jesus tells the community that in order for Lazarus to really be alive, they have to participate. They have to go deal with how to free him. Instead of preparing his body for death, Jesus tells them to prepare Lazarus’ body for life. So the story reverses the expected order of things.
What should be most real–Lazarus’ death–becomes the unreal part. The mere fact of his death is swallowed up Jesus calling him back to life.
The real part of the story is that Lazarus stands there, dependent on the community to free him.
“Unbind him and let him go free.” Jesus says.
Whatever was going to happen next depended entirely on what the community decided to do next. They could unbind him. Or they could walk away.
Where is Lazarus, bound, but breathing, for us today? Whom is it that God charges us to unbind? Is it the homeless, like that woman in our foyer? Is it the elderly, underserved in the midst of pandemic? Is it persons of color, some of whom are being blamed for the corona virus?
Is it immigrants? Is it sexual minorities–who are always targets of blame and, predictably, have been blamed in some quarters and by some “Christians” for this pernicious disease?
Is it children, whose educational needs are under-funded and, in this time, largely suspended? Or is it the poor or those who will soon be among the newly poor as our economy founders in ways unseen since the great Depression?
I’m sure there were people standing around Lazarus who really did not want to lay their hands on those grimy winding strips. They wanted Mary and Martha to do it; he was their brother after all. I’m sure there were people there that day who felt that Jesus had only done half the job–why was it left up to them to finish what he had started. They had never asked him to raise Lazarus. That was his idea!
But I–we, as people who know a part of the vastness of God through Jesus–are bound to follow Jesus and the legacy of his faith tradition.
And Jesus tells us what we have to do: see the Lazarus standing before us. Then, not only see Lazarus, but touch him as well. Get our hands dirty bringing him back to life, bringing him freedom.
That’s ministry. It doesn’t always feel good. But it is most certainly real.
Jesus still calls Lazarus out of the tomb and into our hearts. Jesus still calls the community to unbind him so the knotted grave clothes and the stench of death will no longer keep him imprisoned–and for us to find that in that unbinding, we may grow in compassion, justice-seeking and grace.