Monday, April 3, 2017

Close Encounters with Jesus: Lazarus (and his family)

Sermon for Lent 5, Year A
John 11:1-45

            “Do you believe this?”

            This is the heart of it, isn’t it?  Everything that comes before, and everything that comes after leads directly into this central question, the one Jesus asks Martha, “Do you believe this?”   
             Jesus has finally come to Bethany, finally, four days late for the funeral, even though Lazarus is his friend, and even though Mary and Martha beg him to come.
             Jesus has finally come to Bethany, has come to Mary  and Martha, and Martha comes to Jesus with this statement of faith, or doubt, or grief, or all three:  “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 
            And it is hard not to read many many things into this sentence.  Real things.  We can read her faith and her hope.  “You are so full of love, and you have so much compassion and power, I know that if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
             But also, can you possibly  hear some grief, and a question of her own.?  “If you had only been here… but you weren’t here, Jesus.  Why weren’t you here?  Why didn’t you come?” 

            There is so much reality wrapped in this simple statement, in the middle of a story that – let’s face it – has so much that is strange about it.             The late scene, the one on the other side, could be from a horror movie – with Lazarus coming out of the tomb, still bound in graveclothes. 
            How spooky is that? 
            But Martha’s words could be our words.  “If you had been here…..”  All of our whys are wrapped up in Martha’s words. 
            There is the why of the woman whose husband has died from cancer.  There is the why of the children who saw their mother fade away with Alzheimers. 
            There is the why of the husband whose wife died during heart surgery, leaving him alone with two small children. 
            You have so many more whys of your own.  And all of our whys start with faith:  we know you are loving and gracious and powerful, Jesus.  Why weren’t you here this time?

            And Jesus replies to Martha’s statement with these words, “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.”
             This statement --- and a question, and I think the question is as important as the statement.  “Do you believe this?”

            Do you?

            It’s the question to Martha, and to the people gathered with her, and to you and me, too.

            I recently learned that this particular Gospel reading was one of those used when preparing new Christians for their baptism and confession of faith.
             In fact, all of the gospel readings we have heard during Lent – Jesus’ close encounters with Nicodemus – the woman at the well – with the man born blind – and with Lazarus and his sisters – all of them were part of the preparation of new Christians for baptism. 
            And so I was struck by this question – “Do you believe this?”  -- a question I suppose each and every candidate for baptism was asked. 

            Do you believe that Jesus is the resurrection and the life?
             Do you believe that those who believe in him, even though they die, will live?  Do you believe that he is the light of the World, the living water, the Word made flesh? 
            Do you believe, even though you see evil in the world, even though there is danger, even though there is grieving and pain, do you believe that God’s love is stronger, that Jesus is working among us and in us and in the world?

            Do you? 

            Martha said yes.

            And so they went to the tomb, where Jesus wept, and where the people marveled.  “See how he loved him!”  And then Jesus said, Roll away the stone.

            Wait a minute, Martha said (the one who said that she believed).  “Are you sure you know what you are doing?  He’s been dead four days, after all.”  

            It is so with us.
             We believe that Jesus will raise us to new life – but later.
             Not right now. 
            But Jesus says that resurrection life starts now, in the world, with us.  They roll away the stone and Lazarus comes out, still bound up, but walking and living.

            And here is where Jesus says something interesting.
             He tells the people gathered, “Unbind him, and let him go.”  He tells them that they have something to do with Lazarus’ new life, with his resurrection life.
             They can help him to live right now. 
            They can help him off with his graveclothes, and on with the new life he has been given.

            It’s still that way.
             It’s why we like to have baptisms in church, where we can promise to support the person baptized, whether they are 4 or 40 or 80.  We want to be there to say – we will help you to live this new life you have been given. 
            In fact, you can’t do it alone.  None of us can. 
            We are here to help each other stay faithful, to pick each other up when we fall, to set each other free when we are bound in sin, to remind each other who we are, and the great mission God has given us.  
            We are here to comfort each other when the world gets too heavy, and to show each other the truth when it is so hard to see.

            Jesus is the resurrection, and the life right now.  He is making all things new.  Those he believe in him, even though they die, yet they will live.  Do you believe this?
            I remember one Sunday morning when I had to announce the death of a young man from my congregation.
             He had battled cancer for many years.
             I remember where he and his wife sat, every week, at our traditional service. 
            They were quiet people, but she loved to sing, and they attended a couple’s group. 
            When I announced his death, I thought I heard sighs too deep for words.

            Afterwards, I saw people from the community surround his wife, bearing her up, encouraging her. 
            This is what a congregation is for, I thought.
             We gather to remind each other of the truth, because we can’t always see it.  We gather to remind each other of the love that never ends. 
            We gather together to release each other from the power of death in our lives.

            Do you believe this?

            Jesus’ power over death was and is real.
             He is the resurrection and the life.  The raising of Lazarus tells us that.
             Like those who came out to console Martha and Mary, we care for each other, and remind each other of the promise – that Jesus will bring us out of death into new life – not just at the end of time, but now, and every day.  
            We are the people who take  the graveclothes from the dead and offer them the baptismal garments of their new life. 
            That’s what we do for one another.  That’s what our congregation is for

            Do you believe this?


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