by David Baer, February 18, 2018
Text: John 11:1-44
For me this is the hardest part of the story to understand. Jesus hears that someone he cares about is sick: “He whom you love is ill.” His friends Martha and Mary are taking care of their brother Lazarus, the anxiety as well as the physical demands of a deteriorating human body. “He whom you love, she whom you love, is ill.” For family, for close friends, that’s usually enough to bring us running to the home or the hospital. You’ve most likely received a call like this yourself. It’s hard not to respond, even if you can’t, because you’re on the other side of the world, or because there’s an even more urgent crisis that needs your attention. And yet Jesus stays put. His friend Lazarus dies apart from Jesus, and Mary and Martha are left to shoulder their burden alone. Why?
The story doesn’t answer this question, even though it’s one that rises again and again for us, as we take in tragedy in our lives and in the world around us. Where was he, where was Jesus, when we needed him? We’re left with the often painful mystery of a Jesus who does not show up when and where we would like him to. But this gospel story shows us that Jesus is not absent for lack of love or lack of power to save and restore us.
If Jesus had never shown up at all, the obvious answer would be, “Because he’s afraid.” He’s a wanted man. Bethany is close to Jerusalem, where he tangled with the authorities and escaped arrest for blasphemy. But that’s no less true after Lazarus dies, and Jesus decides to go.
Put yourself, if you can, in the place of Jesus’ disciples when Jesus makes up his mind to go to Bethany. “Lazarus is dead,” Jesus says. “Let us go to him.” This is nothing less than a suicide mission. Your rabbi is going to be stoned by the Judean authorities, and he knows it. He’s being dragged down by grief and sadness, and he wants to join his beloved friend in the sleep of death. Thomas speaks for all the disciples when he says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
This story begins with resignation. Death is very real. It has severed a cherished relationship with a beloved friend, and it is a weapon wielded by those in authority to maintain power and to shut out the possibility of healing and new life from God.
This week we saw those all-too-familiar scenes play out in Parkland, Florida, at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School: terrified students and staff filing out from the site of another mass killing in what was supposed to have been a safe place for children and their teachers. Seventeen children and adults killed. Families, a community, and a nation grieving and heartsick.
These attacks have become a kind of gruesome routine in our country, like nowhere else among industrially advanced democracies. According to the Washington Post, this was the seventh shooting attack this year, meaning that there has been about one such incident every week. Post reporter Philip Bump writes that:
Since 2000, there have been school shootings in 43 of the 50 states, according to our data. … The shootings have taken place at a rate of about one a month and left about 250 students and teachers dead.1
There are mentally unwell individuals in every nation on earth. There are people everywhere who lash out violently at their neighbors, for any number of reasons. But in our country we make uniquely available a level of lethal firepower that multiplies their violence to devastating effect. And I don’t understand it. For a while I allowed myself to hope, after each new massacre, that as a culture we had finally had enough, that the slaughter of children might finally bring us to our senses. When the victims were first graders and kindergartners at Sandy Hook, I thought, “Surely now everyone will want to stop this!” But time after time, after a brief bout of political posturing and bickering, nothing changes.
This is not the place for me to say what gun policy should be. And I’m not a legal scholar or a political scientist. I don’t pretend to understand the forces that cause us to permit these ongoing killings. But something is deeply wrong here. We have become inured to the presence of a death-dealing power in our midst. Like Thomas proposing to face death with Jesus, we’ve come to accept its primacy and its inevitability as fixed absolutes. That’s just the way things are, and there’s nothing that can be done.
But Jesus shows us another way…
Jesus enters a situation where the worst has already happened. Death has claimed his friend. All hope for a recovery is gone. The mourners have come, the body is in the tomb, and the people close to Lazarus are doing the best they can to bear up under the weight of grief. Jesus comes into the story after the last ray of light has been extinguished.
That’s not exactly true—even before Jesus comes, there is space to talk about a future where those we love are restored to us. Even before Jesus enters the story, there is a hope for resurrection. “I know that [my brother] will rise again in the resurrection on the last day,” Martha says. In some other, remote time, there will be happy reunion with those we have lost. But this is a theoretical hope. No one knows when it will happen, or what might finally prompt God to make good on this promise. Pie in the sky in the by-and-by, they used to call it. There is hope, but there is no way to bridge the gap from here to there.
Sometimes we fall back on theoretical hope too. But when we do it always sounds hollow, doesn’t it? “It was her time to go.” “He’s in a better place.” “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims.” It’s a grasping, a fumbling toward comfort that never quite makes contact. But theoretical hope is a safe kind of hope. It’s a hope that is never disappointed, because it doesn’t expect anything to change in the here and now. It doesn’t ask anything of us. It requires no risk.
Martha knows about safe, theoretical hope. But she also dares to lay claim to a specific, risky hope. She says to Jesus, “Even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” That’s not a theoretical hope. That’s Martha putting her trust in her friend, who has the power to live up to that trust, or to disappoint her. She’s putting her trust in someone who has already failed to meet her expectations, so she’s cautious about expressing it.
But Jesus draws her out by making an amazing claim about himself: “I am the resurrection and the life,” he says. In me, resurrection is now, resurrection is here, not locked away in heaven, not kept out of sight in some theoretical future. “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live,” Jesus says. And then he fixes her with an unavoidable question: “Do you believe this?” And with a leap of faith the words tumble out of her. The English translation we have doesn’t do justice to the rock-solid affirmation in Martha’s words, which mean something like this: “Yes, Lord. I not only believe, but I have placed my trust, I have grounded my life, in the reality that you are the Messiah, the Son of God who is coming into the world.”
Jesus’ claim on us is not an invitation to hope for pie in the sky. What he asks of us is to ground ourselves in the reality of resurrection which exists wherever he is. I am the resurrection and the life, he says, do you believe it?
I knew someone who believed it. This was a woman who worried about so many things, about her family, about her health. She worried about traveling to city neighborhoods where you could see all kinds of interesting characters on the streets. But when we put Christmas gifts in her hands for some of the children who lived in those neighborhoods, children whose parents were in prison, she went to those neighborhoods. You can do things you didn’t think you could do, you can overcome fears bigger than you are, when Jesus goes there with you, when you step out onto the risky ground of his identity as the resurrection and the life, here an now.
“I am the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this?” With these words Jesus reaches out across the gap from death to new life. He reaches into our tomb of cynicism and resignation, and he opens a way out.
“Unbind him, and let him go,” Jesus says. It’s not enough for Jesus to open the tomb and call Lazarus out. The fetters and blinders that death attached to him have got to be stripped away, if he’s going to live again. The accommodations we have made, because we can’t see any other way to be, have to go. The unacceptable things we’ve come to accept have to be untied.
Going back to the aftermath of what happened this week in Parkland, Florida, I was jolted out of my resignation by something Emma Gonzalez, one of the Douglass High students, a survivor of the attack, said. She excoriated the adults, politicians and the rest of us, for allowing this attack to take place, through our inaction and our acceptance of the political and cultural realities that make gun violence so horrifyingly routine. But then she took up the cause herself, on behalf of her classmates. Listen to the fearlessness and passion in her words, and try to remember that this is a 17-year-old kid speaking off the cuff:
“I watched an interview this morning and noticed that one of the questions was, do you think your children will have to go through other school shooter drills? And our response is that our neighbors will not have to go through other school shooter drills. When we've had our say with the government -- and maybe the adults have gotten used to saying 'it is what it is,' but if us students have learned anything, it's that if you don't study, you will fail. And in this case if you actively do nothing, people continually end up dead, so it's time to start doing something.
“We are going to be the kids you read about in textbooks. Not because we're going to be another statistic about mass shooting in America, but because… we are going to be the last mass shooting. … [W]e are going to change the law.”2
This is the voice of someone who has been in the tomb and out the other side, someone unbound from the restraints of death and apathy and resignation. “Unbind him, unbind her,” Jesus says, “and let them go!”
If a kid like Emma can muster this much passion to bring her country to reckon with itself, what’s our excuse? What are the aching wounds in our lives, in our relationships, in our communities, that we’ve learned to accept when we should be fighting for all we’re worth to heal? Where is Jesus calling you to step out in trust that in him the reality of resurrection and new life is here and now?
Jesus’ voice is calling us out of our tombs. He’s calling us out of the tight, confining spaces carved out for us by our cynicism and resignation. “Lazarus, come out!” he says. “My beloved brothers and sisters, come out! Unbind them, release them from their sin, from their sloth and indifference, from death and all its power to frighten and ensnare. Come out and believe! Come out and live!”
May you hear, believe, and be raised to new life today. Amen.
Philip Bump, “Eighteen Years of Gun Violence.” Washington Post. 14 Feb 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/politics/wp/2018/02/14/eighteen-years-of-gun-violence-in-u-s-schools-mapped/. Accessed 2/16/2018.
Emma Gonzalez, quoted in “Florida student Emma Gonzalez to lawmakers and gun advocates: 'We call BS'.” CNN.com. 17 Feb 2018. https://www.cnn.com/2018/02/17/us/florida-student-emma-gonzalez-speech/index.html. Accessed 2/17/2018.