August 22

Come Out!

By Marsh Chapel

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John 11:1744

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Lazarus is dead.  Four days dead in his tomb.  His sisters Martha and Mary and many friends weep, and their greetings to Jesus when he finally arrives also hint of reproach.  From Mary:  “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”.  From Martha:  “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”.  From their friends:   “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”  Even Jesus is greatly disturbed – in the Greek he “snorted in spirit”.  He is deeply moved, and himself begins to weep.  Those standing by assume that his tears are because of the great love he bears Lazarus.  But when he comes to the tomb, again deeply disturbed, he commands the stone to be taken away.  When Martha objects because Lazarus is really dead and by now his body has begun to rot and stink, Jesus reminds her that if she believes she will see the glory of God.  Then when the stone is rolled away, Jesus prays to God loudly enough so that the crowd can hear him. He thanks God that God always hears him, and thanks God now so that the crowd can hear and believe that God hears him.  In a loud voice, Jesus cries “Lazarus, come out!”.  And the dead man, no longer dead but Lazarus, shuffles out of the tomb, still bound in gravecloths, and Jesus tells his family and friends to unbind Lazarus, and let him go.

In John’s Gospel the resurrection of Lazarus is the seventh and climactic sign of Jesus’ life and teaching.  In all seven signs – water into wine, curing of the sick over distance by word alone, living water as newness of life and as revelation of Jesus as sent by God, the multiplication of loaves of bread, walking on the water, and healing the blind man – in all these signs Jesus makes claims about his identity and relation to God, and proves these claims by the seven signs.

But the resurrection of Lazarus is different.  The other signs are relatively straightforward one-time events.  People are healed, water changes into wine, people come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah sent from God, there are many loaves where before there were few, Jesus walks on the water.  But in our text this morning, there are three kinds of resurrection, all centered in Jesus.  One is the resurrection on the last day, which will happen to everyone, because in John, on the last day believers in Jesus who have died will be raised up by Jesus into eternal life, and Jesus’ teachings will judge those who have rejected them.  Another is Jesus himself, as Jesus declares himself to be the resurrection and the life, and states that “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”  In Lazarus’ resurrection, however, resurrection is complicated.  Jesus clearly resurrects Lazarus from the dead – Lazarus was dead and now he is alive and walking amongst his family and friends.  Jesus is clearly the resurrection and the life here:  Lazarus responds to Jesus’ call to “Come out!” from death back into life, when he did not respond to the grief and bereavement of his loving family and friends.  But Lazarus is not resurrected as he would be on the last day, into eternal life.  While his death and resurrection prefigure Jesus’ own, and stand as a witness to the power of God in Christ to bring life out of death, there is no sense of this being a resurrection into immortality, no sense that Lazarus will not come to an end of this earthly life for a final time.  This is more like a healing, where the illness has been physical death, overridden for a time, but still in the wings.  It is a witness to the power of Jesus to bring new life into the most dire and seemingly intractable circumstances, but once Lazarus responds to Jesus’ call, his life remains physical, in a human body, subject to eventual and final earthly death like everyone else.

And, if this is a healing story rather more dramatic than the others, it is still a healing story, and we are once again reminded by Sharon V. Betcher, theologian and disability activist, that the point of the healing stories is not just the healing itself — the point is even more so the point of Jesus’ upending of the political and social realities of the time.

So in our time it is always interesting to note what the compilers of the lectionary leave out.  And this time, what they have left out is that while Lazarus is no longer dead, and is returned to his family and friends, his life now will never be the same, nor will the world around him.

In the gospel prior to our text this morning, we are told that there is great controversy over whether Jesus should be believed or not, signs and teaching notwithstanding.  His disciples question Jesus’ decision to go to Martha and Mary in Bethany in Judea, because the religious authorities there have already tried to stone him.  Thomas even rallies the others with the need to support Jesus with saying “Let us also go to die with him.”  The events after Lazarus’ resurrection are even more dire.  Through the centuries a number of commentators have suggested that Jesus was greatly disturbed, and deeply moved, and wept, because he knew that to call Lazarus out from death into life again might not entirely turn out to be the favor it seems.

Because as resurrected, Lazarus has become a celebrity, a living witness to the power that Jesus has through his relationship to God.  Many come to see him, to hear his testimony, and then they believe in Jesus for themselves.  So many believe that the religious authorities meet to decide what to do about it all.  If Jesus and his signs continue, everyone will believe in him, and they will lose their power and ability to control.  Not only that, but the Romans will come down on them and destroy their religion and holy places, and eventually their nation.  So they decide to put Jesus to death.  Of course the irony here is that the Romans did come down on them and did destroy the holy places and the nation, and Caiaphas’ prophecy that Jesus would die for the people did come true, but the “nation” would be the dispersed believers gathered together through Jesus’ death and unforeseen resurrection.

After the plot against him became known, Jesus goes into hiding in Ephraim for a while, while Lazarus remains in Bethany.  Then Passover arrives, and there is much speculation as people prepare for it in Jerusalem as to whether or not Jesus will actually come.  The religious authorities order that anyone who learns of Jesus’ whereabouts must tell them, so that they can arrest him.  Meanwhile, just before the Passover, Lazarus, Martha, and Mary host a party for Jesus, a dinner, in which Lazarus sits with him at the table, Martha serves, and Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with costly perfume and wipes his feet with her hair.  When Judas Iscariot complains that the money should have been spent on the poor, Jesus tells him that the poor will always be with them, but they will not always have him, and he refers to his own burial.

When the crowds find out that Jesus is at his friends’ house in Bethany, they come not only to see Jesus, but to see Lazarus as well, the living witness to God’s power through Jesus.  Because of Lazarus’ presence and testimony many come to believe in Jesus.  So the religious authorities plan to kill Lazarus as well.  Lazarus’ resurrection is the last and climactic sign of who Jesus is and what he can do, a healing and joy and new life for many.  And, it is the precipitating event toward Lazarus’ renewed life coming under threat, and toward Jesus’ own death at the collusion of religion and Empire, and toward the trauma of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary and the other disciples caused by Jesus’ death.  For while Lazarus’ own life has been renewed and expanded, many of the circumstances and realities of his world have not changed.  His resurrection is only to a renewed and earthly life, so that his resurrection to eternal life remains both present and coming.

We can relate.  We in a sense are like Lazarus.  We are emerging into the call of life once

again, we are alive, and here together live and in person in Marsh Chapel at last.  But only some

of us, because our circumstances and the realities of our world have not changed.

Just as there is more than one type of resurrection, so there is more than one kind of death.  In the purely physical sense of death, so many have died and continue to die in this pandemic.  Many of them have been our own family and friends, some beloved members of this community, and globally our most vulnerable continue to be at risk.  Along with our grief there is reproach, and anger too, at the denial that postponed necessary practices and procedures and allowed variants to develop, at the lack of preparedness, at the inequities in public and private healthcare, and at the selfishness of ideology over scientific fact.  The traumatizing physical deaths we have seen and learned about among marginalized people at the hands of law enforcement and the collusion of religion and Empire reveal as never before the results of injustice over centuries, and our history of conscious and unconscious complicity with evil.  The deaths of our companion animals, plants, birds, and insects in creation, the loss of their gifts, beauty, and wonder due to the wildfires and floods of human-made climate change, call forth our grief and a frightening sense of overwhelm.

There are metaphorical deaths as well.  The short and long-term effects of the Covid and its variants, known and unknown.  The loss of jobs, and the economic threats to food on the table and a roof over our heads.  The challenge of the changes in work that has been or continues to be done remotely.  The loss of privacy and space as we isolated together and made workplaces in our homes.  The loss of physical contact, of making music and dance together, of community rituals and celebrations. The inability to observe the milestones and traditions of human life and death, the lockdowns, the uncertainty of trust – all the deprivations of beloved human and planetary presence and energy, all over too long a time.

Our grief, our losses, our mourning have been great, and our healing calls us to remember them, learn from them, and honor them, so that they will not be forgotten or in vain.

Not that forgetting is likely.  Today is a day that so many of us have looked forward to, and experience as a coming out of isolation, a resurrection of sorts, to be together again, live and in person, to feel each other’s presence and energy, to worship together, to sing together, to recognize God’s face and voice as God and in each other, to feel God’s presence in each other’s presence.  And today is all of that.  And, today is also a day of challenge in dangerous weather, not seen here in thirty years and part of a climate cycle that has never been seen before, that has kept some of our company at home yet again and poses real threats to those of our community in other parts of Massachusetts and New England.  Even as we are called back into earthly life by the love and power of God to bring life out of death through the miracle of the fastest-developed vaccine in history, as with Lazarus our resurrection back into earthly life – while a renewal and expansion of our lives – will still be shaped by the fact that many of the circumstances and realities of our world also have not changed.

We do not know the end of Lazarus’ personal story, or what became of the threats to his life.  But we do know the end of Jesus’s story, and so we know the end of Lazarus’ story as a person of faith, and as we are people of faith we know the end of our stories too.  The author or authors of John write at the end of the Gospel that the things written in it are written so that we may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing we may have life in his name.  And since this is the Gospel of John, this means that the Word of God has taken on human flesh and shares our human life, and has moved into our neighborhood.  God so loved the world that God sent Jesus, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved and flourish through his life, ministry, teaching, death, and resurrection.  Jesus enacts signs of healing, nurture, celebration, and power that prove his identity and his relationship to God.  On the cross he invites his mother to see his beloved disciple as her son, and his beloved disciple to see Jesus’ mother as his mother.  They come to live together as a sign and promise that even in the midst of tribulation and loss, relationships of love, hope, and even joy are possible.  Jesus and his friends have a party in the face of, in spite of, Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, to torture and death.  And through Jesus, whose life of resurrection with us includes his wounds, God’s power of resurrection is brought into the reality of earthly life and becomes available to everyone, resurrection both present and coming.

The story of Lazarus invites us to consider that, in spite of the real physical and metaphorical deaths that we have experienced and grieve, and in spite of the fact that many of our circumstance and realities have not changed, we are alive.  The power of resurrection is loose in the world, and we are invited to join with God and with our companions in faith and with creation to recognize it.  We are invited, as was Lazarus, to witness to its presence and activity in our own lives as we live them.  We are invited to invite others to accept the gifts of hope that the power of resurrection offers.

Even over the last year, we have seen the signs.  The realization that the people we may have ignored in the past have actually been essential to our well-being as they cared for our health, provided food and other necessities, continued to teach our children, and worked quickly and effectively to keep and expand our safety through science and healing, often with great sacrifice and at great risk.  While our lack of mobility was often frustrating, the planet, free from the overload of toxins from extractive industry, began to rejuvenate its air and water and earth.  Many people have used the last months to make changes in their lives, to embark on new work or to learn new skills.  The creativity involved in keeping us connected virtually with people, with art, with music, with drama, and with humor has amazed, nourished, and inspired us.  Movements have arisen all over the country to claim and act for justice for those so long silenced and oppressed.  These are signs of what is possible through the power of resurrection at work in the world, even in the midst of trauma and loss.  And, we are alive.

Our earthly resurrection will be what we make it.  We can start, each of us and all of us together, to recognize and claim God’s resurrection power in our own lives.  Where and with whom or with what has resurrection been specific to us in our own lives over these last months?  Who or what, specifically, has inspired us, kept us going, brought us to laughter?  How do we most want to celebrate our earthly resurrection?  And because, like Lazarus, we have vested interests around us that intend us to stay afraid and overwhelmed and intend things to stay the same and intend to maintain their power and control, what specific changes do we need to make, what specific new skills do we need to learn, what specific new work does God invite us to do toward new life and flourishing for ourselves and for all our neighbors in creation?

Earthly resurrection is complicated.  As he did with Lazarus, Jesus calls us to Come out! of this time with a loud voice, because the call comes surrounded by the swirls of challenge and danger, and often a tomb seems to seduce with its quiet and safety.  But it is no place for us, people of faith.  For willy-nilly, we are alive.  And as in faith we accept our earthly resurrection in this place and time, so we will continue to experience it until we too rise in the resurrection on the last day.


-The Rev. Dr. Victoria Hart Gaskell, Minister for Visitation

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