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Encounters with Jesus: The Way Through Now
John 11:1-45…Lent 5A…March 29, 2020
Rev. Deb Mechler
How are you doing today? I wonder what it is like in each of your lives, waking up to the reality of either being quarantined at home or facing the risks of being out in public. So many things are uncertain, but we know we are going through a historic moment we will remember decades from now.
They say there are only two things that are certain: death and taxes. As believers we feel certain about a few more things than that, but death definitely qualifies. Death is the subject of today’s gospel, at least at first glance.
Mary and Martha were going through the rituals of their brother’s death. These three were Jesus’ good friends; we remember Jesus visiting them before, when Martha gets pegged as the fussy one in contrast to her sister Mary, the quiet one who preferred talking with Jesus to making supper. But all that is overshadowed now by the loss of their brother.
Jesus waited before he went to them. We get an explanation, that it would shine the spotlight on God’s glory. But that explanation feels unsatisfactory, harsh even, when Jesus could have gone immediately and prevented the death altogether. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of, well, resurrection.
This a highly emotional story, like any moment of grief. Of course Lazarus’ sisters are bereft. There are other mourners there to share their sadness. Martha—never one to hold back—voices her disappointment that Jesus didn’t come sooner.
Why didn’t he? The account is very specific: Jesus waited until his friend had been dead a few days before he showed up. So Martha and Mary had to watch it happen, to feel helpless as their beloved brother slipped away from them. Martha, who was always in control, couldn’t orchestrate this one. Death is the thief that steals the order and predictability of our lives, not to mention the company of those we love. Lazarus was gone.
Lazarus…His playfulness that took some coaxing to see. His plodding faithfulness at his work and his sweat-stained clothes hanging from his frame. His hunger was satisfied day after day by Martha’s own faithfulness served up as fragrant stew on their modest table. No more brother to feed, to tease, to rely on. They mourned. You know what it’s like.
Martha met Jesus on the road and told Jesus how disappointed she was. Jesus reassured her that all was not lost. Martha went to fetch Mary, leaving Jesus and his disciples to continue making their way to Bethany. Maybe it was one of the hardest things he ever did, because once Mary reached him, and the mourners who tagged along, he couldn’t hold in his grief any more. He let the tears flow. Jesus was upset too.
We love how the story continues, because once Jesus gets to the tomb, he calls Lazarus to come out and issues orders to replace his grave clothes with his regular clothes that were a lot less pungent.
It is a helpful story in these times of uncertainty and fear.
By now you have heard people say—maybe even observed for yourself—that this crisis has its bright side. It is evoking many acts of kindness and words of encouragement. It is breaking down global boundaries and forcing members of Congress to cooperate. It is bringing people together. We are taking a look at the way things have been operating and realizing it wasn’t sustainable. Our deepest values are being dusted off and appreciated.
I know it isn’t all great. We are seeing plenty of blame and greed too, but that is nothing new.
The world is being shaken up. As people of faith, we can see this as a gift.
It probably doesn’t feel like that, but it is. It is one of those gifts that does not come without a little pain. Think surgery: a chance to be healed, but you have to go through some pain to get there.
How long have we complained that we are too busy, that we are missing out on cultivating deep relationships, that our culture is too shallow and focused on material things? We say it with resignation, as though it is inevitable, and we are helpless to change it. We feel our cultural weakness deep down, but the culture itself tells us to buy more, do more in order to feel better. Instead we feel even more helpless.
Changing a culture is virtually impossible…unless it goes through a crisis. May this be the disruption that will help us to push the reset button. Wouldn’t it be great if we would refuse to return to the way things were and insist on a slower pace, more care for the vulnerable, more compassion in our public life?
Let me put it in more spiritual terms. Religion has two important functions. Number one: it translates. It offers us a way of translating the world around us in order to give our lives more meaning. That is generally what I try to do in my weekly sermons, and what we are up to in Sunday School, LYO, Bible studies, and so on.
The second function is transformation, which is what Jesus was up to, big time. “Those who find their life will lose it,” Jesus said, “and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matt. 10:39) Paul picked up the them in Romans 12: “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” (Rom 12:2a)
Transformation is not about comfort or good intentions. Transformation dismantles us.[i] Recovering addicts with any success could tell you that. We don’t just tweak our routines a bit and add a dash of color here and there to accomplish substantial, necessary change. Without a big shakeup, we will never get to the changes we all long to see. But it’s painful, and scary.
On one of our trips to the Caribbean, my husband and I were invited on an outing that had us boarding a small yacht. It would take us from the island of St. Thomas to St. John. As landlubbers, we teetered our way up the plank and picked our way to our seats along the side. Once we got underway, a stiff wind filled the sail and we found ourselves leaning far back, riding the upper edge of a vessel tipped at a 45 degree angle. I was terrified! But the captain assured me he had never scuttled his boat, and he would get us where we wanted to go. I had to hang on for the ride.
And so do we right now. We don’t like it. It is uncomfortable, and scary. But it will take us to a new place, where we will be changed. Our captain—our God—will get us where we need to go.
What kind of change is there in the story of the resurrection of Lazarus? I wonder if we get a clue in Martha’s conversation with Jesus. Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Not, “I can bring people who are dead back to life,” even though that is what he did. He said, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
Jesus said virtually the same thing in the previous two stories in John’s gospel this spring. Remember the woman at the well in John 4? She said that the Messiah would come and set everything straight. “You’re looking at him,” Jesus said. And then Jesus asking the man born blind in John 9 whether he believed in the Son of Man. “Sure, I guess so. Tell me where he is,” the man replied. And again Jesus revealing, “You’re talking to him.”
What if our focus as Christians has been in the wrong place? Do we respond as Martha did to Jesus? “Well, yes, I believe that you will raise us to life in heaven.” Someday.
No, Jesus says. Resurrection and life are about today, with me. Don’t be so focused on the hereafter that you forget what you are here for right now. You are meant to live today in all the fullness of life I have to give you. I am here. So are you. Let’s be here, now, together.
When I was a nursing home chaplain, I learned from people who were masters at this. Think about it. In some ways, we are dealing with the same reality that those residents do. They have very little control. Check. They have to pay attention to what matters most. Check. They have to deal with the fact that they are going to die sooner or later. Check!
These are realities that have been true all of our lives, but we don’t want to accept them. We find all kinds of ways to distract ourselves from thinking about them. But our usual distractions are not working right now. Many of them are not even available to us.
It is said fairly often: we have to live in the present. It’s become almost trite. Could it be that Jesus was asking us to do that? Don’t be anxious about tomorrow. You are forgiven for the mistakes and sins of the past. Pay attention to what is in front of you today, and that reality includes me, Jesus says. I am here for you, ready to bring life out of the dead parts of your life.
Maybe Jesus didn’t come flying to the rescue to keep Lazarus from dying because he wanted to show us the way through the really hard times of grief, or confusion, or whatever hard things we all have to deal with. He can truly bring life in the midst of it, even death itself.
Greg Boyle is a priest who has been working with the gangs of Los Angeles for decades. He established Homeboy Industries that provides jobs and rehabilitation for former gang members. He doesn’t sugar coat it; it is hard. But he finds that love shown through tenderness reaches and changes the lives of those who are willing to do the hard work of it. His young friends teach him a lot about life, and he tells their stories in his books.
He tells about Fabian, a 17-year-old with plenty on his plate, with a young wife and child to care for while serving probation for his past gang activities. He remembered a sermon Father Boyle gave about Jesus hanging on the cross and telling one of the thieves, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Fabian had his own version of it.
“After a few months of being with Homeboy, Fabian stops in and plunks himself down in my office, telling me he has had a ‘Paradise sighting.’
“‘Yesterday,’ he begins, ‘I was tooken on a ride by God to Paradise.’
“‘Wow,’ I say to him, ‘I’m all ears. You had me at “tooken.”’
“ ‘Well, I drove my lady in my tore-up bucket to drop off an assignment at her school. We fought the whole…time. Petty [stuff]. But we didn’t stop. The whole time. She gets out and drops off this thing, gets back in the car, and we fight all the way home. Constant. Nonstop. Gatos y perros. Small stuff…that don’t matter. Then this noise comes from the hood and smoke starts to pour out. I get off the freeway and pull into this Shell station. My [engine] dies as I pull in. I had to push it the rest of the way. I called the [garage] and it took three hours for the tow truck to arrive.’ He pauses in his narrative long enough to smile with the tenderness of the memory. ‘Paradise,’ he says simply, and nods.
“He’s lost me here.
“ ‘See, G, for three hours we talked. We decided not to fight. We told each other how grateful we are to have each other in our lives. I mean…where would we be if we didn’t have each other. We just talked.’ The smile broadens and gets fixed there.
“ ‘Yeah,’ he says, ‘Paradise.’”[ii]
Jesus doesn’t rescue us out of the present moment just because it’s hard. He cries with us as he did with his friends Mary and Martha. And he goes through it with us. Yes, he resurrected Lazarus, but he never did these miracles to prove his power to defy physics and biology. He always did them to make God’s love real in the moment. It is what he can do for us, with us.
Sometimes that means we are the hands and feet of Jesus for the people we are with. There are plenty of chances to do that these days. But now is all we have, right? And the invitation from God is always to live into the fullness of life, to receive and give love, right where we are. I think that is why God asks for all of us, not just bits and pieces and a nod on Sundays. God wants us to live awash in the reality of deep, eternal, forgiving love with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.
While we are unable to share the sacrament of the table right now, we are able to celebrate the sacrament of the present moment. After all, we believe that Jesus is present in, with, and under the bread and cup just as surely as he is present in all things. Which means God is fully present to us whether we are sleeping, eating breakfast, repairing equipment, or changing a diaper.
Boyle says it this way: “To practice the sacrament of sacred presence is to be Jesus, and to see Jesus. It’s all right in front of us, here and now…Certainly, if we live in the past, we will be depressed. If we live in the future, we are guaranteed anxiety. Now is always vast and new. Like any practice, it’s not about technique or program. It’s a decision.”[iii]
When you turn away from this moment with me and back to your work or the walls of your home, you have the gift of being alive right now. You have as much of God right now as you will ever have this side of heaven. You don’t get more when all this is over. God is with you and in you to wake up to the fullness of this day.
Jesus said that the kingdom of God is among us, now.
Boyle gives us a great picture of this. He has to bury lots of gang members who don’t make it out of the cycle of violence soon enough. At one of those funerals he notices a little girl of three or four who is fidgeting while everyone waits for the casket to be put into the hearse. “Her mom reaches into a large bag, takes out a beautiful, ripe pear, and hands it to her daughter. The girl twirls the pear around, observing every part of it—first right side up, then upside down. She considers this pear in the morning sunshine, then asks her dad quietly, ‘How do you open it?’
“It’s a good question. How do we open our hearts and minds to a new way of thinking? How do we open a path toward a transformed life? How can our eyes be opened? One need not have been there to imagine how the father answered his daughter’s question: ‘Take a big ‘ol bite.’”[iv]
[i] Taylor, Barbara Brown, 2014. Learning to Walk in the Dark. (New York, NY: HarperOne), p. 87. Taylor shares the wisdom of Ken Wilber.
[ii] Boyle, Gregory. Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship, 2017. (New York: Simon and Schuster), p. 74-5.
[iii] Ibid., p. 77.