Albuquerque, New Mexico
Sunday April 10, 2011 Lent 5A
Text: John 11: 1-45 Lazarus
Theme: Love’s Procrastination
Jesus is summoned with the words, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” From the very word go this story turns on affection. Love will bring Jesus to Lazarus. Love beckons in the voices of the sisters. But there is also fear in this story. Fear that may send chills down your spine or recall you to difficult memories. Each of us has a connection with this strange story. We know the fear and the ache of hearing that someone we love has been admitted to the hospital or has been diagnosed with an illness. “The one whom you love is ill.”
From the passage we learn that Jesus loved the whole family, and yet when he received the news of Lazarus’ illness he does not drop everything and hustle off to Bethany. No, Jesus lingers for two more days before setting out for Judea where his friend’s home was. Why this procrastination? Certainly none of us have procrastinating types in our lives? One reason may have been that Jesus was not especially welcome in Judea. The religious authorities were after him and his disciples were worried that he would be arrested and killed if he dared to travel close to Jerusalem. Yet eventually Jesus chooses to go, his love for his friend overcoming the danger of the trip. So Love’s procrastination propels the story forward.
Sadly when Jesus nears Bethany he learns that he is too late. His friend Lazarus had died and has been in the tomb for 4 days. Upon his arrival Jesus is met by Martha, one of the sisters, who says “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” There is a quiet confidence in these words. They are not full of anger or bitterness or resentment that Jesus did not drop everything and come immediately. There is a simple acknowledgement that their brother’s death was unexpected and tragic but at the same time she feels that Jesus’ life force and the mysterious power that resided within him would have changed things, if only he had been there.
In the midst of this strange story, the writer of John offers a crucial theological point that is the commentary for this culminating “sign” in John’s Gospel. Jesus engages Martha in discussion about the nature of resurrection, and proclaims one of the I am statements this Gospel is noted for, “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.
Mary’s arrival takes this story out of the head and into the heart of all those involved. Jesus is himself greatly disturbed and deeply moved by the weeping of Mary and others. As Jesus begins to seek out the place of Lazarus’ burial he too begins to weep. Jesus is deeply moved as the text tells us. But the Greek word here is note-worthy as it implies that Jesus was not only moved but angry, full of righteous wrath, and ready to act. Why is Jesus so disturbed? At whom or what is he angry?
We are not given an explanation but perhaps Jesus’ tears were for the whole world. Perhaps his anger was for the cruelty of death, that stalks all, takes some violently, snuffs out lives too soon, leaves such big holes, causes such suffering. To be sure he wept for his friends Martha and Mary in their loss. He wept for his friend Lazarus, decaying in the grave. But Jesus wept for more than that. He wept for the frailty of life, and the crazy unfair way of death’s dark dealing. Like the granddaughter of one of our members whose life ended last month by an overdose of heroin, or the constant news of bodies pilling up in new global killing fields of Juarez or the incredible loss of life in Japan. More than likely Jesus’ wept because he knew that there was so much more to the story than those in front of him seemed to understand. There was so much fear in their eyes, such a resignation toward death. Perhaps he wept because so few seemed to understand what he was about, so few seemed to believe in what they had seen already. Perhaps it was the sadness of abundant life meeting the ordinary limits we humans are all tempted to settle for.
But in the midst of his tears and sorrow Jesus found his center and felt the quickening of the Spirit within him. There was life in him, a wild kind of life that needed to be let loose. There was a life in him that reached out to say there is more, more than you might believe, more, than you can even hope.
Approaching the tomb Jesus commanded that the stone be rolled away despite the protestations of the truly reasonable. Jesus filled the air and bodies around him with prayer until they crackled and buzzed with the glory of God, and uttered the fearsome call, “Lazarus, come out.” There was a trembling of the earth, the sound of wings and rushing air, and cries and moaning from within.
His beloved friend, Lazarus, a dead man was walking again, drinking in air, stumbling on weakened limbs, searching for answers to too many questions at once. People were shouting and crying and shrieking and running and feinting. Jesus’ voice pierced through the noise, “Unbind him and let him go.”
What does one do when one is brought back to life? One of the problems with this story is that we never find out how Lazarus responded to love’s procrastination. He is the recipient of one of Jesus’ biggest miracles and then he drops out of view. Lazarus is snatched from the stench of death and is never heard from again. No one asks him what it was like to be dead? I would have liked to be in on that interview. Or what his plans are now that he is once again alive. We’ll never know, or will we?
To be sure things like this don’t happen every day in Albuquerque. It would be easy to allow our skepticism to ruin this story altogether. We are moderns and miracles just don’t happen, we’ve seen our friends suffer with disease despite our heartfelt prayers. Jesus may be the resurrection and the life but we still fear death like hell.
The trouble is that the more you hang around people who are attracted not only to the Jesus of History but to the Christ of faith, the more weird miracle-like things you find happening. The more new life seems to be the order of the day. The more resurrection reveals itself in the lives of Christ’s disciples. Oh, to be sure, there is the tendency among the educated faithful to disregard “signs” even when they stand out against the ordinariness of life. Our interpretive machinery begins to whirl and clank and we historicize, or we psychologize, we defend ourselves against the uncanny, the unusual, and the unfamiliar. What’s dead should stay dead, that is the way the world works.
When Jesus shouts, “Unbind him! Let him go!” he is not only shouting to dead Lazarus, he is shouting loud enough to be heard even by us, listening in on the scene. He is shouting to a dead man but also to every dying person, including us. Jesus’ words are not just ancient history, they are a promise for us today as well.
We are all of us Lazarus. Oh we may not be dead yet, but we are headed there and some of us are in more of a hurry than others. What of death binds us, controls us or confines us? What part of our life needs to be made new? The truth is that like the line of a T.S. Elliott poem we are all “living and partly living.”
The point of this strange pre-Easter story is that Jesus loves Lazarus enough, loves life enough to call Lazarus back into it. In essence Jesus is saying, I’m Lord of Life not Lord of Death. The everlasting life that I bring is found where people are willing to embrace life, to choose the path that leads to life. Recently I had a privilege of listening to someone embrace the 5th step in the 12-step spiritual process in which a person takes a comprehensive look at their life and where they have been consistently choosing death. It was an amazing experience for me, but what was more amazing was the sense of new life I sensed in the room, doors were opening in front of the person who was willing to tell the truth about his past, his unhealthy patterns, and his addictions. It was one of the most spiritually affirming life honoring moments I’ve ever been a part of in my life, watching someone choose the path of life right in front of me.
For many of us death is an article of faith, functionally we believe: there are no second chances, you can’t teach a old dog new tricks, people don’t change, I had no other options that is all I could do, I like things just the way they are, or I simply cannot face the pain and uncertainty of new life. We are hooked, addicted, stuck, bound, lost and fearful. We have all kinds of names for these tombs we inhabit: substance abuse, bad habits, burn-out, cynicism, apathy, egoism, life-long patterns, depression, intellectual pride, abject fear – but these are really the facts of death. As Lent sharpens into Holy Week, Love’s procrastination in the story of Lazarus offers each of us a way forward into newness of life. Is it possible to pray of ourselves or of our friends, “Lord if you had been here, our brother or sister would not have died?”
Into the midst of our lives, into the midst of this community Jesus confidently strides and commands “Come out,” “Unbind her. Let her go!” Love’s procrastination is near at hand. It is just waiting for us to admit our need of it. The truth of the matter is that Jesus is in the resurrection business. He joys in surprising and shocking this dying world with new life. One does not need to wait for Easter, for Jesus is the Lord of life from the beginning of time. He comes with resurrection in his fingertips, his heart open, and his eyes alive with compassion.
I wonder if we are willing to allow the ways of Jesus to surprise us into new life? Are we too consumed with our fear of death, our old ways, our known patterns that we can’t allow Love’s procrastination to come in to our lives. Sometimes love has to wait until we really sense that we have faced death, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” Love’s procrastination is ready, ready to call us out of our tombs if we can but roll the stone away from the door and expose our need. What are we waiting for? Or is God waiting for us?
On the edge of the village, among the tombs, in the midst of St. Michael’s on Montaño Jesus is crying with a loud voice, “Lazarus come out.” The air crackles. The earth trembles…Love’s procrastination is never too late.