One of the lessons our seminary worship and music professor, Dr. Hawkins, hammered into our brains in class was the importance of being ready to receive a funeral procession as it arrived at the church on the day of a funeral. Dr. Hawkins was not ordained, and he understood deeply that the sight of the pastor at the front of the church to a grieving family making their way into the sanctuary with the casket of their loved one was an important gesture of pastoral care. Perhaps because he wasn’t ordained is why he understood this so deeply. He had always been on the receiving end of things like this. It’s why he wanted us, budding young pastors, to take this seriously. When death was involved, when real grief was involved, we needed to be on point. We needed to bring our A-game. If at all possible, he thought, we shouldn’t just be standing at the door of the church, but already in our vestments. The sight of the pastor dressed and ready to face death and people’s brokenness, to Dr. Hawkins’, at least, communicated comfort, communicated compassion right from the outset.
|it's sunny here, but in my mind it is rainy|
And so every time he brought this up, which seemed like every class session, I imagined myself the only place I could—standing in robes at the tippy-top of the front stairs at my home congregation, in the rain, as a long, slow procession of black cars with their headlights on pulled up to the church. There I was, in the right spot at the right time, filling my utmost role as a pastor and someone who was called to speak life into death. It wasn’t until I became a pastor when I realized death and funerals are almost never that choreographed. There is often no procession arriving from the funeral home, people don’t always come through the front door of the church, and nowadays, especially, the time frame for when viewings occur and when all the family arrive is so fluid. It’s almost impossible to know exactly when a worship leader is supposed to be where.
In any case, Dr. Hawkins would have been extremely displeased with Jesus in this morning’s gospel lesson, which tells the last and most dramatic story of Jesus’ ministry before he heads into Jerusalem to die. I mean, talk about not having a clue! Lazarus gets gravely ill, then he dies, then they have a funeral and a procession, and then place him in the tomb, and Jesus is nowhere to be found for any of it! He’s not in Bethany, where Lazarus and his sister’s live, even though he’s told to go there. He’s not at the tomb to be a presence of compassion and caring for the grief-stricken. He’s certainly not in his holy vestments, standing at the top of the staircase in the rain ready to speak hope into the darkness of death. There’s even a point in the story when it sounds like Jesus dilly-dallies a bit. Maybe it’s because he fears for his life as he travels into Judea but he waits two days longer before he starts on his way.
Martha’s and Mary’s searing question to Jesus highlights his absence. She speaks for all of us—doesn’t she?—who have ever found ourselves shocked by sudden loss, who have found ourselves stunned by the cruel timing of death, or the unexpected hospitalization, or the scary diagnosis, and wondering how it all might have gone differently. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
|The Raising of Lazarus (Giotto, 14th century)|
And just look at the scene by Lazarus’ tomb when he does finally arrive: things are out of control!! A whole crowd has gathered, and they’re following Martha and Mary around, weeping as they go. Even Jesus himself seems to get caught up in the emotions of the day. First, we’re told two different times that he becomes disturbed and moved, and then we’re told that he, too, starts to cry. It makes you wonder: perhaps this all could have been prevented—if not Lazarus’ death, then at least the sobbing and open weeping—if Jesus had just made good timing his priority, or if he had been more concerned about communicating his compassion.
The raising of Lazarus, which is what this event is often called, isn’t primarily about Jesus’ timing and preparedness to deal with human tragedy. It’s not about the magical effect brought about by being in the right time and the right place. In fact, it sounds as if Jesus casual approach to Bethany is part of his plan. It’s like he’s late to the scene just so that he can show God’s glory doesn’t work on a time schedule. God is not bossed around by time, as if it’s something he has to deal with or work against, which is how we often feel. Jesus’ raising of Lazarus is a moment when we are given the chance to see that in Christ, God has power over death and sin. It is a point where we are shown that God in Christ is able to overcome the decay and the destruction that confronts every one of us, even after we die!
When Jesus arrives on the scene and Lazarus has already been dead four days, Jesus does not say, “I am the treatment and the cure,” or “I am the prevention and the medicine.” Or, “I am the compassion at the right time.” His words are “I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus isn’t going to just deal with death, hold it off, or stand at the top of the concrete stairs and comfort people in the rain. He’s going to conquer it. And while to us things so much of the time often look like “all is lost,” while we still deal with the grief and the sorrow Jesus has yet given his own life to make sure that grief and sorrow don’t have the final word.
|Raising of Lazarus (Rembrandt, 1620s)|
Lazarus’ tomb is actually getting the disciples ready for what will happen in Jerusalem. That’s why Jesus begins to talk about his own death before he heads there. The world is increasingly hostile to him, but Jesus is going to head into it anyway, and just as he stands at the edge of the tomb after Lazarus has been dead four days, Jesus will go straight into his own death on the cross. He will go straight into his own death to reveal that God is done once and for all with the things that separate us from him and send the living into disarray.
Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in this, those who grasp this by faith, understand that death will not be their final destination. Those who trust in Jesus come to know that our deaths, no matter how sad or tragic, are not the end of us. Jesus will stand on the brink of death and shout, “Come out!” and one day our bones will join together and walk right out.
The news these days reminds us that the world is filled with valleys of dry bones, places where despair and hopelessness reign. And yet we can still trust that God is raising up new life, undoing the decay of the tomb to remind us of the day to come. This week there was the news of the loss of Michael Sharp, a 34-year-old American aid worker who whose body was found in a shallow grave in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Sharp devoted his life to trying to attain peace in one of the worlds longest and bloodiest conflicts, which has been waged for years in the remotest regions of Africa. He started out as part of a Christian missionary team, but his bold an unorthodox way of bringing about peace among the rebels was so successful that he was eventually appointed by the United Nations to lead some of their teams. Like Jesus at Lazarus’ tomb, so confident that dealing openly and honestly with long-festering feelings of decay and anger was the best way forward, Sharp would walk into the dark jungle with each attempt, armed with nothing but his desire to listen and have dialogue with the fighters’ feelings. Before he died, it is estimated that Sharp’s tactics persuaded over 1600 fighters to lay down their weapons and come back out of the jungle, like Lazaruses released from the tomb, unbound from the ways of hatred and violence. Michael Sharp’s death was felt by the international peacekeeping community, but even now we know that God will raise him up in the eternal kingdom he worked so hard to tell others about during his life.
|Emily and other YAGM personnel at Robben Island|
I also heard from our own missionary in Africa this week, Emily Dietrick. Emily grew up as a child of this congregation, and now she is serving as an ELCA Young Adult in Global Mission in a much more serene and peaceful part of Africa, South Africa, but nevertheless a country with its own history of conflict and violence, a history it is still dealing coming to terms with. Last week she visited Robben Island, the notorious tomb-like prison that housed the blacks who spoke out against that country’s racist policies of apartheid prior to 1991. Robben Island’s most famous inmate was Nelson Mandela.
Emily received her tour from a man who served seven years there, a man who was subjected to repeated rounds of torture and interrogation. His crime was leaving and re-entering the country without a valid passport. Emily said that he ended their tour by saying, “There is power in forgiveness.” This man walks even now, out from his tomb of oppression, because he has been summoned forth by the hope of reconciliation even with his enemies, the power of life triumphing over death. There is hope, too, in the presence of congregations who form young people to have faith in the power of Jesus' life so that they can seek out experiences like Emily.
“I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus says. And it appears that through lives like that former prisoner, and those like Michael Sharp, there is faith in Jesus’ power to conquer darkness, evidence that sacrificial love ultimately wins and the world is made new. This resurrection is promised in our baptism, and this life is offered for us now in the bread and the wine.
We often weep, too, like the people at Lazarus’ tomb, our vision of a bright future blurred by our tears, our frustration with the timing of it all, the multitude of dry bones around us. And yet we are also called forth to live in the hope of that future, to know that by the strength of his grace we, too, have the ability to stand in the midst of the world’s suffering…at the edge of the jungle…in the rain, at the top of whatever staircase we can imagine, and announce to those who are just pulling up and don’t know what comes next in their heartbreak: “But even now the Lord is here. Even now he brings new life. Yes, Lord, you know. These bones will live.”
It wouldn’t just make Dr. Hawkins happy. Jesus would be proud.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.