— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
~~~ 5th Sunday in Lent ~~~
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the (Jews) religious authorities were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “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.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “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. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep.
So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
Lillian Smith recalled her childhood morning routines in Rabun County in the early 1900’s at the breakfast table with her mother and father and eight siblings in her little book Memory of a Large Christmas. Lillian Smith was a controversial writer who wrote about racism and gender inequality; her most famous work is the novel Strange Fruit. In Memory of a Large Christmas, however, she writes lovingly about her childhood. She wrote:
We sat down. Our father read briefly from the Bible, closed it, rested his hand on it for a moment as though it gave him strength (and I think it did) then put it back on the shelf. He returned to the table, looked around at his nine, smiled, studied a face now and then as though it was new, beamed at mother, then encouragingly asked for our verses. Each of us then said what we had gleaned from the Bible. The youngest always said, “Jesus wept.” The next one always said, “God is love.” The others were on their own. Verses began with the oldest and came down like a babbling stream to the youngest.
It was usually routine. But there were sudden uprisings. One morning, the six-year-old when his turn came, calmly shouted “Jesus wept!” Silence. A scream from the youngest, “He tant have Thesus wept, he tant it’s mine he tant he tant —” A scream from the four-year-old, “He tant have my Dod is love neider he tant he tant he tant —”
“Sssh …nobody’s going to take your Jesus wept or your G —” He turned to the deviationist. “Why, son,” he asked gravely, “did you say your little sister’s verse?”
“I’m tired,” said son, “…I’m plumb wore out”(Smith, p 8 – 9).
Lillian Smith goes on to talk about how the fifteen-year-old organized everyone to memorize a very juicy passage from The Song of Solomon, but that is a story for another day.
The point here is that for many of us the first verse of Scripture we ever memorized is the shortest in the Bible – Jesus wept. The NRSV of the Bible has taken away some of the brevity with a new translation of John 11:35; it now reads – Jesus began to weep. At any rate, we began our learning of the great story of Jesus by memorizing the tracks of his tears.
And it is a good place to begin and not just because it is short. That Jesus wept reminds us that Jesus was a human being who experienced all the same emotions as we do. Jesus laughed, cried; Jesus questioned “why?” He was angry and fearful. Jesus was tempted, as we often say, in every way as we are. Jesus was a human being who experienced with us the whole range of human emotions. Jesus loved. He was one of us.
In the midst of this COVID 19 outbreak, this crisis in our nation and in our world, well-meaning people will say things that strike me as unhealthy and the outgrowth of a misunderstanding of God and God’s creation and God’s revelation through Jesus. Some will say that Christianity teaches us that we are not allowed to be sad because God is in control of everything. To be sad would show a lack of faith. Another person might say one should never be fearful because God is all-powerful. Another might say that a person should not cry because faith tells us that all the events of the day are part of God’s plan.
While I believe in God’s ultimate sovereignty, and while I believe that there is great comfort to be found in our faith that God is loving and compassionate and that God is with us throughout all of our lives, I do not believe that our faith takes us out of our human emotions. Our emotions, our feelings, along with our capacity for reason and imagination are the things that make us most human. To follow Jesus does not remove us from the ups and downs of life. To follow Jesus does not flatten our emotional range to one feeling only – happiness; rather, to follow Jesus is to discover the beauty and full range of what it means to be human – and to be human means to have a full range of emotions placed within the understandings of our abilities to reason and our abilities to have faith and to be in loving relationships with one another in good and hard times.
In the traditional marriage ceremony one of the vows often used is this –
I promise, before God and these witnesses,
to be your loving husband/wife
in plenty and in want;
in joy and in sorrow;
in sickness and in health;
as long as we both shall live.
There is deep wisdom in these words. To be human and to be in human relationships invites us to find our depth of meaning – not by avoiding pain, suffering, and all human emotions – but by building our relationships within and through all of our emotions and all the ups and downs of living.
Jesus wept. Jesus began to weep because of the strong feelings he had for Mary, Martha, and their brother Lazarus. They were friends. Jesus was sorrowful because this family that he loved was suffering and because of their suffering he was suffering. One of God’s greatest gifts to us is our ability to be in deep, abiding relationships with each other that cannot be shaken by misfortune. It is a powerful and wonderful thing for people to be faithful to each other throughout long years of love and friendship, and it is a wonderful thing for people to enter into the grief of friends hurting because of a death in the family – as Jesus did with the family of Lazarus.
Harold Kushner, in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, writes –
There is a marvelous custom in the Jewish mourning ritual called (se’udat havra’ah) the meal of replenishment. On returning from the cemetery, mourner is not supposed to take food for himself (or to serve others). Other people have to feed him, symbolizing the way the community rallies around him to sustain him and to try to fill the emptiness in his world.
And when the mourner attends services to recite the Mourners’ Kaddish, the prayer recited for a year after a death, he feels the context of a supportive, sympathetic congregation around him. He sees and hears other mourners, bereaved even as he is, and he feels less singled out by adverse fate. He is comforted by their presence, by his being accepted and consoled by the community rather than being shunned as a victim who God has seen fit to punish (pages 120-121).
Jesus wept. In memorizing this verse we are encouraged to be fully present to one another in joy and in sorrow. Jesus exemplified a fully human person who was willing to enter into the joys, the pains, the sorrows of human life and to be faithful in friendship in the midst of it all. Even though Jesus knew that he would raise Lazarus from his sleep, from his first death, Jesus also knew that one day Lazarus would die again. Jesus was also facing his own death. In fact, this miracle of the raising of Lazarus mobilized the opposition to Jesus and made immanent his trial and crucifixion. So, while Jesus brought joy to the family by raising Lazarus from the dead, he knew that life on earth was still fleeting. Jesus taught us that in this life the greatest gift we can give one another is faithful love, friendship, and companionship through all of the seasons of our existence.
Jesus not only embodied the fully human person who is steadfast in friendship and love, Jesus also called us all to trust that death is not the final word about our relationships. The raising of Lazarus was Jesus’ way of showing that there is power stronger than death.
When we as a community stand in the memorial garden to scatter the ashes of a beloved saint, we hear and say together these words…
You only are immortal, the creator and maker of all.
We are mortal, formed of the earth,
and to earth shall we return.
This you ordained when you created us, saying,
“You are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”
All of us go down to the dust;
yet even at the grave we make our song:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
There is a power greater than death,
and in the mean-time
Jesus shares our tears
and invites us to become fully ourselves
by embracing the fullness of our emotions
all the while trusting that we are forever held
in everlasting arms of our faithful God
who loves us for better or for worse.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
An addendum….Priscilla Wilson received the following poem written by a high school friend named Lynn Unger…
What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.
Promise this world your love–
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.
(Lynn Ungar 3/11/20)