by Joan L. Beck
Cornelsen Director of Spiritual Formation and Pastor to the Community
Get us out of those tombs; give us life. Amen.
Emily Dickinson has a line in a poem: “Love is the fellow [the partner] of the resurrection,/ scooping up the dust and chanting, ‘Live!’”
That’s what Jesus is doing in Bethany. He is Love. He is scooping up the dust and chanting “Live!” We hear that Jesus loves all of them—Martha, Mary, Lazarus—and with each of them Jesus is scooping up the dust and chanting, “Live!” There isn’t just one resurrection in Bethany this day, there are three. Jesus stands outside of three tombs summoning each of them to, “Come out!” Jesus raises three people: And if those three, why not you and me?
The first one he raises is Martha, sister of the dead man Lazarus. She is dead in a prison of tormented thoughts. When Jesus arrives she half laments and half accuses, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” ‘Lord, we sent a message to you. Lord, where were you? Lord, what took you so long? Lord, what good are you?’ It’s like she’s standing in a disaster area after the tsunami has passed, after the IED has exploded, after the cancer diagnosis has been given, after the failing grade has been recorded on the official transcript.
Jesus stands at the door of Martha’s mind and calls her to “Come out!” And she does. It happens when Jesus asks her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this?” And she answers, “Yes, Lord.”
Martha says, “Yes, Lord. You are the Messiah God has sent, you are God’s own son, and you are the one coming into the world.” ‘The one coming even now, not at the end of time, but right now, into MY world, for me.’ With a clear and affirmative YES to Jesus as the resurrection and the life, the church is ready to confront the powers of death in this world. Martha is so enlivened that she goes and tells. She evangelizes her sister Mary, “The Teacher is here and he is calling for you!”
Through the generations from Mary to you and me, the Teacher keeps calling for us. ‘Ken and Elaine’ were members of my congregation. I went to their home to talk about Sunday School because they had two children. By the time they had a third child, ‘Ken’ had grasped that he was gay. He decided to leave the marriage so he could live in a way more true to himself. We came to understand that Jesus stood at the door of the tomb where ‘Ken’ as was buried in a false self and Jesus called him, literally, to come out! This truth was for him resurrection and life.
Yet it broke the heart of his wife ‘Elaine’, who affirmed bravely that her beloved must follow his heart, yet struggled to accept the consequences that she had not chosen for herself. She went back to school to get her undergraduate degree. Yet she also cried and cried and fell into depression.
But Jesus also raises Mary, the other sister of the dead man, the broken-hearted one. Jesus stands at the door of her heart and walks with her into her pain. The first words out of her mouth: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” And after that there is just inconsolable weeping. The people with her are also weeping. Soon Jesus himself is weeping, distressed, bothered, upset. He is one of us. He is here. He does not run from our grief and pain and lostness and anger, but walks with us in it, and into it. He takes on our death so as to lend us his life.
He takes on our death so that we can receive him as our life and resurrection. Isn’t that the meaning of the cross? Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows and died our deaths so that he might change our lives by his Spirit. That’s what he does now with Mary, what he did with our parishioner ‘Elaine’. Jesus stands at the door of her broken and failed heart and says, Come out! ‘Come with me to the place where you have laid him, where you have had to lay down your loved ones, your dreams, your hope, your joy in life, because of death, because of violence, because of divorce or racism or ruin. Come with me to the graves of everything dead in your self and your life and your world. I am the resurrection and the life. Do you believe it? Then, take me to your tombs and open them with me; let’s see what I can do’
And then of course there is Lazarus, the dead man himself. Lazarus lies in that tomb four days’ dead and, his sister presumes, stinking. He is beyond help and hope. Isn’t he? Can the people who have come from the capital city of Jerusalem help him? Can the government help him? Can his credit care or his insurance or his pension plan help him? Not even his loving and devoted family can help him any more.
But Jesus can help him. (Lazarus’ name means, “God is my helper.”) And so Jesus stands at the door of Lazarus’s tomb and calls in a voice of authority, “Come out!” It is the same voice that said at creation, “Let there be light!” and there was light. It is the voice that declared in prophet Ezekiel’s time, “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live,” and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. It is that voice that is still speaking in Jesus now, and dead man Lazarus recognizes the voice of his Good Shepherd, arises, and comes out alive.
And Martha and Mary, so recently raised, are told along with the whole community that they must help this one newly born from the dead. According to an unforgettable line I once heard in a sermon, Jesus says, “I raise ‘em. You unwrap ‘em.” It takes the village of faith, the church, to help anyone and everyone raised by Christ to become free of the bonds of deathliness that have been wound around us in the graves of the world. And there are as many graves in our world as there are potholes in the streets of Chicago. We need each other’s help to give us strength, endurance, patience. We need each other’s help to eradicate violence from our personal and social practices. We need each other’s help to eliminate contempt and prejudice. We need each other’s help to forgive instead of accuse. We need each other’s help to stand together instead of to divide into factions and fight. We need each other’s help to walk gently on the earth.
The people Jesus has raised surround us. Mike S__, watchperson at LSTC, called me last weekend to tell me about the 8 year old son of his friends ‘Ward and Stacy’. The little boy, ‘Ned’, was scheduled to have 14 hours of surgery Sunday at the University of Chicago to remove a brain tumor. The tumor might not be cancerous, but it still needed to be removed. And Mike was broken hearted and afraid for his friends. Discouraged because he’d just gotten over worrying about his brother-in-law who almost died from a blood clot that developed after back surgery.
I told him how Jesus said, “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.” ‘Even if the boy dies, he will live. Just as surely as he is alive right now, he can never die. Think about this with me, Mike. Do you believe this?’ Mike said, “Yes, because the Lord is with him either way, no matter what.” With that faith, Mike was planning to walk over the hospital on Sunday and just sit there to be with his friends as they waited out the surgery.
Our Jesus is a grave robber. I don’t mean the kind that goes down into tombs to loot them for the gold and jewels they may contain. I mean the kind of grave robber who empties tombs of their most elemental treasure, the dead--who strips tombs of their very reason to exist. Jesus goes down into tombs to liberate the dead. Because we are his dead whom he loves, the ones for whom he gives his life, the ones to whom he now gives his Spirit.
Listen this morning. He is standing at the doors of our tombs under the bread and the wine, calling with authority, “Come out and live!”
He is Love, getting his hands dirty in our lives, scooping up the dust and chanting, “Live.”
Do you believe this?
Bonus story: ‘Kit’ and her partner ‘Linda’ have a grandson who lives with them. That boy vandalized the Sunday school rooms by pouring paint on the floor. He stole his counselor’s cell phone at camp. He stole money from the free-will offering basket on the table at potlucks. On the brink of high school, he could barely read. Then after his father moved back into town and had the boy live with him, the father coached the boy to sexually molest his half-sister. The father was put away in prison, the son in juvenile detention. The boy came home from detention center to live with his grandmothers again. He was sent to a locked-down school and found a girlfriend. The girlfriend crawled in his bedroom window one night. His grandmothers found them together in bed. They also found out that the girlfriend is HIV-positive. At that point I left town to move here.
Jesus said, “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?”
The grandmothers’ answer was, ‘Yes, we believe it. We need to. We are never going to survive the risks our grandson takes unless we can trust that Jesus can give life to people who are dead-scared. And if our kid doesn’t survive the risks he takes—we need to know that there is life beyond life.”