John 11:1-45 March 10, 2008

by Monica A. Coleman
former Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology

It seemed to come out of nowhere. It was as if one day, he was fine, and the next he wasn't. I mean, it probably wasn't like that, but that's how it felt. We were eating dinner and making plans. Talking about things we were going to do next week. And then before I knew it, he wasn't getting out of bed. I was pressing a cool rag to his forehead and spooning small bits of food into his mouth. I assumed it would pass. I mean, I knew he was sick, but I assumed he would get better. I thought he would be sick, I would take care of him, and after some days, or some weeks, he'd gradually improve. He'd eat more, sit up on his own – you know, without the pillow propping him up – and just get up and walk around the house again. I really thought that's what would happen.

I mean, my brother was the kind of man who seemed invincible. Whenever he set his mind to do something, even if no one thought it was possible, he'd work and work until he did what he said he would do. And he really looked out for us – for me and my sister. He promised mom and dad that, after they died, he would look out for us. And he did. And it was really special to see how he went from being that older brother who teased and taunted us, to my Lazarus. We were regular kids, you know – playing, play-fighting, fighting when we were supposed to be playing. But even then, if I fell, or got hurt, or some bigger kid was bothering me, Lazarus ran to my side to make sure I was okay. I could always depend on him for that.

Over the years, we developed a kind of special bond, Lazarus and me. He understood me. I mean, I really am the kind who cares about the details. Whenever we have guests for dinner, or we cook for Seder or go to temple, I want everything to be just right. I prepare ahead of time; I make lists; I check things off. That's how I am. Totally unlike Mary. I mean, we're sisters and I love her to life, but it's like we come from different families. She's far more contemplative. She moves at a slower pace. She walks slower and talks slower than me. She's the thinker. She cares about big ideas and she has a way of taking things in, turning them around in her mind, and saying something brilliant about it to whoever is listening. Sometimes I wish I could do that; I wish I could be that way. Lazarus always said, "Don't change. God made you to be you." He'd say, "Martha, you have a real gift of hospitality. You open your home and your heart to people. You want them to feel comfortable and loved." You know, no one ever put it that way before. That he could see that, see something I couldn't even see, that means . . . it means the world to me. I felt . . . I kinda felt like his favorite sister.

And you know what. It really wasn't just me. One day I heard say him to the same things to Mary. He said, "Girl, you have a ministry of presence. When you are talking with someone, it's like that person is the only person in the world. You make people feel like they really matter." Now that I think about it, that probably made Mary feel like I feel about Lazarus. Like his world revolved around her too.

So that's probably why it feels like there's a hole in my world.

I mean, it didn't really come out of nowhere. But that's how it felt. Like a punch in the stomach out of the middle of nowhere. It's a kind of pain that makes you double over, but no one can see the bruise. That's what it felt like when Lazarus took his last breath.

Have you ever stared at a dead body? I mean, just looked at it. I sat by the bed next to my brother – like I did when I was little – and I just looked at him. I've heard people say that all the memories from the past scroll through their mind. Not for me. All I could think about was all the things we wouldn't get to do together. We wouldn't go to town every week – fruit stand for me, animal lot for him. We wouldn't sit for another meal. We wouldn't eat figs and lamb . . . He wouldn't see me get married. Or toss his nieces or nephews up in the air – you know the way people do with babies. I wouldn't wash his tunic again. We wouldn't . . . . we wouldn't anything together again. And even through my tears . . . I swore, I swore I saw his chest go up and down and up and down again. But I was wrong. He hadn't moved at all. He was . . . gone. And even though it sounded like I scream in my mind, there was no noise. Just a woman curled up, over a dead body oblivious to everything else around.

I wasn't there forever. On the floor, that is. In fact, I wasn't there long. Mary came in a moment, a second, minutes later. I don't know. But she said she felt it. Inside. She knew that something was wrong and she, we, held each other like we were all we had left in the world.

So much had to be done. We had to let people know. We had to let Jesus know. The last word we sent was that Lazarus was sick. I thought that if Jesus could come, touch him, like he did so many others, he'd be better. Someone had to tell Jesus that . . . that it was too late. That he didn't make it in time. That Lazarus was now dead. And people would come over. I had to start cooking. And prepare to sit Shiva. And get the nard and herbs and cloths. There was so much to do. There was everything to do. So I started doing all those things. I made a list and tried to figure out how, how I at this young age, was supposed to bury my brother.

And just like I knew, people started coming. People who knew and loved Lazarus and Mary and me. It seemed like the food evaporated into the air. I couldn't cook fast enough – even with what the neighborhood women brought to help out. I could hear people telling stories about Lazarus. It always began, "Remember when he . . ." Mary entertained. She was so good at that. She listened and shared her own, and somehow, indescribably made it through each story without crying. She laughed right along with them. Real laughter about Lazarus.

In the middle of this, I heard that Jesus was in town. That he had heard about Lazarus and had come. "Mary, you got this?" I yelled as I rushed out the door. I didn't know what I would say to Jesus. I hadn't planned anything. I didn't want a prayer or a touch or a healing. I just wanted, I just wanted someone who understood me kinda like Lazarus. I just wanted a hug. I just wanted to throw myself in Jesus' arms.

And that's what I did. I blurted out all kinds of things I meant and didn't mean. I demanded to know where he had been and why he didn't come sooner. I pounded on Jesus' chest and demanded to know: "Where have you been? If you had been here, my brother would not have died." Yes, I know that Lazarus will rise, and when it's all over, we're going to put on our robes, tell our stories. We'll be together at the end. And that's a kind of comfort in itself. But that's not the heart of what happened when I saw Jesus. I leaned. I fell. I stopped searching for words and explanations and understandings and words of remembrance or comfort or peace. I put my head in Jesus' lap and wailed.

After awhile, I pulled myself up, wiped my eyes and went home. I had a little more energy for the people. As I entered the room, I leaned over to Mary and whispered: "Jesus is here. I'll stay. You go now." And from what I understand, this was one of those times when Mary and I were the same. We were sisters in blood and spirit and soul. And by the time Mary's grief exploded over Jesus, there was a crowd. And he did with her, what he did with me. He did what any good friend would do: he cried too.

When the story is told, people will say will talk about how stones and barriers are rolled away. They will talk about new life. They will use words like resurrection. They will say that Lazarus is living proof; that he is reason to believe. But that's not the miracle for me. That day, other people got to see the Jesus that Mary and Lazarus and I knew. The Jesus who was human and real. They got to see Jesus not just as the chosen one, the Messiah, the great teacher, the light. They got to see Jesus as a friend. And I think maybe that that's how Jesus wants to be for all of us.


John 11:1-45

Back to top