Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
As you’ll see in your bulletin (and perhaps saw in your email this week) we had a whole list of questions we were originally going to talk about during our sermon slot this morning. We were going to use the timing of our annual congregational meeting as an excuse to think together about what it means to be the church, and how we are demonstrating we are the church, here in our neighborhood.
But God had some different timing in mind for us as a congregation this weekend, with a death sneaking up on us more quickly than we’d expected. Judy Flanagan was a treasured longtime member of our MPC choir; she was a dear friend to many of you, and an important part of our church family. So while our original questions may be perfectly good questions, worth considering on a future occasion, they aren’t today’s questions.
As for today’s questions, they may be familiar to you even if you didn’t know Judy. They go something like this: Seriously, Lord, another friend lost to cancer? She fought so hard, God, putting every ounce of energy she had into her treatment. She didn’t want to give in, didn’t have any intention of losing this fight. We thought we’d at least have her with us awhile longer, thought she might rally from this latest setback. We weren’t ready to say goodbye. Some may even be wondering - where are you, God, and why aren’t you getting to work healing people like Judy who are so dear to us?
Today’s gospel text reminds us we are not alone in these kinds of questions.
In fact it interests me that in a story I’ve always heard referred to as ‘the raising of Lazarus’ neither Lazarus himself nor his grand exit from the grave get top billing from the narrator. In fact, “of the forty-four verses that constitute this story, only seven of them take place at Lazarus’ tomb (11:38-44) . . . Jesus’ raising of Lazarus actually occupies a very small part of this story.” As it turns out, the real focus of the chapter is on the series of conversations Jesus has before he raises this man from the dead. And the primary characters that engage Jesus in conversation here in John 11 are Martha and Mary. We would do well to take our cue from the narrator, then, and pause long enough to reflect on the words exchanged between these two women and their dear friend.
First, the telegram from Bethany. “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” The request isn’t exactly made explicit, but the women obviously expect Jesus to intervene. The subtext of the message is clear enough: “do something!”
And how does Jesus respond? At first by doing nothing. He stays right where he is and just offers this cryptic speech about things not being as bad as they appear and this really all being about the glory of God.
I’ll confess this is my least favorite part of the story. But part of what makes me so mad about it is that it does resonate fairly well with my own experience—and perhaps yours as well, if you allow yourself to substitute the name of another patient for the critically ill Lazarus here. Why didn’t Jesus immediately catch the next bus for Bethany and heal his friend? Why doesn’t God always intervene to save the day? Why do some people come back fighting after rounds and rounds of chemotherapy and others don’t? Why do some recover miraculously from crippling injuries and others don’t have that chance?
But if at this point in the story we find ourselves feeling frustrated, confused, even let down by Jesus, we are probably right on track. Remember, we’re watching this all unfold through Mary and Martha’s eyes this time around, and I imagine that’s about how they would have felt by the time Jesus finally came into town.
Let’s turn, then, to the second major part of the conversation, initiated by the sisters’ words: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Each one speaks it from her own perspective, with her own particular concerns.
First Martha, marching out to meet Jesus while her sister stays home, dissolved in tears. So it’s the take-charge, practical sister on whose lips we first hear the words: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” You could have done something about it, says Martha. You should have done something about it. Both complaint and confidence are evident in Martha’s words. She “evokes a Jewish tradition of faithful prayer—lament, which dares to take God by the lapels, as it were, and speak honestly about the pain of human experience. [At the same time] her complaint is intertwined with her faith in Jesus’ power, for she clearly believes that Jesus could have done something about their desperate need had he been there, and even now God will give him whatever he asks.”
Jesus responds to Martha with words of promise that are at first misunderstood: “Your brother will rise again.” She seems to me to receive this with about as much enthusiasm as she would have mustered for that line about God being glorified through her brother’s terminal illness. “Sure, I know about the resurrection on the last day,” she seems to say, “now help me to understand what that has to do with my family, today.” But then Jesus is able to reach her on a deeper level: “It’s about me, Martha. I am the resurrection and the life. Can you believe that?” And Martha responds with this tremendous statement of faith: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” Notice – Jesus stands there and takes her anger, receives her lament, allows her legitimate questions, and then offers her words of promise and hope she can actually hear.
It’s at this point that sister Mary takes center stage, leaving the house too to meet Jesus, and addressing him in the same way: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But if they are the same words, Mary seems to speak them not so much out of anger or frustration as through her tears. “Do you have any idea how awful it’s been?” she seems to ask as she collapses at his feet. “I miss him so much.” And having met Martha where she was, with great theological truths and words of promise, Jesus now meets Mary where she is. Himself “greatly disturbed in spirit” and “deeply moved,” all he says is “where have you laid him?” And then he weeps.
What an important reminder that the biblical God doesn’t sit removed from the world simply observing it from a distance. God doesn’t move us around like so many little pawns on a chessboard, saying in a detached tone, “Hmm. Lost another one.” No! Ours is a God who stands with us, grieves with us, suffers with us when we are in pain. The biblical God weeps over the tragedies of our world.
Finally, of course, the conversation does bring Jesus and the two sisters as far as the tomb. And there, in those final seven verses, Jesus answers their concerns decisively by turning away from them to address others. First the onlookers with a command: “Take away the stone.” And then the dead man himself with a shout: “Lazarus, come out!”
Never mind that the ever-pragmatic Martha, in spite of that great statement of faith back in v. 27, was still concerned about the way the way her brother’s dead body would smell after four days. It’s the “dilemma of all believers,” isn’t it? Can we really “let go of the limits [we place] on what is possible in order to embrace the limitless possibilities offered by Jesus?”
Still Jesus insists: “Lazarus, come out!” And he does! It’s overwhelming. It’s magnificent. But why does it happen for Mary and Martha’s family and not for ours? I’ll bet any of you who have shared this particular Bible story with young children have had to do a bit of fancy footwork about this point – “No, honey, I’m sorry, but that’s not exactly what’s going to happen to Aunt Agnes.” But I’ve got to tell you I’m kind of in there with the kids on this one. How come Jesus of Nazareth doesn’t march onto the scene four days later and invite all of our dear ones to rise up and rejoin our families...
Like many of you, my daughter Alina and I sent a card to Judy last weekend. The one we chose for her said something on the front like “when life gets really hard, I pause for a moment to lie down, take a deep breath, gaze up at a beautiful starry sky…” continuing on the inside … “and I shout, give me a &*#%@$ break!!!”
This wasn’t the kind of break we had in mind for Judy, when we sent that card. “God, maybe you didn’t understand,” I found myself praying as I drove home from the hospital Thursday night. “When I said give her a bleeping break, I meant give her some genuine relief from her pain, give her some good rest, give her a chance to get her life back again. Lord, if you had just been there… Oh, right. But of course you were there. And you heard my prayers and our prayers and Judy’s prayers at a whole different level, and answered them with a break of an entirely different kind.” Genuine relief from pain? Check. Good rest? Check. The gift of her life back? It’s as if God said “I’ll see that well intentioned prayer, and raise you a whole new life in which she won’t have to face another chemo treatment or its ghastly side effects, ever again.” Trading a life that was limited and limiting, for eternal life.
But oh, how we’ll miss her. And that’s where Jesus’ tears are such an important part of this story from John’s gospel, too. He wept, as we weep, over the death of dear friends. He gets it. He knows that even our belief in the resurrection isn’t enough to keep us from hurting when we lose people we love.
And if on any given day your loss or my loss is too big to allow us to believe Jesus’ promises; if your pain should ever be too great even to quite know how to pray, remember that we are in this together. We are part of a community of faith in which others can hold the light for us, for a bit, perhaps even handle the praying for us for awhile, until we can catch our breath, and get our feet back under us again.
We are not alone, as individuals, or even as a whole church family. We are part of a community of believers that has affirmed around the globe, for two millennia, the promise we heard from Jesus today. “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” It’s as if it’s all been telescoped here in John 11. Obviously there’s a substantial gap between the four days these sisters wept for their brother and the length of time most of us will have to grieve before we are reunited. But that gap is filled with hope, because the final scene for each of us will essentially be the same.
I suspect part of the reason today’s gospel story gives us the chills is that when Jesus says “Lazarus, come out!” we can hear off in the distance the names of our own loved ones being called. We believe that one day God will say not only to Judy but to the long list of people you have lost, and I have lost, and our congregation has lost… and ultimately to every entombed one of us: “Rise up! Come out!” Stones will be rolled away right and left. For with God, the impossible has become possible. And the world will never be the same.
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother (my spouse, my parent, my friend) would not have died.”
Ah, but he is here. Always. And death is never the final word.
Heaven knows God’s ways are not our ways, and he may not have answered our prayers for Judy with the outcome we’d hoped for, back when she was first diagnosed. Still, we can be thankful for the break God did give her, in the end, allowing her to transition far more quickly than expected from her earthly suffering to her rightful place in the heavenly choir.
 Gail O’Day, The Women’s Bible Commentary, p. 297.
 Frances Gench, “Women and the Word: Studies in the Gospel of John,” 2000-2001 Horizons Bible Study, Presbyterian Church (USA), p. 35.
 O’Day, WBC, p. 299