Conversations that Unbind Us
Sunday, March 29 2020
Fifth Sunday in Lent Year A
Conversations That Unbind Us
God of amazing compassion, lover of our wayward race, you bring to birth a pilgrim people, and call us to be a blessing for ourselves and all the world. We pray for grace to take your generous gift and step with courage on this holy path, confident in the radiant life that is your plan for us, made known and given in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
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 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 for 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 for 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 upwards 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.
All readings for the week:
1. What do you think Martha and Mary were thinking, as they waited for Jesus to arrive?
2. Why do you think Jesus wept?
3. With whom do you identify in this story? How would it have felt to be in the crowd that day?
4. Are we afraid when something truly powerful, truly astonishing, happens?
5. What is the Stillspeaking God saying to us today, in the tears of Jesus?
by Kate Matthews
We are so near to Jerusalem. To Jerusalem, and Calvary, and the cross. In fact, the text says we are “two miles away,” in this place of death and mourning, at the grave and with those who gather nearby, troubled in spirit: the family and friends of Lazarus, including Jesus. And we are, in church time, only two weeks away from the Empty Tomb.
How fitting, then, and how challenging, to read, on this Fifth Sunday of Lent, this text of the raising of Lazarus, set firmly within, even entangled with, the controversy and plots that swirl around Jesus.
There are those in the crowd who see in the words and the works of Jesus–even in the healings–a blasphemy that deserves death. But Jesus claims to be doing the works of “the Father,” so even the worries and warnings of his disciples do not keep him from making his way not only to Lazarus’ tomb, but also to his own place of suffering, death, and, eventually, resurrection.
All done for God’s glory
In fact, the controversy (and notice) this incident brings is part of the plan, Jesus says, because it is all done “for God’s glory.” Frederick Niedner, in his beautiful reflection in the February 26, 2008 issue of Christian Century, explains that, “in John’s Gospel, glory and glorified are code words for the crucifixion,” so Jesus’ “crucifixion is the hour of his glorification.” But first, there is his own, quite understandable grief over the death of his friend.
In this story of the raising of Lazarus, there is so much of the human experience of loss: receiving word of a loved one’s illness and need; decision-making, timing, and complications, even risks and dangers to be considered; frustrations, questioning, and lack of understanding on the part of those closest to us; grief and mourning by loved ones, and the community encircling them, perhaps not all with the purest of intentions.
On the other hand…
However, there is also audacious hope, the profession of faith and a wistful “what might have been”; limited understanding of what we ourselves are saying, of the potential of what we are saying; courage, anger, and weeping; familiar, powerful echoes of other moments in the story we share; “Where have you laid him?” and “Come and see.”
And of course there are the mixed motives and responses, for some saw how much Jesus loved his friend while others, in the face of physical evidence (the tomb), cynically questioned his power and its political effects; the trust of Mary and Martha, even in the face of physical reality (the stench); and finally, most powerfully, release, glory, and Jesus’ own gratitude to God.
From faith and following to fear and fretting
We do not hear a single word from Lazarus or know of his response to his extraordinary experience. But we’re not surprised by the response of the “ordinary” people who witnessed the extraordinary that day: again, a range of reactions, from faith and following to fear and fretting.
If we read just beyond today’s passage, we find the report of those who went to the religious authorities and speculated on the dangers of having such a powerful man “loose” in the midst of the people, people who turned to him in hope.
The raising of Lazarus is not just a nice little story of friendship or an amazing miracle; it is set in the context of the journey to the cross (and the empty tomb). This great work of raising Lazarus from the dead sets things in motion in the hearts and minds of those who feared Jesus, and these things led to his own death. There is a good reason we read it today.
Rise and respond to the call
We hear the words of Jesus, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Again, Frederick Niedner recognizes the baptismal implications: “Like Lazarus, the baptized also rise and respond to the call to head out for some place in space and time where we can give away our lives.”
But Niedner sees us held back and “bound by the old habits that the fear of dying has taught us so well,” just as Lazarus was all wrapped up in grave clothes. Niedner counts on the community, the Body of Christ, which “assists us daily in stripping off the binding remnants of the old life in death’s dominion.”
The feel of those strips of cloth
How many of us have known the feel of those strips of cloth, the grave’s apparel, the shroud that wraps us up in a leaden existence this side of physical death and makes us long for release, for the light of day and the feel of fresh air in our lungs?
What are the “strips of cloth” that bind us, the addictions and fears, and the feelings of hopelessness and loss?
Our own tombs of despair
Perhaps grief, loss, anxiety, financial troubles, hatred, resentment, or a lack of faith has put us in our own tomb of despair. A long time ago, in a far-off land, Jesus stood outside that tomb and called out, “Lazarus, come out!” God is still speaking to us today, calling us out from our tombs of despair, denial, and death to new life, right now, right here.
What are those tombs for you, your family, your community, your church? In what ways do you participate in what God is doing, today, in your midst, when God brings new life in the face of death? How are you “unbinding” and “letting go” those who have been put into such places of death?
What lessons might we be learning in our present situation, this pandemic shared so widely across nations and even continents, let alone across families, neighborhoods and communities? Many people are (necessarily) closed up in their homes, understandably anxious and afraid. What words of freedom might ease their spirits? How do we help to “unbind” one another from anxiety and dread?
Standing by, judging
Perhaps there are some in our midst, standing around and watching, formulating their judgments and deciding what they’ll believe and how much they’ll believe it, or maybe they’re moving to the center of what’s happening, pulling back the “stuff” of death, the things that surround death, and releasing the new life that God has granted, the new life that lies just beneath the surface of what appears bleak and beyond hope.
Perhaps there are some among us who are calculating the costs and the possible unpleasantness of giving ourselves over to the power of God, even, ironically, to healing and new life.
Failed by our religious imaginations
Martha’s great profession of faith–from a woman in the Gospel of John, certainly worth noting–is also an interesting moment in this beautiful and complex story. What does it require for us to move from just saying what we believe to giving our whole selves and our lives over to transformation and the new life that God brings? How often, in fact, do we say we believe, but live as if we do not?
There are places and times, alas, when our religious imagination fails us, stops us, refuses to move us to places of new life and possibility. Often, the world around us tells us about “real life”–and claims that it clashes with the gospel vision of being truly alive. What do we think we need to do in order to “achieve” or “accomplish” new life, as if it were our doing, and not God’s?
The very real tears of Jesus
“Jesus began to weep.” More often than not, we fail to experience Jesus’ humanity. These words strongly suggest that he knew anger, and grief, and deep spiritual pain, just as we do. He was moved to compassion and sadness even as he knew that all this had happened for the glory of God.
Can we imagine the tears of Jesus, and do they transform our understanding of who he is? What is God speaking to us today, in these tears of Jesus?
Where are we in this story?
How and when have we been Lazarus in this story? Perhaps just as important: how and when have we been part of the crowd, which moves around in the background, trying to figure out what’s going on, drawing conclusions, not wanting to miss anything, helping to release the dead man…and then going back to everyday “life,” transformed, believing, experiencing new life–or departing in critical, suspicious, and cynical disblief?
Which crowd will we be in, in just a few weeks?
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles and additional reflections) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection:
Mary Karr, 21st century
“If you live in the dark a long time and the sun comes out, you do not cross into it whistling. There’s an initial uprush of relief at first, then–for me, anyway–a profound dislocation. My old assumptions about how the world works are buried, yet my new ones aren’t yet operational. There’s been a death of sorts, but without a few days in hell, no resurrection is possible.”
Arthur Schopenhauer, 19th century
“Every parting gives a foretaste of death; every coming together again a foretaste of the resurrection.”
Aberjhani, The River of Winged Dreams, 21st century
“Hearts rebuilt from hope resurrect dreams killed by hate.”
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, 19th century
“Life [had] replaced logic.”
Dennis Hopper, 20th century
“In a world where the dead have returned to life, the word ‘trouble’ loses much of its meaning.”
Jorge Luis Borges, 20th century
“It must be that I am not made to be a dead man, but these places and this discussion seem like a dream, and not a dream dreamed by me but by someone else still to be born.”
Voltaire, 18th century
“It is not more surprising to be born twice than once; everything in nature is resurrection.”
Eugene H. Peterson, 21st century
“It is not easy to convey a sense of wonder, let alone resurrection wonder, to another. It’s the very nature of wonder to catch us off guard, to circumvent expectations and assumptions. Wonder can’t be packaged, and it can’t be worked up. It requires some sense of being there and some sense of engagement.”
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