A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, March 27, 2011
John 11:1-44 NRSV (read in dialogue)
If you ever get the chance to go to the village of Bethany in Israel and visit the tomb of Lazarus, you take the road from Jerusalem that runs east about two miles. Now, Bethany is an economically depressed, poor little village, so you will know it when you get there. When you get to the center of the village of Bethany, you take a sharp left up a very long, steep hill. The grade of the hill is so steep and long, you wonder if an automobile can climb it at all. And then coming back down again you wonder if the brakes will hold. At any rate, when I visited there it appeared to me that today a local family has ownership of Lazarus’ Tomb (or at least the tomb that tradition says belonged to Lazarus). Perhaps the ownership has passed down through the family from generation to generation. They come out of their house across the road to greet you, and they ask you to pay a few dollars in order to gain entrance. After paying, you are escorted to the entrance of the narrow passageway that leads down several hand-chiseled limestone steps to a hole in the earth that has three or four flat, limestone slabs where bodies once were deposited. As I started down the steps to that dark, damp abode of the dead, I was somewhat reluctant and unsure if I really wanted to go there. Have you ever had that feeling? What would we find there? Would there be bones scattered all about? Would we encounter the stench of death?
Some of the same feelings of reluctance and uncertainly must have been felt by those who gathered in Bethany around Lazarus’ tomb that day long ago as related in today’s reading. Now, there is much discussion among progressive biblical scholars regarding the historicity of this story. Our modern minds tell us that such a thing as raising someone from the dead cannot happen. Cadavers just don’t come back to life after being in the grave for four days. So the inclination for many is to look at this story as just that, a story, but a story that holds a much deeper and much more important meaning for us. But something of significance must have happened in the little village of Bethany. So if you are one who has problems with the story at face value, just for the sake of entering into the story, let’s go along with it—suspending belief, as they say—for the time being at least.
Don’t you wonder what all those friends and neighbors of Mary and Martha must have been thinking when Jesus approached that burial tomb and commanded them to “take away the stone”? Can’t you just see them covering their noses in dreadful anticipation and casting perplexing glances at one another? We can imagine them starting to gracefully take steps backward away from the cave. And how do you suppose they reacted when Jesus cried to a dead man, “Lazarus, come out!”? And how do you suppose all those people went back to their homes that day? Were they changed, transformed, by what they had witnessed? Were their lives given a shot of hope, and did they really see the spiritual truth at the base of it all?
And speaking of the spiritual truth, just what is the spiritual or religious truth that this story holds for us? The key to understanding this story lies in verses 25-26 that are often read at funerals or memorial services, where Jesus says to sister Martha, “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.” The great truth under the story—as seen through the eyes of John the gospel writer—has to do with God’s power over life and death and how that power now has been shared with Jesus. As Gail O’Day puts it, “As the resurrection and the life, Jesus defeats death in the future and in the present. . . . [These verses] offer a vision of life to the believer in which his or her days do not need to be reckoned by the inevitable power of death, but instead by the irrevocable promise of life with God. . . . [These verses] invite the believer to a vision of life in which one remains in the full presence of God during life and after death.”1 And so, on one level this story calls for faith and seeks to be a story of comfort and assurance. If God has given Jesus power over life and death, then we can have the future hope of life after death as well. Just as Jesus is said to have called to Lazarus to “come forth” from the tomb of death, we are encouraged to believe that the same thing is said on our behalf—“Randy, come forth to live again!”
But wait, there is more. This is one of those stories that has several layers of meaning. On another level the story of Lazarus speaks to the tombs that hold us captive on this side of the grave, in the here and now. Many are the tombs that can hold us and diverse are the grave cloths that can bind us. Just as Lazarus was bound up in grave cloths, we can be paralyzed by those things that bind us and keep us from life. Fears and addictions; feelings of hopelessness and aimlessness; anxiety and despair; or the lack of faith or the lack of self-confidence to do what we feel we should do. What are the spiritual, emotional, or psychological strips of cloth that bind us? In what ways are we, like Lazarus, longing for release, longing for the light of day, and for a breath of fresh air? As we struggle with that which binds us, we faintly hear Jesus crying, “Unbind her, and let her go!” Or as the old King James Version puts it, “Loose him, and let him go!” The good news comes to us today, calling us out from our tombs of death and despair to new life, right here, right now.2 And that is really what the season of Lent, as we look toward Easter, is all about—leaving the deadness of our lives, like Spring leaves the deadness of Winter—to take hold of new life.
Sometimes it is hard for us to walk away from those tombs that enslave us. And sometimes it is difficult for us to walk in new life while still bound by those grave cloths that bind us. Thankfully, we have a community of faith to support us. “Unbind him (loose him), and let him go,” was spoken to the community of faith of which Mary, Martha and Lazarus were a part. As Frederick Niedner observes, “Thankfully, we find ourselves in a community . . . which assists us daily in stripping off the binding remnants of the old life in death’s dominion.”3
A question that we are led to ask ourselves is, Once we have been unbound, found release, are we willing to return the favor? Are we one who is ready to jump in to help unbind others who need release? Or, are we one who stands back on the sidelines, backs up from the tombs of life, not wanting to get too close, and let somebody else do the unbinding? As members of the community of faith, the call to each of us is to jump in and do our part in helping others find release in the liberating grace of God and grace of life. This we can do as loving listeners to others who need someone to help them sort out their lives; or as we volunteer in the community via service organizations like being a hospital volunteer, volunteering for the American Red Cross, working at the Ecumenical Storehouse, volunteering at the NHC nursing home, volunteering for CONTACT, going on a mission trip to Nicaragua. The list of ways that we can help give people a new lease on life is endless.
Joy Cowley has written a beautiful poem titled “Lazarus” about this whole experience of how we are called forth from death to new life. Cowley writes,
I don’t intend it to happen.
It just sneaks up on me
and before I know it
there’s been a kind of death,
part of me wrapped in a shroud
and buried in a tomb
while the rest of me stands by
wondering why the light has gone out.
Then you, my Friend, all knowing,
seek me out and knock
at the edge of my heart,
calling me to come forth.
I argue that I can’t.
Death is death and I’m too far gone
for story book miracles.
But you keep on calling,
“Come forth! Come forth!”
and the darkness is pierced
by a shaft of light
as the stone begins to move.
My Friend, I don’t know how you do it
but the tomb has become as bright as day,
as bright as love,
and life has returned.
Look at me!
I’m running out,
dropping bandages all over the place.
Yes, that is exactly what John the gospel writer is trying to get us to see. There is something more powerful than death. The grave clothes that bind us need not have the final say. And today and every day there is a voice that stands outside the tombs that hold us and calls out, “Come forth! Come forth!” Come forth from a state of deadness to the joy of being alive. And then to us collectively, the community of faith to which we belong, the call also comes, “Unbind them and let them go!” Amen.
1New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, vol. IX, p. 694. 2UCC Samuel Lectionary commentary. 3Christian Century, February 26, 2008, p. 21.