Intro to John 11:1-44
Our gospel reading this morning gives us a foreshadowing of Easter Sunday.
Easter is the day we celebrate the event that many Christians and non-Christians alike struggle to understand – the resurrection of Jesus.
Easter is when we’re asked to take a leap of faith and believe that a man who had been dead and buried for 3 days, suddenly sat upright in his tomb and walked out amongst the living.
The author of John’s gospel likely had an inkling that his readers, both current and future, might struggle with this event, so he included a story that introduces us to the idea that being raised from the dead is not only possible, but we don’t have to be divine like Jesus to experience it.
This is the story of Lazarus. The brother of Mary and Martha, and a good friend of Jesus, who fell ill and died – and then was brought back to life for all to see.
This story is loaded with theological under and overtones.
The foreshadowing of Jesus’ own death and resurrection.
The belief that Jesus intentionally waited for his friend to die before visiting him, just so he could miraculously raise him from the dead and glorify God in the process.
The belief that it is this miracle that serves as a capstone to all the other miracles that Jesus performed in John’s gospel – turning water into wine, casting out demons, giving sight to the blind – because it is meant to prove once and for all that Jesus and God are one and the same, because only God has the power to give and restore life.
But lets set theology – and Jesus’ divinity - aside for a moment and listen to this story of Lazarus with an ear tuned to the way our humanity – and Jesus’ humanity – seeps out from between the lines.
The emotions in this story are palpable and run the gamut from anger to fear to grief to joy. It is these emotions that both bind us and set us free, as we contemplate the many ways that we might experience a resurrection in our own life.
The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
April 2, 2017 – Fifth Sunday in Lent
When I was growing up in Long Island, NY, the first sign of spring typically came in early March, when the forsythia bushes would bloom.
In a matter of hours on the first warm spring day, the browns and grays that had dominated the winter landscape would suddenly be joined by bursts of yellow and green.
The tiny forsythia blossoms are shaped like upside down bells, and my siblings and I used to pull a few off the bushes and twirl them up in the air like helicopters, seeing who could make theirs stay airborne the longest.
When I moved 90 miles north to Western CT, I noted the first signs of spring came later on in March, when the marshlands next to our house would come alive with the sound of the spring peepers.
Peepers are tiny frogs that burrow their way under the marshy ground when fall turns into winter, and as the temperatures drop their bodies literally freeze to the point where their life signs barely register.
In the spring, as the ground and air begin to warm around them, the tiny frogs thaw out and experience a resurrection of their own as they emerge and begin singing their familiar mating call.
Five years ago, when we moved farther north to NH, I noticed that the forsythia and the peepers - these first signs of spring – typically don’t appear until mid or even late April.
Which is why I’m still adjusting to looking out the window on April 2nd and seeing a foot of snow on the ground.
Of course in NH, the first sign of spring could be the jogger I saw running down Boston Post Road the other day. She was wearing a wool hat, ski gloves and a tank top and shorts. The ultimate NH spring ensemble.
A friend of mine posted a picture on Facebook yesterday that was captioned NH spring footwear – it was a picture of a pair of flip-flops with ice skate blades on the bottom.
Given the typically late arrival of spring here in New England, it’s right about now that many of us are longing for a resurrection.
We’re longing for the return of vibrant colors and signs of new life in our otherwise dreary world.
Because we’re in tune to the changes of the seasons, we understand the imagery that ties the Easter story of resurrection to the emergence of new life that we see during spring.
We get that things die and come back to life in a new way all the time in the natural world we see around us. It’s called the cycle of life.
Where living things wither and die and return to the ground, to fertilize the soil so new life can grow.
But when we read stories like the raising of Lazarus, we often get caught up in the literal interpretation of the story – Lazarus’ literal emergence from the tomb and return from the dead – only to dismiss it as just another mythical miracle story told by an ancient people who didn’t understand that this is not the way the world works.
People don’t return from the dead. Everyone knows that.
As much as we believe in a God who has the power to raise a mortal being up out of the grave, it’s more likely that this story was meant to be metaphorical – to demonstrate how new life could be found in the ways of Christ, and that each of us is called to leave our old ways – our old lives - behind, and experience a resurrection in spirit – where we begin to see the world with new eyes and live in the world in a new way.
But the problems is, when we reduce this story of the raising of Lazarus to its metaphorical meaning, it somehow loses its power.
We get lost in the vague and abstract thicket of what it actually means to have a resurrection experience and live our lives in a new way in Christ.
Does it mean selling everything we own, leaving our home and family behind, and giving our lives completely over in service to God?
Does it mean just doing our best to be a kind and compassionate person,
but otherwise not concerning ourselves too much with the suffering of our neighbor or how we might be implicitly participating in systems that perpetuate injustice, poverty, and oppression?
Does it mean seeking a third way that falls somewhere in between these two extremes – whatever that may be?
It’s hard for us to understand how we might go about having a resurrection experience when we struggle with the specifics of what it means to be resurrected.
Perhaps this is because this resurrection experience doesn’t involve a checklist of spiritual practices and good deeds we need to do to achieve it.
And it doesn’t involve a systematic theology that we need to ascribe to or recite in a creed that affirms our belief in “Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary, who was crucified, died, and was buried, and on the third day he rose again.”
Because a resurrection experience is just that – it’s an experience.
And when you have it, you’ll know it.
Because when you experience resurrection, you FEEL resurrected.
You feel changed and rejuvenated to the point where the world looks very different then it did before.
Because resurrection is a feeling - and not a belief – it involves those very human emotions that we see all throughout John’s story of the raising of Lazarus.
It’s rooted in the sadness that Mary and Martha felt when Lazarus fell ill.
In the fear the disciples felt when they realized they would need to risk their own lives and their master’s life to tend to their sick friend.
We see it emerging in the deep anger Jesus felt when he saw Mary and Martha sobbing over Lazarus’ death -
not because he was angry at them for their lack of faith, but because he was angry at death itself and the pain it inflicts.
It grows within the heartbreaking grief that they all felt as they stood outside Lazarus’ tomb, where Jesus wept over the loss of his friend.
And we see it in the unbridled joy that likely came upon them when Lazarus walked out of the tomb, and Jesus said, “Unbind him and let him go” – because death no longer held him in its embrace.
It’s this unbinding – this release from whatever it is that holds us in place and keeps us from emerging from the tomb that we find ourselves in –
this is what leads to the resurrection experience.
Just talk to anyone who has overcome an addiction.
Or left an abusive relationship.
Or emerged from a deep depression.
Or felt joy again after a long period of grief.
It can feel like walking out of a dark and oppressive tomb that seemingly could not be escaped - and feeling the warmth of the sun on your face once again.
Even if we’ve never had to overcome an addiction or depression or debilitating grief, and even if we currently live a relatively content life –
God is still calling us towards a resurrection experience.
Because we are human.
And there are many ways that we can be bound by our humanity.
Our emotions can hold us in place – our anger, our fear, our pain– and keep us from responding to the needs of others with compassion, mercy, and love.
But our emotions can also release us – and unbind us – when we allow them to flow out of us constructively and we learn to work our way through them – rather than repress them or ignore them.
So how might our resurrection experience – or our desire to have a resurrection experience - change our life and the way we live in the world?
We can find an answer to this question back in our story of Lazarus being raised from the dead.
We find it in Lazarus’ sister, Martha, who told Jesus that she believed him when he said he was the source of resurrection and new life, but then went on to question him when he said, “Take the stone away from the tomb.”
She was worried about the stench.
Because she didn’t fully trust that Jesus could take something that was dead and decaying and make it come to life again.
How often do we profess a belief in the gospel – a trust in the good news that God loves each and everyone of us regardless of who we are or what we’ve done - and then we go out into the world and act as if this weren’t true?
How often do we revere Jesus as a wise teacher and great prophet and then turn around and dismiss him as someone who lived in another time and in another place, and who preached a gospel that clearly was meant to be practiced by monks who lived in monasteries, and not by real people living in the real world?
Because in this REAL world where REAL people blow up buildings and spray bullets into crowds and commit acts of genocide driven by their hate – how is it even possible to turn the other cheek or pray for those who persecute us or love our enemies?
In this REAL world where REAL people are living on the street, and teetering on the brink of starvation, and dying of curable diseases because they can’t afford medical care – how is it even possible for us to feed, and heal, and house all those who hungry, or sick, or homeless?
And in this REAL world where REAL people like us are flawed and broken and fail to live up to God’s standard over and over again, how could God possibly love us – and how can we possibly love ourselves – just as we are?
But God made this REAL world, and God made us….just as we are.
So what would happen if we began to trust that Jesus actually knew what he was talking about when he said that through him – through following his teachings and his example – we would find resurrection and life - and change the world?
That we too could walk out of the tomb that this REAL world has us bound up in – and open our eyes and see the world as God intended it to be?
That regardless of how long we’ve all been in this tomb – and how great the stench is – God has the power to peel away the burial cloth and make us new again.
We are an Easter people.
Culled down to three simple words it means this: We have hope.
We believe in resurrection.
We believe that suffering and death do not have the last word.
No matter how bleak or barren a situation appears, life has a habit of rising from the ashes and beginning anew.
We wouldn’t live in New England if we didn’t believe this.
We wouldn’t put up with the long hard winters if we didn’t delight so much in the promise of spring.
The moment the first green shoots push through the thawing ground and we all breathe a collective sigh of relief, and joy.
When every marsh and pond comes alive with the high-pitched chirp of awakening peepers, and the forsythia and cherry blossoms burst forth, bringing color back into our black and white world.
We live believing and knowing that spring will come again.
That new life always follows death.
May we live believing and knowing that God has the power to do the same within our beautiful yet hurting world,
and within us.
Thanks be to God, and Amen.