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Sunday, March 5, 2017 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.

Lenten Sermon Series:
Following Jesus through the Gospel of John

Lazarus, Be Unbound!

Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 32
John 11 (selected verses)

Salvation is a word for the divine spaciousness that comes to human beings in all the tight places where their lives are at risk, regardless of how they got there or whether they know God’s name.  Sometimes it comes as an extended human hand and sometimes as a bolt from the blue, but either way it opens a door in what looked for all the world like a wall. This is the way of life, and God alone knows how it works.

Barbara Brown Taylor


Where do you sit in this story? In this story from the Gospel of John, who holds your voice? Does your voice intermingle with Mary’s? “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Her voice drips with grief-filled honesty and, frankly, such disappointment. “Lord, if only you had been here.” She knew who Jesus was as well as anyone did. She knew he had the power to heal, to make whole, to inspire, to give life. She knew his presence might have changed the situation. She trusted him. She believed in him. She loved him. And because of all of that, Mary could not understand why Jesus had not been there to make everything OK. In an earlier scene in this story, we learn that Jesus knew about Lazarus’s illness several days before Jesus decided to show up. So Mary could not figure out why Jesus had not come when he was first summoned. “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

I think about Mary’s voice when I hear about the continued violence in our city. I thought about her voice on February 11, when twelve-year-old Kanari and eleven-year-old Takiya were shot and later died. I thought about Mary’s voice on February 14 when two-year-old Lavontay and his uncle lost their lives to gun violence. I thought of Mary’s cry on February 23 when five-month-old A’Miracle died, having been born prematurely after her mother was fatally shot last fall. Those are just five of the forty-six murders that occurred here during the month of February. I can easily imagine Mary’s grief-soaked, honest cry on the lips of many women, men, and children who keep watching those they love lose their lives to this hopeless-fueled violence. “Lord, if only you had been here, my mother, my child, my sister, would not have died.”

I’ve heard Mary’s voice in Father Pfleger’s voice when he has reflected on the continued struggle in the neighborhood his parish serves. Father Pfleger once remarked that sometimes the calls to stop the violence sound like purposeful deception for those in the neighborhoods most affected: “Until we decide that we’re really going to love these brothers and help them,” Pfleger said, “we’re just [being insincere to] them, really. ‘Stop shooting, stop killing, put the guns down.’ And pick up what?” Pfleger asked sadly (Evan Osnos, “Father Mike,” New Yorker, 29 February 2016). “Lord, if only you had been here.”

Do you find your voice with these families, their clergy, in Mary, kneeling at Jesus’ feet, grief-soaked and disappointed?

Perhaps you find kinship with Martha’s voice. We don’t hear from Martha in this section of the story, but before Mary meets Jesus, Martha gets to him first. And in her typically bold style, Martha lays it all out there for Jesus. Unlike the grief-soaked tones of Mary’s voice, Martha’s has a sharp, angry edge. “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.” In other words, “You messed up, Jesus, but you have the power to fix it. So do it.” Martha, like Mary, knew Jesus very well. She also trusted him, believed in him, loved him. And that is precisely why she was angry. Martha felt betrayed. So she walked right up to him, stood up straight, looked Jesus in the eyes and said exactly what she felt. “Lord, if only you had been here.”

I’ve heard Martha’s voice before, too. I’ve heard Martha’s voice echoing in the words of a former parishioner whose teenage daughter was battling anorexia. This mother felt as if she were stuck in a deep, dark hole, powerless to do anything about it. “Lord, if only you had been here,” this woman would utter, again and again. Her daughter—a girl who had grown up in the church, been active in youth group, gone on mission trips—this beloved daughter of hers was sinking lower and lower into disease as she fought for her life, and her mother was furious with God about it. She had always trusted God, believed in God, and loved God. Therefore she was angry that all of that faith had not protected her daughter from so much pain. So in my pastor’s office, she regularly stated what she felt: “Lord, if only you had been here, my daughter would be OK.” Do you find your voice with the mother and with Martha, desiring to look Jesus eye-to-eye, sharp-edged and rightfully angry?

Maybe your voice would be one of the voices in the crowd. The voices who wondered loudly why this Jesus who had opened the eyes of the blind man could not have prevented Lazarus’s death. If this Jesus was really who he said he was, then Lazarus did not need to die. Yet Lazarus did. Perhaps all of this Jesus Messiah stuff was just a sham, just one more person’s attempt to get power and control. “If he is Lord,” the skeptics murmured, “then Lazarus should not be dead. Jesus is just another con artist.”

I’ve heard those voices from the crowd. I have friends whose voices would have fit in with the crowd’s questions. They are wonderful, good-hearted, deeply-loving people who have been turned out and burned by the church so many times that they simply find it too hard to see anything good in it anymore. They are friends whose hearts have been broken by people they thought were church family. Young women and men who hear the church folk talk about love and unity and justice but then see the church folk act with pettiness and self-interest and judgment or not act at all. “Shannon,” one once said to me, “I cannot understand why you’re involved in the irrelevant and hypocritical institution of church. There are plenty of other places where you can find spiritual community.” Their voices would have fit right in with the skeptical voices of the crowd that day outside of Lazarus’s tomb. “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Do you find your voice with my friends and those in the crowd, skeptical or cynical?

What about the voices of the disciples? Does your voice blend with theirs? Again, in today’s portion of the story, we do not hear their voices. But their voices rang out loudly and clearly before Jesus even made a move towards Lazarus’s grave. Jesus and the disciples had just narrowly escaped being stoned to death in Jerusalem by those angry with Jesus’ claims of being the Messiah. Fearing for their lives, they had all gone across the Jordan to safety. But then, a couple of days after Jesus heard about Lazarus, he told his disciples it was time to go back to Judea. “Are you kidding?” the disciples asked. “Rabbi, they were just now trying to stone you, and you are going there again?” The disciples’ voices were full of fear. Maybe Jesus had forgotten what it felt like to be frozen by fear, but they had not forgotten. They had not forgotten what it felt like to hear the religious leaders plotting to arrest Jesus for his ministry. They had not forgotten what it felt like to be on guard 24/7, wary of shadows, unable to breathe deeply. “Lord, if you go there, if we go there . . .”

Have you ever had a voice or heard a voice so constricted by fear that you had to catch your breath? I think about some of the voices I once heard in Texas when I was involved in planning an interfaith observance of Thanksgiving. I was new to ministry but full of the overconfidence of a newly graduated seminarian. So when the local rabbi and imam asked if the church in which I served could host the event, my colleagues and I replied, “Of course. Why not? We have the biggest space.” It did not appear to be a controversial decision, at least not to this newly minted preacher. Thus I was completely caught off-guard and knocked out of breath by the reaction of some in our Christian community. “You want to do what in our sanctuary? You want to let whom into our holy space?” We received hate letters and mean phone calls, and by the end of it all, my colleagues and I were so wiped out that we were having to remind each other to breathe. We knew much of it was fueled by fear—fear of others who were very different in many ways, but not so different in other ways. Yet that fear had such dominance in those voices that it had squeezed out all of the love and compassion in them, leaving no room for anything else. “Lord, if you go there, if we go there . . .”

Just between you and God, would your voice blend in with the fear-filled voices of the disciples—people who loved Jesus the best they could but who could not support his decisions to constantly be vulnerable for the sake of others who were just so very different?

Where is your voice in this story? Who holds it? Does it rest with Mary? Martha? Those in the crowd? The disciples? Maybe you hear your voice in the mouths of each of them from time to time, depending on the day, depending on the season of life you are in.

Of course, there is one voice we’ve not considered yet, and I’m not talking about Jesus. I’m talking about Lazarus. Lazarus, the one to whom and with whom all of this happens. Did you notice how he does not speak in this story? Lazarus has no words in this whole interaction. As a matter of fact, after he comes out of that tomb and is unbound by his community, Lazarus drops out of the scene and is never mentioned again. We have no record of what he said about his experience. We do not know if he was joyful to get another shot at life here with us or if he was upset because that meant he would have to die again one day. We have no knowledge if Lazarus ever went on to preach or to teach after his experience of being a living, breathing miracle. All we know about Lazarus is that Jesus called him out of the tomb and he came out, was unbound, and let go. Perhaps John did not let us hear Lazarus’s voice because Lazarus indeed said nothing. But what if John did not let us hear Lazarus’s voice because he wanted us to imagine what Lazarus’s testimony might be. Once he had been unbound and let go, what might he have said?

Perhaps Lazarus would have said to Mary, “I hear your voice, and all I can say is that through this Jesus, God knows what it is like to weep. God’s heart is always the first one to break. But try to trust that one day your tears will be dried and weeping will be a memory. Keep using the compassion you’ve been given.”

And then perhaps Lazarus would have said to Martha, “Sister, I hear your voice, and I hope you can trust that through this Jesus, God knows your anger, and God will not let injustice or illness or even death have the last word. So continue to lift your head and stand tall. Keep using the voice you’ve been given.”

Maybe Lazarus would have said to those in the crowd, “Friends, I hear your voices. And I also know that through this Jesus, God is creating the church, but it is going to be made up of people like you and me. So that means it will be messy and sometimes messed up. Nevertheless, God is still going to choose to work in it and through it for the healing of the world, but you continue to challenge it and keep it honest. You, too, have a part to play in God’s work.”

Then perhaps Lazarus would have turned and said to the disciples, “Brothers, I hear your voices. But through this Jesus, God has put flesh and blood on ‘Be not afraid.’ So take a deep breath and have courage. Keep holding on to each other too, for discipleship requires community. You can borrow strength from each other.”

These responses are, of course, just imaginative guesses. We don’t know for sure what Lazarus’s voice would have sounded like or what he might have said. But because he is silent, we can all wonder about his testimony, wonder what our testimony would be if we were like Lazarus. What would we say if, during this season of Lent, we tried to open our own ears to hear Jesus call our names? How would we respond to Jesus’ summons to come out of whatever it is that keeps us bound and entombed in our lives? Because friends, that is what happens each and every day. Each and every day, as we sit in our own captivity—whether that be captivity to grief or to anger; captivity to cynicism or to fear; captivity to just plain numbness or to our constant busyness; captivity to a whole host of other powers and principalities that try and lock us down, be they greed, privilege, addiction—as we sit in our own captivity, Jesus stands outside those tombs and calls our names.

“Come on out,” Jesus cries out to us. “Be unbound and let go.” Each and every day of our lives Jesus invites us to come out of the depths of whatever is keeping us captive so we might walk into the light of a new start, a new life, a kind of resurrection here and now. This season of Lent offers us the time to honestly consider what is keeping us bound, keeping us from rising and being set free, let go.

Our own Rocky Supinger wrote about this opportunity in his blog this past week. Here is how he put it: “This Lent feels not like something that must be done but something that can, and should, be done. A great deal of mud has stuck on my shoes this past season that I’m eager to scrape off with a gnarly Lenten stick: outrage, anxiety, even despair. I need a season to drop some of that stuff. So much accrues. Obligations, habits, grudges, attitudes: Lent is an invitation to walk for a season without some of those things by making a habit of dropping them by the roadside” (www.yorocko.com, 2 March 2017).

Or as Lazarus might put it, “Lent is an invitation to get honest at what is keeping us bound and locked in our own tombs, so that we, too, will hear our names being called as Jesus summons us to freedom—freedom not just for ourselves, but freedom to act for others, as well.” After all, the story of the rising of Lazarus is not just a story about Lazarus. It is also the story about our own rising in Jesus. It is the story, our story, about a new life that can begin today and not just after we die and are placed in our graves. Maybe that is why John kept Lazarus silent. Maybe he kept him silent so that we might stand in for him and be his voice of new life and freedom. Maybe, as members of Lazarus’s extended family, that is the voice we could claim today, on this first Sunday in Lent, for that is a voice that we all need to hear. “Come out,” Jesus cries. “Be unbound and let go. Rise up. Rise up. Rise up!” Amen.