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Sunday, March 5, 2017 | 8:00 a.m.
Lord, If You Had Been Here . . .
Judith L. Watt
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
John 11:1–6, 17–45
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
Today’s story from the Gospel of John is usually referred to as the story of the raising of Lazarus. If you are even the least bit familiar with the story, you probably have a vision of a man, wrapped head to toe in white strips of cloth, stumbling out of a tomb, blinded by the sunlight, struggling to gain his footing and balance again as he’s come alive. The concept is that Lazarus has been dead at least four days, that Jesus has made his way to the tomb, has commanded that the tomb be opened, and calls in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus comes out—seemingly raised from the dead, brought back to life, just like that. If you allow yourself to think about the story for any length of time, you wrestle with it. You either dismiss the truth of the coming-back-to-life event, or you ascribe metaphorical, symbolic meaning to it, or you simply decide to believe it because it’s in the Bible and Jesus was reported to make it happen.
Wrestling with the truth of Lazarus coming back to life is understandable, but I don’t want that to cause you to miss all that exists in the rest of this piece of scripture. As it begins, death is everywhere. This is a family crisis in Bethany, because Mary and Martha’s brother, Lazarus, is ill; they have called for Jesus. Jesus takes his time in showing up, and when he finally shows up, both women greet him with the same accusation: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
So, I invite you to enter into the story with me, as though you are entering into this crisis. Someone is very ill, and it seems there is nothing that can be done, except to call on Jesus. You know you can’t do anything about it, and you feel helpless. All you can do is observe. Observe especially the difference in the interactions each of the sisters has with Jesus.
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Pastors and doctors and nurses and hospital chaplains and hospice workers have all had the experience of coming into a scene like this. A loved one is ill, seriously so, and the options are dwindling. The question is always asked—sometimes aloud, sometimes not—“Where is God in all of this?” Death is hanging everywhere and “where is God in all of this?”
Some of you have had that experience. You’ve lost a parent or a sibling, a grandparent, a child, a dear friend. “Where is God in all of this?” “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Illness and death are not the only things that cause us to ask the same question. There are deathlike situations—more than we would like to admit—that seem to bind us up and make us lose hope, and in losing hope, part of us dies. War. Ongoing poverty. Environments filled with enmity and hate. Parenting a child whose entire life is filled with struggle of some sort. Infertility. The ending of a relationship. You can’t help asking at some point, “Where is God in all of this?” “Lord, if you had been here . . .”
The two sisters, Mary and Martha, are two women who strike me as yin and yang, or two sides of the same coin. In another often-told story in scripture they are pitted against one another. They are polar opposites. In that other story, Martha is dutiful and focused on the real tasks of getting ready for Jesus to visit their home. She is the do-er, the taskmaster, the one who keeps things going. And Mary, wanting to do nothing but sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to him teach, is the dreamer, the one who wants to think about process for longer than Martha has patience for, the discerner. They remind me of my two daughters, both with different personalities, and something I used to say about them: that if I could put them together, I would have the perfect kid. That’s how I feel about Mary and Martha.
In this story, their different personalities persist. Martha goes out first to meet Jesus, while Mary weeps at home. Martha greets Jesus with “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” and then quickly follows her accusation with a declaration of faith—like maybe it’s the right thing to do: to show Jesus that she has some faith at least. She is ticked off and annoyed at Jesus but intent on showing him right away that she knows something, at least in her head. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died, but, even now I do know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”
Later, Mary goes out to meet Jesus, makes the same accusation, while kneeling at his feet, and then, instead of speaking, she just dissolves in tears. No words. Just tears.
Two very different interactions.
When Martha approaches Jesus and after she says, “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” she qualifies her accusation: “Well, I know God can do anything through you.” He tells her, “Martha, your brother will rise again.” She responds, “Well, I know that. I know that he’ll rise at the day of resurrection.” She already has faith, or the head knowledge at least, that the promises of the afterlife for her brother exist. But Jesus takes her to another level: “I am the resurrection and the life, here and now, in the present, too, and those who believe in me, trust in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes (or rather trusts) in me will never die.” The promise of new life isn’t something that’s dangled in front of us as a reward we will receive only when we die. Jesus tells Martha that new life and resurrection exists now, in him, in the Messiah, the Son of God. And then he asks Martha, “Do you believe this, Martha?” “Yes, Lord,” she says, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
This is Martha’s confession of faith. Jesus interacts with her, and after the interaction, she is taken to a deeper level of belief and trust. Or at least that’s how it seems.
When I notice the difference in the reactions and interactions of the two women with Jesus, I’m much more drawn to Mary’s reaction, for Mary simply weeps at Jesus’ feet after she asks him where he’s been and why he hasn’t shown up earlier. She simply weeps. I can relate to that. It’s harder for me to hear Martha’s quick confession of faith without my own preconceived judgment and notion that the words roll off of her tongue too quickly.
But I need to put the reactions of the two women together. In the face of tragedy and sorrow, struggle and death, and whatever else is death-producing in our lives, shouldn’t we be aiming for both reactions? Holding onto the trust and belief that Jesus is the resurrection and life and that somehow our trust in him will get us through, even when we don’t always know what it means that he is the resurrection and life. And at the same time, continuing to weep at the sadness around us, the sadness for ourselves and the sadness in the world. If we were to put Mary and Martha together, we would know what it means to hold both joy and sorrow together, because it is a joy to know, even if only for a moment, that Jesus is beyond anything we can describe, that somehow he is light and life and new life for us even now. So, because of that joy, those glimpses of that joy, we keep working at trusting in him and living in ways that he modeled for us, despite the sadness that exists. Isn’t that our challenge: to hold joy and sorrow together, fully cognizant of the sorrow in the world but courageously holding onto the joyful promise and hope that death and despair and war and injustice and all of the vagaries of life aren’t the end of the story?
In the movie Castaway, the character named Chuck, played by Tom Hanks, works for FedEx, and in the course of his work, is the victim of a FedEx plane crash in the Pacific. He spends four years surviving in any number of ways. His only companion is a volleyball that he finds in one of the FedEx packages that was on the plane. He and his makeshift raft with makeshift sail are finally rescued by a passing cargo ship, and he returns to Memphis. When he returns, he finds that it’s been assumed all these years, when no one knew what had happened, that he had died in that crash. A funeral had been held for him. His fiancée, Kelly, married another man and has a child. All of the emotion of loss is portrayed in the movie, but toward the end, Chuck says these words: “One day logic was proven all wrong because the tide lifted, came in, and gave me a sail. And now, here I am. I’m back. In Memphis. Talking to you. And I’ve lost her all over again. I’m so sad that I don’t have Kelly. But I’m so grateful that she was with me on that island. [He meant that she was with him in his mind and heart.] And I know what I have to do now. I have to keep breathing. Because tomorrow the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide could bring?”
Sorrow and joy all mingled up together. We hold both. Not one or the other, but both. Is it easy? Absolutely not. I doubt Jesus thought it was easy. His raising of Lazarus was a sign meant to reveal who he was. His raising of Lazarus caused some to believe, but others started plotting his death. Sorrow and joy all mingled together. It’s not easy to hold both, but it’s our call if we are a people of the resurrection, a resurrection people. Thanks be to God. Amen.