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April 10, 2011 | 8:00 a.m.
Going with Life
John H. Boyle
Parish Associate, Fourth Presbyterian Church
“Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live. . . .
Do you believe this?”
John 11:25–26 (NRSV)
Unbelief is as much of a choice as belief is. What makes it in many ways more appealing is that whereas to believe in something requires some measure of understanding and effort, not to believe doesn’t require much of anything at all.
What is one to make of such an incredible story? Are we to think of it as historically accurate and that a person who was definitely dead was restored to life? Or is it more metaphoric in meaning? After all, the Gospel of John is full of “signs” pointing to certain truths about God, about Christ, about relationships, about God’s agenda for the world, and about faith, about what to believe and trust.
Am I alone in confessing that I have difficulty getting my mind around the idea that a dead person, dead several days in fact, could be brought back to life? Does my difficulty necessarily prove that it could not or did not happen? Is not life lived on a continuum between ultimate inevitableness, on the one hand, symbolized by death, and ultimate possibility, on the other hand, symbolized, for Christians at least, by resurrection? And is that which may be possible necessarily probable?
What are we to believe, and does it make any difference? It doesn’t make any difference what you believe as long as you’re sincere, say some. Tell that to the people who were victims of the Holocaust. Hitler was sincere about what he believed, passionately sincere, and what he believed cost millions of people their lives. So much for sincerity. It does matter what we believe and how we believe and how we act out our beliefs. It matters a great deal. In fact, your life and that of someone else may depend upon it. Make no mistake about that.
At the same time it is important to appreciate that there is sometimes a very thin line between magic and what Harvard University psychologist Gordon Allport years ago called “the mature religious sentiment.” Magic is trickery and sleight of hand based upon illusion. When it appears under the guise of religion, we either want a god who does tricks for us or we seek to manipulate the deity to do what we desire the deity to do. Our relationship to God essentially becomes a quid pro quo one. God is at our beck and call, and by our saying and doing the right things, by the abracadabra of manipulation, God becomes our puppet on a string, obligated to do our bidding.
On one occasion years ago, during my tenure as Director of Pastoral Care Services for a six-hospital medical center, I visited a patient at the request of the medical and nursing team caring for him. He had come from an economically impoverished area in eastern Kentucky where he had worked in a coal mine for many years. As the result of a mining accident, one of his legs had to be amputated. The doctors and nurses were having a difficult time enlisting his cooperation first in getting him up on crutches and eventually over to the rehabilitation facility where he could be fitted with a prosthesis and learn to walk again. I was asked to talk with him and do what I could to persuade him to get with the program.
As I visited with him, he asked me to pray with and for him. Some years earlier I learned, as it were, not to sign a blank check for someone whom I did not know well who requested me to pray for them. In that instance, the person, who at the time was a patient on the maximum security ward of the state hospital where I was then serving as chaplain, had asked me to pray for him and especially for his wife. Dutiful pastor that I was, I did so. Only later did I learn that his wife was dead and that he had killed her.
So with that in mind, when the man whose leg had been amputated asked me to pray for him, I asked him what specifically he wanted me to pray for. His response took me aback. “I want you to pray that God will grow my leg back,” he said. For a minute there I wondered if he was pulling my leg, until I realized that the belief system of the community from which he came allowed for that. God was perfectly capable of doing just what he was asking me to pray for. He had no trouble with that. I was the one having trouble, not so much with the possibility as with the probability of it happening.
I suggested an alternate prayer for courage and a willingness on his part to cooperate with his doctors and nurses so that he might in due course have a new kind of leg to stand on and walk. Without relinquishing his belief in God’s power to do what he originally requested, he agreed to pray with me the alternate prayer. I learned later that within two days he was up on crutches and well on his way to acquiring a new limb. Was God in all that? Borrowing from the lexicon of a current media and political celebrity, “You betcha!”
The home of Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, was a refuge for Jesus throughout much of his public ministry. There he was welcomed. There he could relax, get a good meal, and be nurtured by their obvious love for him. So it was natural for the sisters to alert him when it became apparent that their brother was sick unto death. They trusted him to come to them and to do what they believed him capable of doing. Though Jesus was aware of the sense of urgency implicit in their F.Y.I., he nevertheless dawdled for a couple of days before deciding to go to Bethany. Not out of callousness, but with confidence in his competence and with a particular purpose in mind, namely, that God would be glorified. As we learn later in the narrative, Jesus had already been in conversation with God about what he would do once he arrived in Bethany.
God’s timetable and ours don’t always cohere. Sometimes we want things done right away, but God seems to have other plans that call on us to wait, something that our impatience keeps us from being good at. It’s all about control, isn’t it, and our ability and willingness to trust, also something we are not always good at. I read recently of a research experiment concerning postponed gratification in four-year-old children. The result showed that the children who were able to wait a full fifteen minutes before eating a marshmallow had, thirteen years later, SAT scores that were 210 points higher than those of children who could wait only thirty seconds.
Patience and passivity are not one and the same. It can sometimes take considerable emotional and physical energy to wait patiently when every breath and bone in your body screams to take action or to badger someone else to do so. It does not take much of either energy or inclination to sit idly by and be passive. We are called to wait for the Lord and, while doing so, to hope and trust in God’s word of reassuring love. Perhaps patience, along with the willingness to wait is the smart thing after all.
When Jesus finally decided to go to the home of Lazarus in Bethany of Judea, his disciples got a bit jumpy because they knew he was going into enemy territory and putting himself in danger. But that’s what love does when necessary, doesn’t it? It puts itself on the line and is willing to be vulnerable even unto death. But it is not only willing to risk danger. It will risk inconvenience as well, which is not as heroic and perhaps as a result more difficult to pull off. Heroic has the feel of power. Inconvenience has the feel of weakness. To do the loving thing needed when it is inconvenient to do so is to put yourself out. To do the loving thing needed in the face of danger is to throw yourself into the fray. Love does either when called for and both when necessary.
It is interesting to note also that in spite of the danger they pointed to, the disciples agreed to go with Jesus to Bethany so that they might die with him if that were to be his lot. Ironically, when later Jesus was arrested, tried, sentenced to death, and led off to be crucified, most of them were nowhere to be found. It would seem that even heroics has its limits.
Then there are those sisters of Lazarus, Martha the pot-walloper in the kitchen and Mary the contemplative sitting at the feet of Jesus. Martha fusses at Jesus because of his tardiness, telling him that her brother would not have died if he had gotten there sooner. However she quickly asserts her confidence that God would give Jesus whatever he requested. The trajectory of faith sometimes involves our doing some fussing at God before doing some trusting of God. “How come you didn’t do it my way, Lord?” may precede our willingness to say, “OK, Lord, have it your way.” Shades of our Lord’s prayer later in Gethsemane.
When Jesus tried to reassure Martha that her brother would rise again, she didn’t get it until Jesus startled her with the amazing assertion that he was the embodiment of resurrection and asked her if she believed this. He was not asking her so much if she believed an idea but whether she trusted him. The Christian faith has less to do with belief in a proposition than it has to do with trust in a person, in this case Jesus Christ, who is the incarnation of God’s forgiving grace and unconditional and all-inclusive love. And it is that grace and that love that have the resurrection power to call us forth from all kinds of deadness into newness of life.
After all, Lazarus was only granted a reprieve and a return to the same old hard-scrabble life that he and his sisters had been living, with the same old set of problems that he faced before his death. Eventually he would die again. So what’s the big deal?
The big deal is that the Lazarus episode was intended by the Gospel writer as a sign designed to strengthen faith and to glorify God. It was not so much a medical marvel as it was a signification of the possibility of a second life in the midst of time. And this second life could and can occur at the hands of the one who said something that Lazarus could not authentically say: “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.” Only our Lord had the right, the authority, and soon the credential of the cross, to assert such a claim. Newness of life, which is at the core of this story, occurs at the call of the one who called out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!”
The fact is that, like Lazarus, we all live on death row of one sort or another beside the obvious. We all carry a certain amount and kind of deadness within us in addition to whatever amount and kind of life and health and vitality with which we may at the moment be blessed. It is when we organize our lives around the deadness within us, the bondage, the lesser gods, and our own self-centeredness that we are in fact entombed and cut off from life. The message of the gospel of Christ’s forgiving love is his invitation to trust him enough to do what Lazarus did and come out of the tomb we have buried ourselves in.
But notice, it was a call not only to Lazarus, but to those assembled there and witnessing this incredible event. On the side of a file cabinet next to the desk of a most gracious, kind, and competent member of our support staff is a sheet of paper on which are these words: “Good morning. This is God. I will be handling all your problems today. I will not need your help. So have a good day.”
Granted there are times when it all depends on God; it is all up to God, and we can do little else than cast our burden upon the Lord and trust that God will sustain us. Lazarus came forth only after folk rolled away the stone from the entrance to the tomb. He was still bound in his grave clothes and could not unbind himself. So Jesus called to others, “Unbind him and let him go.” Turn him loose to live again.
Sometimes God wants us to help, not because God needs our help but because God wants us to know that we are called to be co-laborers with God in unbinding those in bondage so that they can go with life and live to love.
In 1944, during the latter months of World War II, Anne Morrow Lindbergh published a somewhat autobiographical novel entitled The Steep Ascent. It was based on an actual incident that occurred over the Alps mountains between France and Switzerland during a flight to India. It is the story of a pilot couple, Eve and Gerald, flying a rickety old plane over the mountains. Low on fuel and with no radio contact, they are faced with the decision whether to seek a safe landing spot below them or to fly over the steep mountain ascent before them in hopes of landing safely on the other side. As they together discuss their choice, Eve has these thoughts:
Life, even solitary life, was too precious to be wasted, but when it was shared with someone else, someone with whom you had understanding —then it became precious beyond measure. . . .
But if life were so precious . . . why not stay home and look after it? . . .
Because, because . . . that wasn’t what she meant by “life” or “death.” People “died” all the time in their lives. Parts of them died when they made the wrong kind of decisions – decisions against life. Sometimes they died bit by bit until finally they were just living corpses walking around. If you were perceptive you could see it in their eyes; the fire had gone out. Yes, there were a lot of people walking around who were “dead,” and a lot of people killed who were “living.” . . . .But you always knew when you made a decision against life. When you denied life you were warned. The cock crowed, always, somewhere inside of you. The door clicked and you were safe inside—safe and dead.
And usually it was fear that made you pull the door shut: emotional fear of becoming involved with people, of loving too much because it always meant suffering to love deeply; physical fear of pain and death; spiritual fear of the great and the unknown that made you stop in your mind when you came on words like God and Prayer.
You couldn’t lay down rules for other people but you knew for yourself when you were turning against life—and when you were going with it.
(The Steep Ascent, pp. 69–70)
The call of Christ to us this morning is to come forth out of the tomb of whatever deadness we are buried in, to come forth and go with life, to come forth and be the church, unbinding all who need to be unbound.
I wonder, is your name, is my name, Lazarus? Amen.