Candidate sermon at Monroe Congregational UCC,
March 17, 2002
Imagine the scene. Bethany--a quiet and dusty little town a couple of miles outside the walls of the great city of Jerusalem. Two sisters--Mary and Martha. Their brother Lazarus has died. He was their brother, whom they loved. More than that, since they are single women in a society where women were usually dependent on men for their survival, he was their only means of support. Now they are alone, grieving, and frightened. They feel nothing but despair.
They know a wonderful rabbi, a man named Jesus. They believe that he is the Messiah, God's Chosen One, come to redeem Israel. They know him as a powerful healer and miracle worker. When Lazarus became ill they sent for him. They believed that he could make Lazarus well; but he didn't come, and Lazarus died.
Jesus didn't come to save the day, but the sisters' community of faith came. They came out from Jerusalem to be with the grieving sisters. They couldn't save Lazarus, but they could and did share the sisters' grief. They wept with them. They were there for them. They did what they could. Mostly, they were just present.
Then, after to all appearances it was too late, Jesus showed up. Mary and Martha were furious with him. "This is all your fault! If you had come sooner, Lazarus wouldn't have died! How could you have done this to us?!" And in their anger and in their despair, they and those with them wept. Jesus, who wasn't all that upset by the death of his friend Lazarus, was so moved by their grief that he too wept. And then he did what he could to bringing healing and wholeness back to this grieving community. Because he was who he was, he brought Lazarus back to life. He restored the community to wholeness as only he could.
Now, the Gospel of John tells this story with a lot of editorializing. John wants this to be a story about who Jesus is. He stresses throughout Jesus' identity as the Son of God. That's what you'd expect from John. The Gospel of John is different from the other three Gospels primarily because it is all about believing in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, the Word of God made flesh. The great opening lines of the Gospel of John are, I believe, the most powerful and foundational for our faith in the entire Bible: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God....And the Word became flesh and lived among us...." Clearly, John wants us to see the story of the raising of Lazarus as a story about Jesus' identity as the Son of God, the Word made flesh. Certainly we can read the story that way, and we should.
But one of the wonderful things about the great Gospel stories is that they aren't limited to only one meaning. The theologians have a lot of fancy words about how that works, but the point is that it's possible to find a lot of different meanings in a great story like this one. That's a good thing for preachers like me who use the lectionary, because this story, like several others in the Lent and Easter seasons, comes up in the lectionary every year, so we have to preach on it again and again. More importantly, the way these great stories can reveal new and surprising meanings keeps them alive for all the people of the church. So let's put aside the story's point about Jesus being the Son of God for the moment and see what else we can find there that might be meaningful for us.
Let's begin by asking: Who are the most interesting characters in this story? Certainly not Lazarus. He is totally passive. He dies. He comes back to life. Ho hum. And if I can be forgiven the blasphemy of saying so, not Jesus. He just does his Son of God thing. He brings Lazarus back to life. Now for you or me that would be quite an accomplishment, but for him it's all in a day's work. It's just another miracle. A rather special miracle to be sure, but still nothing you wouldn't expect God Incarnate to be able to do. The most interesting thing he does is cry, about which more in a minute. No, the most interesting characters in this story, for me at least, are not Lazarus and not Jesus but Lazarus' sisters Mary and Martha and the community of which they are a part.
We don't know much about them. The sisters live in Bethany of Judea just outside Jerusalem with their brother Lazarus. The story identifies Mary as "the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair." That's interesting in part because that incident hasn't happened yet. This is Chapter 11 of the Gospel of John. That story comes in Chapter 12. Maybe John needed a better editor. In any event, this fact about Mary tells us that she was a disciple of Jesus, one who recognized him as the Christ in all of the implications of that confession. That's a story for another sermon on the story from Chapter 12. Suffice it to say here that the reference to the later story identifies Mary as one who has faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah.
We know that the family of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus did not live in isolation. Many people had come from Jerusalem to Bethany to be with Mary and Martha and to comfort them in their time of loss after Lazarus died. They are clearly members of a larger community, and that community came together in a time of crisis for mutual comfort and support. That's about all we know about them.
It seems to me, however, that, although they were Jews and not Christians, in Mary, Martha, and the community of which they were a part we have a fine example of a Christian community of faith and of how the members of a Christian community should behave toward one another. That's the surprise in the story for me. In addition to being a story about who Jesus is, it is a story about how we should be with one another, about what a Christian community of faith should look like. The model the story gives us shows us, I think, at least these characteristics of a true Christian community:
Such a community is grounded in faith in Jesus as the Son of God, the Christ. The faith of Martha and Mary in Jesus plays a central role in the story. The author is showing us not just any community but specifically one grounded in the central Christian confession: Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.
The Christian community is an egalitarian, inclusive community. In the Lazarus story, women are its leaders. In the culture of that time, it would not be normal, indeed it would be scandalous, for a woman to reproach a rabbi, a teacher, indeed, to reproach any man, the way Mary and Martha reproached Jesus for not coming in time to save Lazarus. It would in fact be considered unacceptably forward for a woman to send for a rabbi and expect him to respond at all. Yet Mary and Martha did those things. They acted as independent persons with a right to ask Jesus, that is, to ask God, for what they wanted and needed. In doing that, they were acting as leaders of the community of which they were a part. Such a role for women was revolutionary in the first century, but it seems to have characterized the very earliest Christian communities, like those for which the community of Mary and Martha was a model.
Most importantly, it is a community in which it is safe to be vulnerable, in which it is safe to share need and loss and grief. Mary and Martha did not hide their grief over the death of their brother. They did not keep up the appearance of a composure they did not feel. They did not fear being seen as weak or needy. They knew that in that community they could be who they really were and could share what they really felt. They knew they could ask for what they needed from the community without fear of rejection, without fear that people would think less of them for sharing their need with their friends. They knew, in short that they were safe in the community of faith.
It is a community of mutual support. When Martha and Mary expressed their true feelings and their true needs, the community responded. It came together to help. In this particular instance, there wasn't anything the community could do by itself to change the tragic situation it faced. It could not bring Lazarus back. But it could be present to the family that had suffered the loss. It could grieve with them, and it did. It was there. It was present. Any of you who, like me, have had the benefit of the simple presence of friends and family in times of loss and of pain know the tremendous power to comfort and strengthen that presence possesses. Here in the community of Mary and Martha we have a scriptural model for that kind of presence and a call to be present in community for each other in times of loss and pain.
It is a community in which healing takes place, in which God responds. In this story, Jesus, as always in the Gospel of John, represents the presence of God. When Mary and Martha, the representatives of the community of faith, called to him, he came. Not immediately perhaps, but he came. And then an amazing thing happened. Jesus cried. The NRSV we heard this morning has it: "Jesus began to weep." Some other translations, including the King James and the New Jerusalem Bible, render that line simply: "Jesus wept." Maybe the NRSV is closer to the original Greek, but "Jesus wept" is better, isn't it? It's very terseness conveys a power that the wordier translation loses. That one line, "Jesus wept," is one of the most famous and most important in all of Christian scripture. Jesus, the Son of God, the Word of God Incarnate, God among us, was so moved by what he saw that he wept.
What was it in this scene that made Jesus cry? A very common understanding is that he was crying over the death of Lazarus. That is how the people who saw them interpreted his tears. They said: "See how he loved him!" But this I think is a misunderstanding of what the story is telling us. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is almost always misunderstood. In this story, for example, Martha misunderstood him when he said that Lazarus would rise again, thinking he was referring to the belief in the resurrection of the dead at the end of history that was common in Jewish thinking at the time when in fact he meant something very different. I think the notion that he was crying over the death of Lazarus is another such misunderstanding. The weeping comes immediately upon Jesus seeing Mary and the people with her weeping. It was not the death of Lazarus itself but the pain of his family and friends, the grief of the gathered community, that moved the Lord to tears. He acted here not so much in response to the death itself. No, what so moved Jesus that he had to respond as only he could was not the death of Lazarus but the grief, the pain, of the dead man's loved ones and of the community of which he was a part. It was the intercession of the community that touched the heart of God and brought healing to the people. That healing is symbolized here as Lazarus coming back to life. We know that no one comes back to physical life after being dead for four days. Nonetheless, the story of how Jesus made that happen here is a symbol of how God enters into our pain, our grief, when we gather in community and share that grief and pain with each other, and of how God brings new life, new wholeness, to those who suffer and grieve. This story tells us that this happens in community. It doesn't say it never happens outside of community; but it does tell us that sharing our burdens, our losses, our pain, in a community of faith is one powerful way of allowing God's healing grace into our lives.
Finally, this story tells us that a community of faith is a community that itself strengthens and even produces faith. The reading today ends: "Many of the Jews, therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him." The final result that the story reports, then, is not the resuscitation of Lazarus but the engendering of faith in the gathered community. Not all of them, for what comes next is that some of those who saw what happened went to the authorities and incited them against Jesus. The resuscitation of Lazarus is actually, in John, the event that led directly to Jesus' death. Again, that's a subject for a different sermon. The point for today is that the events reported in the story, the coming together of the community, the intercession of the community for one of its members, and the response of God to bring healing to that community, led some to believe. It no doubt also strengthened the faith of those who may have believed but whose faith needed reinforcement. That's what happens in a community of faith. In the company of believers, our faith is strengthened. Faith is very hard in isolation. It needs community. It needs the support and the verification that comes from the action of the Spirit in the gathered people of God. It is here, in community, that we find the action of the Spirit that heartens us and gives us the strength and the courage to believe.
How then are we to be community? How are we to be Mary and Martha for each other? First of all, we must be a community grounded in faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. That is our central belief as Christians. It is the belief that gives us identity and common purpose. Certainly it is possible to be community without that belief, but it is not possible to be Christian community, to be a community that finds meaning and expresses its faith in the stories and symbols of the Christian tradition without that belief.
We must be an inclusive community. We must be open to those whom our society and even our faith tradition would exclude, as the community depicted in this story was open to the presence and the leadership of women--something revolutionary in its time (and in most of Christendom still in our time). The leadership of those whom society scorned brought healing to the community in our story this morning. It can bring healing to us as well.
We must (and this is really the most important thing we learn from the story of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus) be a safe place for one another. We must be a place where each one of us can come with our need, our pain, our grief, our sin, where we can pour these out to each other and find comfort, care, and support. We do that most of all by being willing simply to be present to each other; to share and not to judge. We do not necessarily have to solve each other's problems, although sometimes we can and should at least try to help each other solve our problems. Often we can't, just as the community on its own could not bring Lazarus back. But they could be and were present to the grieving family, and that presence was a huge factor in bringing about the intercession of God in Christ that did bring healing. Our presence with and care for each other can and will have the same effect. In loving, inclusive, Christian community we are made whole. That is the unexpected lesson, the surprise of the story of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.
Let us pray: Loving God, you call us into community to live out the life of faith. Help us, we pray, to be true community for each other, to be a safe and inclusive place where we all feel free to share the burdens we carry and where we all can find, in the presence and the love of one another, the healing power of your grace and your love for us, which know no limits. We pray in the name of your Son Jesus Christ, the one in whom and through whom you bring us healing and new life. Amen.