Sermon for Sunday, April 2, 2017 || Lent 5A || John 11:1-45
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” So say both Martha and her sister Mary when they meet Jesus outside Bethany. They must have been saying this over and over again to each other in the four days since Lazarus’s death: “If the Teacher had been here, things would be different. If Jesus had come when we first wrote to him. If, if, if…”
Two weeks ago, one of our ten Handy Guidelines told us that how a line of dialogue is spoken is a matter of interpretation. So how do the two grieving sisters deliver this line? Is it an accusation? [angrily] “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Is it wistful? [sadly] “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Or is it faithful? [lovingly] “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Probably a little bit of each one, all rolled together in that roiling mass of anger and sadness and love that we call “grief.” No matter how Martha and Mary speak this statement, my question is this: is it true? Would Lazarus still be alive if Jesus had been there?
For the story of the Gospel, or for that matter the story of our faith, to make any sense at all, the answer must be “No.” It’s terrible to say that out loud, trust me. Of course, I want to believe that if Jesus had been there, death would not have visited that house in Bethany. Jesus even alludes to this possibility in the conversation with his predictably clueless disciples: “For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.” I want to believe that if Jesus had been there, Lazarus would have made a full recovery and come out himself to meet his beloved friend and teacher. But I can’t. I’ve seen – we’ve all seen – too much heartbreaking death to think that God’s presence stops death from happening.
If that were so; if God’s presence stopped death from happening, then we would be forced to conclude that when someone dies, God has fled. God has fled and we have been abandoned, lost to the agony of loss itself. And in the darkest moments of grief, that sure is what it feels like. The shock of loss naturally narrows us, pinches us, contorts us, confronts us with the gash that death has ripped in the tapestry of our lives. For a time – weeks, months, years, decades – we focus on the gash, unwilling or unable to broaden our perspective to see the rest of the tapestry.
Our faith invites us to expand that perspective – not necessarily right away in the first cold, breath-stealing moments of loss – but in time, when the gash has been stitched up with the threads of love and memory, the tear still visible in the mending. Such expanded perspective sees our deceased loved ones not as lost, but as found in a new part of the tapestry, a part that we ourselves cannot access just yet. Such expanded perspective is, I think, what Jesus is striving for in those days surrounding the death of his friend Lazarus.
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Yes…he would have. And if not today and not tomorrow, then someday, for all life ends. Even Lazarus, who is raised at the end of the story, will die again. In our story, Lazarus has died. He is in the tomb, has been there four days. But Jesus seems unconcerned with the death itself, even as he shares in the emotions of grief with the sisters and their friends. He is greatly disturbed in spirit. He is deeply moved. He weeps. Thus grief is not foreign to Jesus even though he knows how expansive the tapestry truly is. Even Jesus is pinched and contorted by the loss of his beloved friend.
Yes, grief stabs him, as it stabs us, and – at the same time – Jesus sees death in a new way, a way he tries to relate to his disciples and to Martha. He says to his followers: “This illness does not lead to death.” There is so much more going on in this seemingly simple statement than we realize. The sickness is not the road toward the land of death. Lazarus’s illness does not lead to death…
…Because death is an event, not a destination.
The psalmist knows this, and we read Psalm 23 at every funeral to remind ourselves that death is not a destination. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” I walk through. Death is a doorway.
A prayer from our burial service says it like this:
“O God of grace and glory… In your boundless compassion, console us who mourn. Give us faith to see in death the gate of eternal life, so that in quiet confidence we may continue our course on earth, until, by your call, we are reunited with those who have gone before.”
Death is an event – a heart-wrenching, soul-rending event – but it is not a destination. In many cultures in the ancient world, death was a destination, a physical place, an underworld. But for Jesus, death is the gateway to new and more expansive life, where our tapestries, gashes and all, grow together into the one great tapestry of life eternal and glisten anew with the golden thread of God’s eternal presence.
Jesus’ raising of Lazarus leads directly to Jesus’ arrest and death on the cross. With his own death, Jesus turned the knob on a new doorway. He stepped through it in the power of his resurrection. And he left it open for us to step through and join him. He says as much to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life.”
When we are crushed by sudden and irretrievable loss, we will not in the first throes of pain, remember any of this. But God remembers, and God is present. “Lord, if you had been, here my brother would not have died,” say Lazarus’s sisters to Jesus. To which Jesus, as told in the expansive tapestry of life and death, responds, “Yes, he would have. But set your heart on this promise: I am with you always, and nothing, not even death can separate you from my love.”