11Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. 7Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
17When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” 28When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” 38Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”40Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
45Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
(This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.)
Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. Wring those words out and you’ll see so much anger dripping from them, it will puddle on the floor. Mary and Martha know that Jesus has the power to heal Lazarus, a man he professes to love, and he just . . . doesn’t. God makes all these grand promises about loving us and providing for us and being enough for us, and when we felt like we needed God more than ever before . . . silence.
Does this story feel familiar to you? I don’t mean, have you heard it? I mean, have you felt it? Have you ever needed God only to find . . . silence?
I remember the week I moved to Atlanta to go to seminary. I drove my old pickup truck; it was huge and smelled bad, but I loved that thing. I think my parents drove a U-Haul with my bed and tv and dresser and the like, and we came straight to Atlanta from Memphis. We pulled up to my first apartment and got everything unloaded the very first day—my mom was insistent that when we went to go get food, that she stay behind to set up my bookshelves. She wanted to get me set up before they went home, which they did the next morning.
And I came out of the apartment a couple of days later and realized I’d forgotten where I parked. I looked everywhere but I couldn’t find my truck. I thought, maybe I walked home last night? Or maybe I just didn’t see it? But of course, somebody had stolen it.
And it was the very next day, I’ll never forget this, it was the very next day that I got out of the shower to see that I’d missed a number of calls on my cell phone, all from my dad, and when I finally got ahold of him, he said, “Come home. Your mother has had an aneurysm. Her surgery is tomorrow. Hurry.”
And you start to ask questions when that kind of thing happens, you know, about what God is trying to tell you. Here I have uprooted myself to try and dedicate my life to you, O Lord, and if you had been here, my brother would not have died.
Mom had a successful surgery, eventually got better, and I bought another vehicle. Life goes on. That kind of visceral suffering doesn’t last forever. But it can feel that way, when the God who we worship and who promises us new life feels as far away as the farthest star.
There’s this story that came out in the months after the moon landing in 1969, that Buzz Aldrin had sort of hidden a little chalice, with a small little vial of wine and a Communion wafer that he’d had his pastor bless before the launch. And in the time between landing on the moon and getting out to go exploring, he took Communion on the surface of the moon, and while I am moved by that act of devotion, it mostly just reminds me of what can feel like on the journey of faith, like Jesus might as well be on the moon, like he’s so concerned with this little thimbleful of wine and this little Communion wafer than he is about my problems, my fears, the evils I see in the world: things like hunger, and war, and slavery. It makes me feel like God isn’t paying attention to me, to those of us down here on earth.
And you know when I feel the most that way? Maybe this will sound weird, but I can feel the most hopeless when I consider the state of the Christian church. Sometimes the people who act the worst are the people who profess to love God the most. I have a friend at a church conference this week who posted this quote on Twitter: the church is the only place where we let the unhealthy people scare off the healthy people. And you’ve heard me say that the church is a hospital for sinners, but a hospital is supposed to be a place that makes you well, not a place where you go for the sole purpose of spreading your disease.
Did you hear about the controversy at World Vision a couple of weeks ago? World Vision is this awesome organization that lets people sponsor children who then are better fed, do better in school, get fewer diseases, and end up being productive members of society. And the whole idea of World Vision is that this is what Jesus calls us to do, which of course it is. God calls us to help the most vulnerable among us, and while we may argue about the responsibility adults have to act right, surely we can agree on children. Surely we can agree that God calls us to help children who are hungry, children who are literally starving to death. And World Vision has taken up this mantle and done it with distinction, across the church, across all sorts of ideological lines, because at least we can agree that God wants us to care for children.
And a couple of weeks ago, World Vision decided that since they were involved with a number of Christian denominations with varying beliefs, they were going to change one small part of their hiring policies that said that they would not employ gay people. That was it. They didn’t change their statement of faith, which said scripture is divinely inspired and infallible. Richard Stearns, who is the World Vision CEO, made it a point to say that they weren’t endorsing same-gender marriage. They were just saying they’d be open to hiring gay people.
I want you to know that in the twenty-four hours after that announcement, World Vision’s donors were so angry that 10,000 of them dropped their sponsorships. Ten thousand children just left in the cold, without food, without clean water, without adequate shelter and schooling. Ten thousand children. It was such a significant number that within 48 hours, World Vision announced that they were changing their policy back. I would have done the same thing. Feeding children is far, far, far more important than the employment issue, though I’d argue that we ought not discriminate in any respect. A few folks called to reinstate their sponsorships, but the majority didn’t. And so I will be honest, when I see that ten thousand children lost sponsorships, because people who profess to follow Jesus decided that an employment policy that allowed for the employment of gay people was more important than feeding ten thousand children, I just wanted to cry. I just wanted to weep. What is wrong with us as humans, that this sort of thing could remotely be all right?
And this is the mood I was in when I came to the scripture this week, like we’ve put all this energy and time and money and love into the institution of the church, and all it takes is one silly HR policy change to undo all that work, to kick ten thousand children back into hunger, back into hopelessness. Lord, if you had been here . . .
Mary and Martha, friends of Jesus, got word to him that their brother, Lazarus, was near death. The only thing that would save him was a visit from Jesus, and of course Jesus would come. He loved Lazarus.
And yet . . . he didn’t. Jesus did not come. In their moment of need, of desperation, Mary and Martha called for Jesus, but he did not come, and Lazarus died.
After Lazarus’s death, Jesus made his way to Bethany, to the home of Mary and Martha, and when Mary heard he was near, she ran to him, weeping, and—I don’t know how you can read this in any tone other than seething anger—Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.
And Jesus saw her crying, and he was moved by her grief, and he did something pretty incredible, when you think about it. He cried. He wept. He was so disturbed by the pain she was experiencing that he, himself, felt that pain, and the very savior of the world wept.
It’s revolutionary, and we sometimes just pretend all it is is the shortest verse in the Bible, something to memorize when you have to memorize a Bible verse because it is so short, “Jesus wept.” And yet it’s a reminder to us that when all we can manage to do is to let our cries climb up our throats and out our mouths, when we feel like yelling “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” even then, God is with us. Just when we thought God was on the moon, it turns out Jesus has been sitting alongside us all along, crying with us. What a gift, to be loved that much.
I have a cousin who was crossing the street in college when he was hit by a car. He spent years in physical therapy, going through unbelievable pain towards recovery. And my grandfather used to go see him, used to spend time with him and entertain him, to try to keep his mind off the pain. And a few years later, when my grandfather passed away, my cousin said something so profound I feel like it belongs chiseled right above the cross, right here in church. Our grandfather, he said, was the only person he’d ever met who physically hurt when you hurt. He hurt when you hurt. That’s the message of this passage of scripture: that Jesus hurts when we hurt. It’s the message of the cross.
And lest it sound like all Jesus is good for is joining you for a cry, let me remind you that while we are on a journey towards the cross, the journey does not end there. Resurrection happens. Lazarus may have died. He may have lay in the tomb for days. But he did not stay there.
There may be days in which I am prone to despair at the circumstances of the world, or at the hypocrisy of the church, but then I remember that the worst thing is never the last thing, that Resurrection happens, and I am reminded that while ten thousand children may have lost funding because the church is a mess, I am also reminded that it is not like I was sponsoring a child through World Vision before this fiasco. I can complain all I want about the state of the church, but if I am going to practice Resurrection I’d better be willing to do my part. At least those who canceled their sponsorships had sponsored a child in the first place. So . . . I am repenting this week. I’ve gone to WorldVision.com and Stacey and I are sponsoring a child, Diana, who was born the very same day as Emmaline. Do I like the fact that World Vision discriminates in its hiring practices? No. But hungry children deserve food. Jesus suffers with those who suffer. To feed a child is to make an offering to God. I would invite you to consider doing something like this as well, or some other act of Resurrection in the face of death. This is what we are called to, Church. To follow Jesus. To be Resurrection people in the face of a world that shouts “crucify him” to anyone who steps out of line. To be Resurrection people, even when God seems far away.
I’ll end with this. In a few minutes we will share God’s feast, as we celebrate Communion and experience this Holy Mystery. This meal does not belong to me, or to this church, or to the denomination. The meal belongs to God, and it is given as a gift, so that though we may sometimes feel as if God is as far away as the moon, we are given the chance to experience that grace here, in the sharing of the bread and the cup, here. No matter who you are or what you have done, you are invited.
This meal is God’s gift to us, for it shows us that God loves us, even in the midst of pain. And what a gift, to worship a God who understands our pain, who hurts when we hurt, and who, rather than leaving us there, points to the pain that holds us captive and says, take away the stone. Unbind her, unbind him, and let them go. In the name of the Creator, the Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.