Nutshells

John 11:1-45

 

There was a man named Lazarus who lived in the village of Bethany with the two sisters, Mary and Martha, and he was ill. It was the same Mary, the sister of the sick man Lazarus, who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair. The sisters sent this message to Jesus, ‘Lord, the man you love is ill.’ On receiving the message, Jesus said, ‘This sickness will end not in death but in God’s glory, and through it the Son of God will be glorified.’

 

Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, yet when he heard that Lazarus was ill he stayed where he was for two more days before saying to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judaea.’ The disciples said, ‘Rabbi, it is not long since the Jews wanted to stone you; are you going back again?’ Jesus replied:

 

‘Are there not twelve hours in the day?

A man can walk in the daytime without stumbling

because he has the light of this world to see by;

but if he walks at night he stumbles,

because there is no light to guide him.’

 

He said that and then added, ‘Our friend Lazarus is resting, I am going to wake him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he is able to rest he is sure to get better.’ The phrase Jesus used referred to the death of Lazarus, but they thought that by ‘rest’ he meant ‘sleep’, so Jesus put it plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead; and for your sake I am glad I was not there because now you will believe. But let us go to him.’ Then Thomas – known as the Twin – said to the other disciples, ‘Let us go too, and die with him.’

 

On arriving, Jesus found that Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days already. Bethany is only about two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to sympathise with them over their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus had come she went to meet him. Mary remained sitting in the house. Martha said to Jesus, ‘If you had been here, my brother would not have died, but I know that, even now, whatever you ask of God, he will grant you.’ ‘Your brother’ said Jesus to her ‘will rise again.’ Martha said, ‘I know he will rise again at the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said:

 

‘I am the resurrection and the life.

If anyone believes in me, even though he dies he will live,

and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.

Do you believe this?’

 

‘Yes, Lord,’ she said ‘I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who was to come into this world.’

 

When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in a low voice, ‘The Master is here and wants to see you.’ Hearing this, Mary got up quickly and went to him. Jesus had not yet come into the village; he was still at the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who were in the house sympathising with Mary saw her get up so quickly and go out, they followed her, thinking that she was going to the tomb to weep there.

 

Mary went to Jesus, and as soon as she saw him she threw herself at his feet, saying, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ At the sight of her tears, and those of the Jews who followed her, Jesus said in great distress, with a sigh that came straight from the heart, ‘Where have you put him?’ They said, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus wept; and the Jews said, ‘See how much he loved him!’ But there were some who remarked, ‘He opened the eyes of the blind man, could he not have prevented this man’s death?’ Still sighing, Jesus reached the tomb: it was a cave with a stone to close the opening. Jesus said, ‘Take the stone away.’ Martha said to him, ‘Lord, by now he will smell; this is the fourth day.’ Jesus replied, ‘Have I not told you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. Then Jesus lifted up his eyes and said:

 

‘Father, I thank you for hearing my prayer.

I knew indeed that you always hear me,

but I speak for the sake of all these who stand round me,

so that they may believe it was you who sent me.’

 

When he had said this, he cried in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, here! Come out!’ The dead man came out, his feet and hands bound with bands of stuff and a cloth round his face. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, let him go free.’

 

Many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary and had seen what he did believed in him.

 

 

 

Despite the difficult times we are living in, I really hope you are making the most of Lent and thinking about your faith, your relationships with other people and your relationship with God.

 

Lent underlines that we have choices to make in life.  The big choices though are really quite easy for most of us.  We can look at the ten commandments and on the whole congratulate ourselves that we keep them, most of them anyway, and that we must therefore be good people. For most of us it isn’t that difficult not to murder someone, or not to steal;  on the whole we do honour our parents, and believe in God.

 

But Lent points us more precisely to God, and asks us to examine our lives more deeply. 

 

In the gospel we read the story of the raising of Lazarus, and may see it as a wonderful miracle performed 2000 years ago by Jesus;  a miracle in which his friend is brought back to life, and all around realize how much Lazarus meant to Jesus.

 

But what is harder perhaps is to realize that this story was not just for Mary and Martha and their families.  Not a story just rooted in time and space long ago.  This is a story for us today: through this reading God  has a message for you and me, now.

 

For we are dry bones; each of us is Lazarus.  We are dried up, not bearing fruit, dead to the world around us.  We are shut in to the caves of our lives, bound tight by the constraints of our way of life; are eyes are bandaged so that we cannot see; our ability to move confined by the bandages tied tight around our existence.  We sit entombed by the walls of our homes unable to quite break out and shine in the world.

 

But it doesn’t have to be like that. God wishes to open our graves and for us to reconnect with others (social distancing permitting), to be filled with the breath of his Spirit.   Jesus is calling to us to ‘Come out!’  We are being called from darkness to light.  Jesus rolls away the stone that entombs us, wanting us to be unbound and set free.  The Spirit is there to enter our lives, to put new flesh on dry bones, to recreate us in the image of God. Physically in these times we may remain restricted, and church buildings may be closed, but this does not mean our faith cannot be alive.

 

But we have to listen to the call of God.  We have to respond in our deadness and be prepared to shake off that which binds us; We can step forward into the new life Christ offers – or we can hide in the dark recesses, afraid of the light, afraid of the future, afraid of what God’s call may bring.

 

It is so much easier not to respond to God; so much easier to stay in our old routine, to safely shut out all that may harm us, in body and mind;  so much safer not to think too hard, not to question too much.

 

But for those who do respond, those that do heed his voice, a glorious new life awaits now;  for we are called to live our faith in this world for now, even in the confines of our homes, with the promise of eternal life in the kingdom in the future.  And Jesus feeds us with his own life-giving body and blood, nourishes us for our journey of faith, and equips us for the new life in Christ. He is there, even if we cannot receive him at the Mass.  He is there, as we pray and use all the resources we have to connect with each other at a distance.  He is there for us, as the Mass is celebrated and offered for us even though we may not be physically present.

 

Will you listen to his voice? Heed his call? Search for him in the darkness?

 

Lent calls us to be ready and to respond to the events of Holy Week and Easter, so that we can be an Easter people, alive and alight with the power of the spirit to proclaim Jesus as Lord, and to stand in his presence now and for ever.  Amen.

 

Disappointment and Unanswered Questions – A Sermon on John 11:1-45 and Ezekiel 37:1-14

Lets 5A: Ezekiel 37:1-14 (valley of dry bones) John 11:1-45 (raising of Lazarus)

“Lazarus is dead,” Jesus tells the disciples.

It’s not hard to imagine the questions that might be running through the minds of the disciples and the hearts of Mary and Martha. They are the same kind of questions I have heard being asked and I have asked myself over the last several weeks as this parish and our surrounding community endured tragic accidents, deaths, and funerals that came way too soon. They are the same kind of questions we ask ourselves and each other whenever life is interrupted and changed in ways we do not want. They are the same kind of questions we ask when circumstances show us just how difficult, fragile, and beautiful life really is.

Why? How could this happen? What’s next for me? Is this an ending or a beginning? Could it be both? How do I move forward? How do I make sense of what has happened? What will life be like now? Why didn’t it work out the way I wanted? What could or should I have done differently? Is there life after this? Why didn’t God do something? Every one of you could add to this list. We all have our questions, thousands of them.

The ultimate question, the one that lies behind and grounds all our other questions, is the one God asks Ezekiel. “Mortal, can these bones live again?” That’s what we are really asking. That’s what I want to know. Don’t you? That question is the valley that cuts through the center of our lives. And yet, it’s not a simple yes or no kind of question. Neither is it answered once and for all. It’s a question we live with and ask over and over.

What is the valley that cuts through center of your life? What questions did you ask when the Lazarus of your life died? What questions are you asking today?

Every time life sets before me those kind of questions I am reminded, once again, that I live with more questions than answers, and the answers I do have no longer seem to carry the weight and authority they once did. Our lives are filled with unanswered questions.

My experience is that the unanswered questions of life tend to leave us disappointed; disappointed in life itself, in ourselves, in another, or sometimes in God. Disappointment is wrapped up in and bound by our unmet expectations. That’s where Mary and Martha are in today’s gospel (John 11:1-45). They are disappointed. “Lord, if you have been here, my brother would not have died,” they both say separately to Jesus. Even the crowd that follows Mary is disappointed. “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” they ask.

I know that disappointment and I’ll bet you do too. We want answers, explanations, and understanding. But maybe there aren’t any; at least, not the kind most of us want. Maybe life itself is an unanswered question and maybe that’s how we are to live it.

Jesus does not offer answers or explanations to Mary and Maratha, or to us. Instead, he uses our disappointment as “an agency for transformation” (David Whyte, Consolations, p.63). Jesus seems to know that disappointment is inescapable, necessary, and even a faithful response to life’s circumstances. He neither criticizes nor ridicules Martha and Mary for their disappointment. Instead, he uses it as an opening and entry point into their lives.

There’s something honest, heartfelt, and real about Mary and Martha’s words of disappointment to Jesus. They are offering and making themselves available to him. They rethink what they know about life, death, and resurrection. They risk smelling the stench of death. They are walking in that valley that cuts through the center of their lives.

To attempt to insulate ourselves from disappointment and demand once and for all kind of answers to life’s questions is to close ourselves to the vulnerabilities that make possible real life, love, intimacy, and relationships with God or with another. It limits what we are willing to risk giving or receiving. It leaves the stone in place over Lazarus’ tomb, and refuses to consider God’s question to Ezekiel.

While we might want to escape our disappointments, life wants to use them. Life will not waste our disappointments, and Jesus always stands in the middle of life. Disappointment calls into question our assumptions about life, ourselves, each other, and God.

Disappointment asks us to reassess ourselves and our inner world. It is the first step in freeing us from misguided assumptions. It breaks old patterns of seeing and relating that have become hardened and less than life sustaining. It opens our eyes to a deeper way of seeing. Jesus uses our disappointment in the unanswered questions of life to invite us to a “larger foundational reality” than what we create for ourselves and project onto the world (Whyte, p. 63).

Isn’t that what he’s doing with Mary and Martha? “I am the resurrection and life.” “Take away the stone.” “Did I not tell you that you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” “Lazarus come out.” “Unbind him and let him go.” With those words Jesus is holding before Martha and Mary the valley that cuts through the center of their lives. “Mortal, can these bones live again?”

The great question before us (and Mary and Martha) is whether we experience our disappointment as an opportunity for seeing and engaging our lives and world in new, different, and life-giving ways “or whether we experience it only as a wound that makes us retreat from further participation” (Whyte, p. 64-65). It’s a question we answer every day. It’s a question Jesus answered throughout his life.

Don’t think that Jesus did not know disappointment. He surely did. He knew disappointment in the death of Lazarus, the crucifixion, Peter’s drawn sword and violence, Judas’ betrayal, the disciples sleeping in the garden, the way his Father’s house had been turned into a den of robbers, his disciples arguing about who was the greatest, the disciples’ misunderstanding of who he is, the world’s refusal to receive him, and in a myriad of other ways.

Every disappointment held before him, as it does for us, the choice between engaging or retreating from the world and our lives. He refused to be stopped by his disappointments. Instead, he used them as entry points into our lives. They became points of identification with us. His every disappointment become one more step deeper into the valley that cuts through the center of our lives.

So let me ask you again. What is the valley that cuts through the center of your life? Whatever it is it’s a place through which Jesus has walked and shown the way forward. It is not the dark place we often think it is. It’s an aperture into the light, a path that opens to new life, a clearer way of seeing, a truer sense of ourselves, and a deeper experience of Christ. It becomes the place of our unbinding and being let go.

In this valley “the question mark of life becomes God’s exclamation point” (D.S.): the exclamation point of love, the exclamation point of life and light, the exclamation point of mercy and forgiveness, the exclamation point of wisdom, beauty, and generosity, the exclamation point of hope, healing, and compassion, and ultimately, the exclamation point of God’s “yes” to you and your life.

“Mortal, can these bones live again?” The answer to that question echoes throughout the valley that cuts through the center of your life. Yes they can! Yes they do! Yes they will!




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