Gardening in the Wilderness #5:
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Fifth Sunday in Lent/A • March 29, 2020 • © 2020 All Rights Reserved
Every moment is a gate between the past and the future; every moment comes with a context and holds possibilities. Today we’re invited into this final moment before Jesus comes to Jerusalem, today we are invited to face the darkness of death and see the possibilities of resurrection. Today we are asked to stop in this moment and consider our own lives in the light of these other lives. What then? What now?
See how carefully John invites us into the scene. Bethany is a suburb of Jerusalem. Mary and Martha are gathered there; Lazarus, their brother, is deathly ill. I know this scene and perhaps you do as well. It’s played out in hospital waiting rooms every day. Right now, at Albany Med, at St. Peters, some family is gathered, waiting, talking, worrying. Nothing has changed; nothing is different, then, now. Their brother has been sick, perhaps for a long time. Everything has been tried; nothing has worked.
Now they try one more thing. Jesus has a reputation for healing and he’s their friend. So someone, another friend perhaps, is sent to get him. Imagine their hope, their last hope, that Jesus will swoop in and save the day.
But he doesn’t. In fact, after the messenger arrives with his frantic plea, Jesus doesn’t rush off, Jesus doesn’t interrupt whatever he’s doing, Jesus stays where he is, the text says, two more days. The story invites us into an irony that reflects our own fears.
When the messenger arrives, asking, begging Jesus to come to Bethany, his disciples are afraid. “The last time we were down there, people rioted and we barely got out with our lives!”, they remind him; that’s what it means when it says they were stoned. At the moment Jesus is asked to intervene and prevent Lazarus’ death, the disciples urge him not to go because they’re afraid of death. Here’s one response to death: avoid it, stay safe. Before death, use your mind to escape death.
Jesus doesn’t listen to them. When his disciples were discussing the man born blind, he told them, “I am the light of the world.” Now he gives them an example of living in the light and makes his way to Bethany.
There he encounters first Martha and later Mary, the sisters of Lazarus, and each one confronts him with an accusation: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” They are grieving, they are hurt, they are angry and their anger and faith have mixed into a bitter blindness. Swirling around this entire conversation is a group of other mourners as well and emotions run high. Jesus is himself caught up in the moment; the text tells us “Jesus wept.” So here we have a second response to death: weep, mourn, grieve. If the rational process of avoiding death fails, the emotional process of grieving offers a path.
We’ve all been to a funeral and probably to that time before the service, calling hours, wake, different names for the same moment. Usually there is a casket or an urn at the front of the room and a line leading to it with a grieving family off to one side. I don’t know what you think of as you wait in that line but for many, it’s what to say to the family. What comfort can you bring?
So I imagine this scene like that: the family and friends gathered around as Jesus, Lazarus’ great friend, comes forward through the crowd. See him walking slowly? See him weeping? Now he comes to the opening, he tells them to roll away the stone and they object: the odor of death will escape. But the grave is opened and suddenly he speaks, he says what no one imagined or expected, what none of us would say:
“Lazarus, come out.”
Jesus shouts: “Lazarus, come out,” the word for ‘shout’ is the same word is used at his entrance to Jerusalem when the crowds shout “Hosanna!”. The same word is used days later when the same crowd shouts, “Crucify!” The crowd changes; Jesus never does. His voice doesn’t come from an impulse. This is what we often miss about Jesus. I don’t believe he suddenly decided to talk to Nicodemus or give vision to heal the man born blind. And he doesn’t just call Lazarus out of the tomb because they are friends. Jesus lives from who he is. He says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” He doesn’t act like resurrection, he is resurrection; he doesn’t act like he loves, he is love.
Now there is a faint noise from inside the tomb, now there is the sound of stumbling feet, now there is a shadow moving, moving toward the light from the darkness, just as the man born blind moved from blindness to sight. “Come out, Lazarus!”
Lazarus stumbles forward, wrapped still in the linen cloths with which bodies were bound in that time. Jesus offers a new command: “Unbind him and let him go.” Notice that in each command, Jesus invites others to take action. He tells others to move the stone; he doesn’t pull Lazarus out of the tomb, he calls him out; he doesn’t unbind him, he asks the whole group there to do this. Jesus works through a community around him, commanding, inspiring, calling, showing them what to do and inviting them to do it.
We’ve seen two ways to deal with death: avoidance and acceptance. Jesus offers a third—faith in the resurrection, faith in the power of life, faith in the love of God so that even in the midst of death, we remain alive to God, as Paul will say later, transformed.
That faith can bind us together into a resurrection people, inspired to live our lives in the image of Jesus. Just being a church doesn’t guarantee that; there are plenty of churches who are gathered around a shared culture or a determination to preserve the past.
I called this series of sermons, “Gardening in the Wilderness” because Lent began with these two images: the Garden as an emblem of God’s intention for creation, the Wilderness as the empty place we often live. The fundamental Christian mission is to go to where the power of death is working and call God’s children to life, to go to darkness and bring light, to be gardeners in the wilderness.
When we act out of hope, it can make a life saving difference.
Holland was overwhelmed by a German assault in 1940. Soon the Nazi focus on murdering Jews made itself felt. In Amsterdam, a large theater was gutted and used as a detention center and and used to gather Jewish children so they could be killed. Ironically, it was called “the Creche”, a word usually used about the stable where Jesus was born. A small group of Dutch resisters, both Christians and Jews, began to work to save these children. Despite the increasing risks, for the next three years they organized smuggled children out of the creche to homes in northern Holland and other places where families would hide and help them. The creche was meant to be a tomb for these children. But thanks to the efforts of these who walked into that tomb and spirited them out, hundreds of children were saved.
But it’s not simply a story of heroes and happy children. Many of the group were lost to the Gestapo, arrested, tortured, murdered. Darkness is powerful; death does not give up. The only power greater than death is resurrection, the only thing that can keep the light alive is the power of God’s love.
All along his journey, Jesus has faced conflict and threats. We saw the anger of the Pharisees last week when he healed the man born blind. We know that the charge, “He eats with sinners,” was frequently used and that included people like the woman at the well certainly. Beyond the reading for today, John tells us that the raising of Lazarus leads directly to the plot to arrest and execute Jesus.
Remember how Jesus’ conversation with Satan ended. Satan did not say, “I give up”; instead, we’re told, he left him for a more opportune time. Now that time is coming. The darkness is closing around him even as he himself brings light. I wonder in that moment what his followers thought; I wonder what we would have thought, what I would have thought. I read this story and I want to rejoice but it scares me as well. I wonder: what now Lord?
For the story of Jesus calling someone to life from death isn’t just history; it is the present too. Over and over in my ministry I have seen this happen. Some person, nurtured by a congregation, comes alive. Perhaps it was a woman whose life had been bound by walls of oppression; perhaps it is a man who turns a life around.
Perhaps it is someone who only comes to church for a little while and then moves on. This is what sustains me on my journey. I’ve seen Jesus call people to life. I’ve felt Jesus call me to life.
Every moment is a gate between the past and the future; every moment comes with a context and holds possibilities. As we go out each day, we have to choose among those possibilities. How will we choose? The power of resurrection comes into our lives when we face the day, face the possibilities, face the choices with this question first: what now Lord? What now? If we ask, surely he will answer; if we ask, surely he will show us how to walk in the light, how to live following the one who is life. Amen.
Note: The account of the Resistance group working to save children is found in The Heart Has Reasons: Holocaust Rescuers and Their Stories of Courage