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The Strength of the Community

John 11:1-45 (CEB)

…When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Bethany was a little less than two miles from Jerusalem. Many Jews had come to comfort Martha and Mary after their brother’s death. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him, while Mary remained in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. Even now I know that whatever you ask God, God will give you.”

Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha replied, “I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.”

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die. Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

She replied, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, God’s Son, the one who is coming into the world.”

After she said this, she went and spoke privately to her sister Mary, “The teacher is here and he’s calling for you.” When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to Jesus. He hadn’t entered the village but was still in the place where Martha had met him.

When the Jews who were comforting Mary in the house saw her get up quickly and leave, they followed her. They assumed she was going to mourn at the tomb.

When Mary arrived where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”

When Jesus saw her crying and the Jews who had come with her crying also, he was deeply disturbed and troubled. He asked, “Where have you laid him?”

They replied, “Lord, come and see.”

Jesus began to cry. The Jews said, “See how much he loved him!” But some of them said, “He healed the eyes of the man born blind. Couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying?”

Jesus was deeply disturbed again when he came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone covered the entrance. Jesus said, “Remove the stone.”

Martha, the sister of the dead man, said, “Lord, the smell will be awful! He’s been dead four days.”

Jesus replied, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory?” So they removed the stone. Jesus looked up and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me. I know you always hear me. I say this for the benefit of the crowd standing here so that they will believe that you sent me.”

Having said this, Jesus shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied, and his face covered with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.”

Therefore, many of the Jews who came with Mary and saw what Jesus did believed in him.

April 1-2, 2017
John 11:17-45
Fifth Sunday of Lent
“The Strength of Community”

On this Fifth Sunday of Lent, we continue hearing Parables of Hope from the Gospel of John.

Our Lenten journey has now led us to the tomb of Lazarus and God’s gift of life out of death. This story of raising Lazarus from the dead is one that is found only in the Gospel of John.

The setting for today’s story is the village of Bethany, about 2 miles outside of Jerusalem near the road to Jericho. Bethany was the place of some of the most important events of Jesus’ life and ministry.

It was also the home of the sisters Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus, who were friends and followers of Jesus. Lazarus has fallen extremely ill, and his sisters send for Jesus. Even though Mary, Martha and Lazarus were close friends with Jesus; probably like extended family, Jesus delays going and stays where he was for two more days.

We pick up our story as Jesus arrives in Bethany after his two-day delay only to find that Lazarus is dead and has been in the tomb for four days. The four days is significant because in the ancient Jewish tradition, it was believed that the soul stayed with the body for three days after someone died. So, after four days Lazarus is really dead and would smell like he was dead.

But whenever Jesus shows up, even if he shows up late, life begins to rise up in that place.

(Read John 11:17-45)

When was the last time you cried?
We all cry…we come into the world crying and then learn how to get what we need as infants with our cries. As we move through life we may cry at sad movies, a good book, the daily news, the sorrow of tragedy, a difficult conversation, unexpected loss, or the diagnosis of illness. We cry at weddings and we cry at funerals.

At times as adults, we see the shedding of tears as a sign of weakness, but tears are a natural response to pain and sadness. Tears are a sign that we are alive.

If we were to do a ranking, the death of a loved one would probably rank as the one thing that makes most of us cry. Sometimes it is the pain of loss that makes us cry and sometimes it is the remembering.
Whenever we are stirred to such depths, these are times that God is at work in our lives. Theologian Frederick Buechner once said that it would help us all if we would keep track of the times and events in our lives that bring tears to our eyes; then we would see the places where God is getting through to us.

Yet, so often when we wrestle and struggle with grief or loss or depression or any number of other dark valleys, we feel that God has left us, or delayed coming when we have called. Sometimes it seems God has a tendency to disappear or delay just when we most need to know God’s presence.

We call into the darkness and only get more darkness and then it’s hard to hold on, or stay strong, or remain hopeful.

Mary and Martha called out to Jesus and Jesus intentionally delayed in coming. It’s easy to get sidetracked in wondering what was more important that Jesus delayed coming. And when he did show up, the sisters did not hold back their grief, their frustration, their disappointment or their dashed hope. And in so doing, Mary and Martha discovered a truth many of us have discovered…not only can God take it, but God cries right along with us.

Mary and Martha were in that place that many of us find ourselves at times…that place that teeters between faith and belief; and anger and disappointment with God.

The tears of Mary in our Gospel story evoked an emotional and powerful response from Jesus. The Scripture says that Jesus was “deeply disturbed and troubled” when he saw Mary and the others weeping.

Jesus does not stand outside of the moment as an observer. He is present and involved in the moment with those he loves that are suffering as if it were his own suffering…Jesus shows empathy.

There is a subtle difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is feeling concern for someone else without becoming involved in his or her life. Certainly there are times when we hear about other’s pain and all we can do is feel sympathy and offer our prayers.

But empathy is different…empathy means to sense or feel another’s pain as if it were our own.

A little girl stayed outside playing much longer than she was supposed to stay. When she got home her mother scolded her and asked where she had been. The child said that one of her friends had broken her doll and she stopped and helped her try to fix it.
For two hours? her mother asked. Then her mother asked her how she thought she was going to fix a broken doll. And, in all the innocence of a child, the little girl said, “I knew I couldn’t fix the doll, but I sat down with my friend and helped her cry.”

There are some things beyond our fixing and all we can do is weep with those who weep. When this is all we can do, it is enough.

Jesus weeps for the death of Lazarus and throughout the story, he is constantly pointing to who God is as love and compassion. The good news of this story is that God freely enters into our suffering. When tragedy and heartache strike, I believe God is the first to cry.
And while none of us can avoid pain and grief and sorrow in our lives, it can be a comfort to know that God is weeping with us.

Our Scripture shows God’s power and presence is always in the midst of pain and suffering. God does not abandon us.

This does not mean God will necessarily take away our pain and suffering. What it does mean is that God will not leave us, but will comfort us in times of trouble, and surround us with community to help.

As Jesus shouts in a voice loud enough to wake the dead, Lazarus comes out of the tomb bound from head to toe in the wrappings of death. He is alive again, but still not free. Then, Jesus instructs the people to “untie him and let him go.”

Jesus is the one who calls Lazarus from the tomb, but it is the people…the community around him that is called by Jesus to free Lazarus by untying and unbinding him from the trappings that held him. While Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, he was not free or fully alive until the community unbinds him.

The raising of Lazarus reveals the power of God to overcome death and bring new life. But this story also brings to light the importance of those who are on the journey of life and faith with us. The unbinding of our sisters and brothers struggling with the pain and difficulty of life is the work of community and is the strength that community offers.

If you had the opportunity to see the Laramie Project Friday or Saturday night or take that opportunity this afternoon, you will see a powerful portrayal of how hatred and fear can bind and kill. But then how compassion within community can unbind and lead to new life.

So, a question to ask ourselves is, what can we do to unbind family and friends and others around us from the trappings of pain and suffering, and how can we allow others do the same for us?

God calls us out of the places that may feel like tombs…places of grief, physical or mental illness, addiction, tragedy, loneliness, difficult relationships, poverty, unemployment, or any number of other places of exclusion, discrimination or hopelessness.

And while God calls us out of those places, it is the community known as the body of Christ…It is us that are called to do the hard, often slow task of untying and unbinding.

Then as the miracle of life and hope unfolds, the presence of God is revealed for those who choose to see and we will see that God, not the trappings of pain or death, has the last word.

Our Gospel story reveals both God’s power to bring new life and our power and calling as community to participate in bringing about that new life.

In this rich story several lessons emerge: Jesus cried with those he loved…and he still does. Jesus raised people up…and he still does. And Jesus includes the community in the healing process…and he still does.
There is also a resurrection lesson in our Gospel story that offers us the hope that God’s love is greater, and longer, and stronger than death or the trappings of our life.
Jesus responds to Mary and Martha with words of promise. Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die. Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

As we move through the last two weeks of Lent that includes Holy Week, and then as we celebrate the resurrection and the life of Christ on Easter, this promise of Jesus truly is an affirmation of our faith that we share within community.

May it be so for each of us.
Thanks be to God.