On Death and Life

Passage: John 11:1-45
Date: April 2, 2017
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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News traveled fast after that. In Cana, the man who served as chief steward at the wedding a few years back grew thoughtful, remembering the wine that had saved the day and hinted at a promise of things to come.

In Sychar, as the women met at the well in the morning to draw their water, they told the story and gossiped about that man who had promised them living water, who now seemed to have promised to bring life out of death.

Outside Jerusalem, the man who could now see walked by the pool of Siloam, and as he walked toward the gates of the city, he saw groups of men clustered, whispering, fear and wonder on their faces. They had almost stopped talking about him, and the miraculous recovery of his sight, but as he walked by and heard the whispered name of Jesus, he saw that once again they looked at him askance, wondering what devilry returned his sight, wondering what devilry raised a man to life again.

Inside the gates of the city, word spread to the Pharisees including Nicodemus. He stayed silent as his colleagues expressed their concern. He could almost see the plan hatching in their midst, a plan to do away with this wonder-worker, this charlatan who pretended to be God. Nicodemus, true to form, stayed silent. His mind wandered back to the shadows of that night he snuck out to meet this man Jesus, remembering a conversation that made no more sense this day than that night a while back.

And you? And I? What do we think about this strange story of Jesus calling someone out of death back into life? This story can touch us in the depths of our humanity, in those almost primordial beliefs we hold about life and death.

Because we have all lived the truth of those words each of the sisters says: If you had been here, my brother would not have died.

If only he had taken better care of himself, he would not have died. If only the doctors had made the right diagnosis, she would not have died. If only he had been at a different place, at a different time, he would not have died. If only we had discovered a cure or a vaccine, if only we had tended to our environment, if only there were fewer guns, if only, if only, if only….

Death is the flaw in this grand design of humanity. Of late I have thought that figuring out our relationship with death is the great human dilemma. Are we friend or foe of death? Do we fear it or accept it? Do we applaud those who seek out ways to live extraordinarily long lives, those who believe in cryogenics, those who claim to have the secret to immortality? Or like John Donne, do we say “Death, be not proud”?

Our attitude toward death changes as we do. But all of us here have experienced that first death that stunned us to our core and forever shaped us. It may have been the death of a parent or grandparent, the death of a friend, or some death on the news. But we sat there, unbelieving and horrified and unsure what to do with that wave of grief that overtook us, wondering if we would ever come up for air again.

So when you remember that, you may have a sense of what Mary and Martha went through. The story implies that this family of siblings were dear friends of Jesus. As sisters with a brother and evidently without parents, these women loved their brother and, just as importantly, depended on him as the male who protected them and provided for them. His death meant not only the loss of their beloved, but the loss of their security and standing as well.

So they send for Jesus. In this constellation of characters we’ve been reading about this Lent, we have met those whose lives Jesus changed – the wine steward, Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman at the well, the man born blind. We can assume that Jesus changed the lives of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus as well – they had heard enough or seen enough of his power to believe that with him all things were possible, that what indeed had come into being in him was life.

They send for Jesus so he will prevent Lazarus from dying. And Jesus doesn’t come. In fact, he deliberately tarries. He waits. He shows up late, when Lazarus has been good and dead for four days, enough time for his soul to have permanently left his body. There is no turning back.

Remember that the point of the gospel of John is not Jesus; the point of the story is this God whom Jesus points us to again and again, this God whose power and love are made visible and known in the person of Jesus. And where God’s power and God’s love most potently meet is life. In the beginning, God created and brought forth life. Here at Lazarus’ tomb, God will bring forth life again.

Just when everyone thought things could not get worse, they don’t. They don’t get worse. The story turns at that moment when Jesus commands, “Lazarus, come out!” Indeed the entire gospel turns at that moment, as Jesus enacts the seventh and last of his signs, performs his last miracle, a miracle that will set the stage for the climax of the entire story. We get a whiff of resurrection here, not the stench of death’s decay but the scent of life blossoming.

Earlier I said I’ve come to believe that figuring out our relationship with death is the great human dilemma. But I also believe that figuring out our relationship with life is the great human adventure. Most of us here would say that life is a gift, that being able to see and breathe and move through this world with these people is an extraordinary thing. To be able to paint and dance and sing, to read and think and create, to wonder and laugh and gather, to break bread that has come from seeds planted in the ground, and tended and harvested and shaped and baked and brought: life itself is a miracle.

Probably all of us here have held a newborn baby – our own or the child of someone dear to us. That experience shapes us too – the wonder that an entire human being was grown in another human being, and came out with fingernails and eyelashes and a rosebud of a mouth, squalling, pooping, sleeping. The miracle loses some of its shine, what with acne and bruised knees and bruised egos. The miracle dulls in the face of disappointment and bad choices and experience. But I wonder if somehow this story of Lazarus might bring us back to the miracle and gift of life.

One way to think about this is to reflect on how we enjoy life and bring life to others. Do you enjoy your life? Are you glad you are alive? For some people there are forces at play that make that question hard to answer; depression looms, or there have been one too many bad breaks, or the body aches and is weary. I do not ask that question lightly. But this spring in particular, perhaps because it has been so very gray and rainy, I have been moved by the blossoming plum trees and the daffodils and the fragrance of daphne. I am grateful for the gift of spring because it feels like a visual song about life.

Do you enjoy your life? Are you glad you are alive? And whatever your answer to those questions might be, consider this: do you bring life to others? There are forces at play there, too: a fascination with violence as entertainment – the body count on television and the movies is horrifying. More horrifying is the body count in the news: in Syria, among refugees, gun deaths in American cities, and overdose deaths in rural communities. Is there some part of your life that allows you to give life to someone else, to better a life, to better a community or a city or the world? I would hope that as people of faith we say yes to that, not only as individuals but as a community. I think we, as Westminster, are trying to do that, particularly as we feed people and walk alongside them as they find homes. But there is always more to do.

The last thing I want to say about this story is about the cost of life. If you read on just a little further after this story, you will learn that it was this act of life, this raising of Lazarus, which led the religious authorities to the decision that it was time for Jesus to die. His gift of life for Lazarus came at the price of his own life.

When we bring life to others it may come at a personal cost. It may come at literal cost – more resources for someone else might mean fewer resources for ourselves. Bringing life to others may come at an emotional cost, a letting go of pride or the letting go of a dream. Bringing life to others may come at a social cost, taking an unpopular stand so that we lose friends, speaking up for someone on whatever margins that causes us to be criticized or shunned.

A Methodist pastor named John van de Laar poses this question for us, one he wrestled with in this story of Lazarus and Jesus: If you had the capacity to give life to someone, to enable them to live more fully, more vibrantly, more meaningfully – to discover what it means to be truly alive – would you do it, if your doing so would cost you your own life? (http://sacredise.com/articles/lectionary-reflections/lectionary-reflections-year-a/lent-05-the-cost-of-living-lazarus/)

Next Sunday is Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week. It is this question that will lead us through those final days of Jesus, who turned quite deliberately toward Jerusalem, who did that very thing of giving up his life so that others might live. His choice was different from ours; he was Jesus, after all, and we are not him.

Still, to be human, to be a person of faith, is to acknowledge that we do not live for ourselves alone. We live for others, and we live for God. There is a dilemma in that; there is adventure in that, too.

Would you give life to another even if it came at great cost to you? It is okay to answer that question with a no. Jesus answered that question with a yes.