Sermon March 26 2023 Never too Late John 11 Rev. Betsy Hogan
I don’t mind telling you…. That with every fibre of my being I rebel against having to preach on the story of the raising of Lazarus.
I rebel against it, having sat at too many bedsides. And with some of you. Having received too many phone calls, too many urgent texts, too many email messages –
“the end is near, the doctor’s told us, the kids and grandkids are coming, it won’t be long now”
I rebel against this story of the raising of Lazarus. Against its cruelty in presenting for us a possibility for an alternate ending to the story that simply isn’t ours in the world, on the ground, in the moment.
I rebel against all the commentaries that attempt to focus our attention on the depth of Martha’s faith and Mary’s anger, Martha’s anger and Mary’s faith, and Jesus’ grief. That wax eloquent on this evidence of Jesus’ humanity as he weeps for the loss of his friend…
as though the manifest mocking import of the happy ending to come is meaningless.
Because it isn’t. Lazarus for whom they keen and grieve and weep, comes back to this life. And that doesn’t happen. Not for us. If their grief is real, and it IS in the moment, it becomes a mockery of ours.
And I rebel emphatically against that cruelty. Lazarus pops back up. Comes back to this life. And this is not the salvific God Has The Last Word of Jesus’ inexplicable but existentially meaningful resurrection on Easter Sunday, with its triumph over the powers and principalities and their attempt to crush the way of generous love – that’s entirely different.
This is our fevered desperate daydreams that “no, it can’t possibly be true, they can’t possibly be gone”… coming true. In a way they never come true for us.
Martha and Mary and Jesus get to stop weeping, because Lazarus pops back up. So the commentaries can spare me, can spare us, on the waxing eloquent about their grief. As though it has ANYTHING to do with ours. Because it doesn’t.
Lazarus pops back up. WE just have to survive the loss, and with no surprise ending.
I can’t tell you how many commentaries and reflections and sermons I read this week that were titled in some variation of “it’s never too late”. Playing on Martha and Mary’s anger at Jesus that he waited too long, that he could have prevented Lazarus’ death, that he arrived too late.
Because no, all these commentaries and reflections and sermons said – no, it’s never too late. Because look, they cry out, look! How even after FOUR DAYS, and in Jewish tradition it was after THREE days that the soul was understood to leave the body –
How even after FOUR DAYS, Jesus could still bring Lazarus back to life. So it’s never too late, they all proclaim. It’s never too late.
But on the ground, in our real world, in our real experience, that’s only ever true metaphorically. And asserting otherwise is simply cruel.
This story has nothing to teach us about the actual grief of actual loss. But the difficulty with it is that ALL its details and its ENTIRE narrative arc makes it look like it should.
It’s literally in its details and its narrative arc a story about the death of a beloved brother and friend, and the searing grief of those who loved him – until suddenly it isn’t. And we’re left there, hanging. With our actual grief over actual loss watching our fevered desperate daydream that ‘no, it can’t possibly be true’… come true for Martha and Mary.
Wiping away their grief with ‘have faith, it’s never too late’. Because look! Lazarus has popped back up.
So I’ll straight-up own my rebellion against that cruelty. And I know -- maybe it doesn’t need to be said. Maybe we’re all quite comfortable with the metaphorical, or with consigning the raising of Lazarus to the status of “one time miracle, happened in the past, Jesus did it to manifest the power of God for those around him so they’d believe” – maybe it’s all good. Just another miracle.
Maybe in fact we’re quite capable of extracting from it the gospel – the good news, the promise – that it IS never too late for God’s power to raise new life out of where there was death… as long as we keep our spiritual glasses on to see what that new life might look like.
Maybe… if we assign to ourselves the role in this story of Lazarus. Rather than Mary or Martha. Searching inside it NOT for teachings about grieving and loss, but instead for teachings about renewal and revival and restarting afresh.
As people of faith we don’t even have to orient that toward the metaphorical, because we hold – however ephemerally or vaguely – the belief that THIS is only a part of how we live. That there is beyond THIS a more-life that continues. In the palm of God’s hand, in the breadth of God’s Spirit, in the atoms and elements of God’s creation.
So we can even locate our hopefulness and our trust in renewal and revival and restarting afresh into the space that stretches beyond the hospital bed or the last few breaths or the favourite chair or the feeling of the body.
And we can know that that’s where and how God’s power to raise new life out of where there was death can manifest. And does. We believe and we trust that there’s a new life, unseen but real.
That though we die, yet shall we live. That energy cannot be lost. That God who loves us SO MUCH in this life would never abandon us beyond it. And “beyond it” IS where and how God’s power to raise new life out of death does manifest.
But it also manifests here. And we can feel that, maybe, if we assign to ourselves the role in this story of Lazarus – and see what floats up. Lazarus who’s been wrapped up in gravecloths and laid down like he’s done… but that’s not where Jesus leaves him. That’s not where God leaves him. Because that’s not where God leaves anyone.
Wrapped up in gravecloths and laid down like we’re done.
What if in this story we’re Lazarus? What corner might we feel like we’re in? What circumscribed space behind what stone? What strips of cloth might be holding us, wrapping us, binding us up?
If we were Lazarus, what would it mean for us to hear Jesus cry out “take away the stone”? What would it mean for us to hear Jesus cry out “unbind them and let them go”? Because that’s the power of God revealed to us in this story.
And it’s real. Consigned to corners, imprisoned behind stones, bound up by the accumulated relics, fears, anxieties, traumas of a lifetime – these are not what God wants for us. These aren’t what God has for us.
Because what God has for us is the gentle hand of UNbinding, UNwrapping, freeing, renewing – and now… what’s next?
So often we think of this kind of unbinding and freedom in the stark and dramatic terms of being released one day at a time from addiction, or healed from trauma, or lifted out of war into refuge or out of poverty into education and plans and a future.
But we can find ourselves JUST as bound by other people’s expectations, or their needs, or their demands. We can find ourselves JUST as bound by the failures of people and systems to see us and care for us and value us, as we are.
We can find ourselves JUST as bound by our own self-doubt or regret or guilt, JUST as bound by the lecturing we inflict on ourselves or the angers we hold on to, JUST as bound by the fear of trying something new, JUST as bound by fears of risk or failure or the unknown.
And into all of that and any of that too, Jesus cries for us as he does for Lazarus “unbind them and let them go”. And that power is real. We’ve seen it. I’ve seen it, and I know you have too.
The clergy collect stories. We have to. It’s what makes all our rattling on possible. We collect amazing beautiful stories of people who do battle against addiction and find freedom, and stories of people who defy past trauma to make good lives for themselves, and even stories of new Canadians weeping with laughter as they scrabble forward on ice skates for the first time and hit the ground like enormous toddlers… again. Unbound from the past, from self-doubt, from fear of taking risks or leaning into a new reality. Dramatic, amazing, beautiful stories.
But I would say that I’ve collected stories too of a whole lot of people who’ve really just managed to put the pieces back together, in a slightly different way, and keep going.
Maybe two steps forward, one step back… but still. Unbound from being stuck with all the broken pieces. Letting the bandages fall away.
Jesus stands outside the tomb of Lazarus and cries out “Unbind him and let him go” – that power is real. In this story we’re Lazarus, being shown what God wants for us. What God has for us.
Whatever corner we might feel like we’re in. Whatever circumcribed space behind whatever stone. Whatever strips of cloth are holding us, wrapping us, binding us up.
“Take away the stone” Jesus cries out for us: “unbind them and let them go”.
And he means US. Once we’ve learned, at least, to stop rebelling against the preaching of the story of Lazarus – and instead just listen to it.
Thanks be to God. Amen.