Mary, Martha, and Lazarus of Bethany
John 11:1-7, 17-44
Today, the church honors a peculiar family of two sisters and brother. The strangeness doesn’t just lie in this arrangement, of two unmarried women needing the protection of a male relative in a patriarchal society. But strangely Jesus their rabbi, guru, healer and teacher with a revolutionaries following doesn’t race back to heal his friend. But instead delays his journey almost as though he’s wanting the situation to get worse for these vulnerable siblings. Talk about nonanxious pastoral presence, Jesus is nonanxiously absent from the scene.
With the typically confused disciples Jesus finally arrives at Mary and Martha’s. Lazarus has been dead 4 days and the whole community is gathered around in mourning. Martha and Mary both in their grief express frustration and disappointment with Jesus “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” You can feel the pain, the anger. As the story unfolds we see Jesus himself grieving the loss of his friend, and finally Jesus puts flesh on the words he said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” Jesus asks that the stone of the tomb be rolled away and he cries out to the dead man “Lazarus, come out”, wrapped in strips of cloth, like someone in mummy costume Lazarus walks out.
This is one of the famous stories of our faith, prefiguring Jesus own resurrection from the dead. But what does this story, of confused, anxious disciples, disappointed, grieving sisters, curious, pesky neighbors, a dead man and Jesus have to say to us today?
I think this story reminds us that our journey of faith if we are really attentive to it, does not deny the reality of death, loss, confusion, disappointment or pain but helps give meaning and purpose to our lives and our deaths. This perplexing story tells us that those who were the closest to Jesus, his disciples and friends were often afraid, anxious, and disappointed -- and Jesus responds to their honest, blunt, and angry words with solidarity, compassion and care. Being close to Jesus means we can be real with him. This story can help us discover the presence of Jesus who raises the dead in the context of our actual daily lives --- not as an abstract, distant, far off, fancy concept but as a living reality rooted in the here and now, as part of a tangible community that breathes, weeps, cries, flexes its muscles, and rolls away stones together.
Jesus’ raising Lazarus is a provocative sign that God’s concern is real life, life with all its joys and sorrows, struggles and confusion. Jesus, the incarnate word made flesh --- that presence at that tomb, those tears, transforms the boundaries between life and death. Christ’s presence in our lives, at our tombs, in our tears, transforms the world not just in abstract and philosophical ways but in concrete, tangible actions of compassion and solidarity.
Being a follower of Jesus, means eventually showing up to the pain, oppression, sadness, disappointment, grief, complexity and confusion of our real lives wherever those dark places may be. As the saying goes there can be no Easter with out Good Friday, there can be no transformation with out pain, no true reconciliation with out truth telling, no hope with out grief.
Being close to Jesus means we can be real with Jesus. Being a faithful community means we can be real with each other. Martha and Mary, Lazarus too this families honesty, their raw vulnerability creates space for Christ to enter the picture and do holy transforming work in words, tears, and sweat. May we find the same courage to be ourselves, to be real with Jesus and with each other.
The queer Episcopal lay theologian celebrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury on his visit to our last General Convention said
"Being holy, becoming and being a saint, does not mean being perfect but being whole; it does not mean being exceptionally religious, or being religious at all. It means being liberated from religiosity and religious pietism of any sort. It does not mean being godly, but rather being truly human."
-William Stringfellow, A Keeper of the Word
Thank you Mary, Martha and Lazarus for showing us yourselves, for inviting us to be ourselves in our tears, at our tombs in all our confusions, longings, disappointments, sorrows and helping us discover Christ right there, right here with us.