John has some long, winding stories. If you missed the past few Sundays, you might not know that. If you do know that, I apologize for telling you what you know. Surely all of us realize that today. You are here, and I am glad. The majority of Christians are anywhere but in church today. So thanks for showing up, even if you get fidgety listening to the Gospel and sermons. My mind wanders, too: “I’ve heard this story before. I know how it ends. Why do we stand for long readings? What do I need from the grocery store? Why did God let Kentucky win” – and off go our minds. But worship is not about us showing up. It’s about God.
Today we stand outside a tomb with Jesus, Mary and Martha, and mourners. Their brother Lazarus is dead. The sisters have summonsed Jesus, but he tarries. He’s got something up his sleeve he says that’s going to make God look good.
When Jesus finally gets there, both Martha and Mary show their feelings: “Had you been here, Lazarus would still be alive. God will give you whatever you ask. Will you ask?” “Your brother will rise again,” says Jesus. “Yeah, Jesus, one day. What about now?” Jesus tells her, “I am resurrection and I am life. Do you believe this?” “Yeah, we get that.” But if Jesus can open the eyes of the blind, can’t he keep someone he loves alive? His resume includes miracles. Do you believe Jesus really can raise the dead? More important, can he raise you from death– not later, but now.
They take Jesus to the tomb. Lazarus is dead four days. Jewish rabbis teach that on the third day, the soul leaves – John’s way to say Lazarus is real dead now. And Jesus joins the weeping. Why would he be so sad? He’s Son of God. Why doesn’t he say, “Folks, knock it off. Hang on. Watch what God can do?” Maybe he wants to show us that God is present in all the swift and varied changes of life – even loss and grief.
“Take away the stone.” “Lord,” cries Martha, “For God’s sake he’s been dead for four days – the stench.” “Martha, I tell you if you believed, you would see God’s glory.” Jesus cries, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man rises up and walks out. Near Death Experience stories today say many who glimpse the other side want to stay there. What if Lazarus had said, “Lord, I am already over here? There’s no IRS here or April 15 deadlines. Folks really like each other. The music and food are to die for – not literally of course. I think I’ll just stay.” Well, that didn’t happen – so we have a strange story on our hands.
A lot of Christians hope after death, resurrection will be in their future. I hate to tell them, but a lot of folks are dead already and are still walking around. Lent is that season when the church keeps pounding us: “You are sinners in need of forgiveness. You’re going to die.” I think we have a hard time believing it. It’s not that we are bad people, but we may be bad off and not know it. You look to be moderately well-off, reasonably intelligent, and fairly content on the surface. We know that looking fairly successful on the outside doesn’t mean we are alive on the inside. Want to know what that looks like? Maybe that’s you. Some focus on what they lack and grow dead to their blessings. They think having possessions are a sign of success. They are too scared to open their hearts to God and others. They refuse to seek or give forgiveness. These are a few symptoms of the “walking dead.” Jesus may be looking for these people to see if they’re ready to come back to life, joy and a new way of being. He asks us to unbind them, listen, love, welcome them to life again. That’s what the church is for.
Today, the Fifth Sunday in Lent, some churches will honor Mary of Egypt. Some of you met her last month when she flamed out in the first round of Lent Madness. Mary was baptized in Egypt around 500 CE. As a youth she started her own sexual revolution. Let’s just say, she excels at the world’s oldest profession. I won’t tell you how she paid for a trip to Jerusalem. It was at the time of the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. She wants to enter the church to see Jesus’ cross on display. When she tries, a force prevents her. She’s shaken, frightened, and believes her sins keep her from Jesus. She prays, confesses and repents. And the barrier preventing her now disappears. From then on she’ll live in the desert like other mystics and holy people, depending on God alone. A monk comes across her one day. She tells him her sordid past, her conversion, and her life given to God. Monk Zossima is awed. He realizes that no matter what one does with their life, God’s grace finally gets us. God raises the dead with gifts of forgiveness and love. Sometimes death, suffering, realizing our sin and discontentment may be means God uses to unseal our hearts. Then we begin to live the eternal life for which we are made. Mary of Egypt is the patron saint of penitents. Is it possible, as with Lazarus, Jesus came at the right time and called her out of death and darkness into life, both earthly and eternal? Is Jesus really resurrection and life for us – now? Do you hear any voice – anything at all? Listen.
We are bound by powers of death and decay. The unexpected God speaking through a most peculiar Jewish rabbi keeps calling us to see we have access to a greater power. What’s peculiar is that Jesus will suffer a cruel death to show us, we too, will die, but he won’t let us stay dead. For some reason, in God’s heart, we are worth keeping alive. “I am resurrection and life,” says Jesus. If we really believe that – how would our lives be different?
The Rev. Dr. C. Steven Teague, Rector