Preached at St. Paul’s Parish, K Street
✠ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Several election cycles ago, my child, quite young then, asked at the dinner table, “What is politics?” I pounced and pedantically held forth, explaining that politics comes from the Greek word polis, city, that it’s about how people live together, make decisions, cooperate – or not. Our dinner guest, a long-time political operative, interrupted me, “Your dad’s got it all wrong. Remember the funniest thing James Carville ever said. Politics comes from two words: ‘poli’ meaning many, and ‘ticks’ meaning those tiny, bloodsucking parasites.”
Possibly since I’m not a professional, I don’t see it that way. Politics is hugely important, fascinating, and exciting, but I’m really ready for this thing to be over. I’m always grateful to be with you for All Saints and All Souls because at election time these feasts draw my attention back to the big picture, the most urgent and eternal truths. Tonight I’m also grateful to Fr. Sloane for inviting me to preach. He is one of the saints whose love and friendship strengthens, inspires, supports me.
It has been a tough week for me. Perhaps for you, too. Several things have shaken me, not least of which was Sandy, something we’ve all dealt with. I’ve seen lots of aerial pictures of the devastation – flooded neighborhoods, roads, and parking garages, the torched Rockaway homes, massive fallen trees, beached boats. A lot of the pictures just awe and amaze and don’t get into the stories about people, and when that happens, the pictures distract us from the human suffering, the hurt and confusion and anxiety.
Today’s gospel, Jesus weeping, his empathy with human suffering is timely. The story helps us to acknowledge and accept our own feelings of loss and fear, be they from Sandy or anything else. John’s gospel shows us that Jesus is not an aerial God, hovering above our sadness, detached from our experience. He’s on the ground, weeping – with us, in us, for us. He’s fully present to Mary and Martha and their community, entering their sorrow.
It’s a startling scene – the Son of God, the light of the world, emotionally troubled. It shows us that sadness is a normal, regular part of our experience, not to be avoided or denied or ignored, but accepted, and hopefully accepted with a trust in God that ultimately all will be well.
We’re often a bit nutty about sadness, treating it almost as a stigma, as if something is wrong with us. We may assume that if we feel hurt and sorrow, then God doesn’t love us, that it’s a type of divine punishment. Nothing could be further from the truth. When we feel sad, we can recall Jesus and his tears, all of his suffering. Pain often is what breaks our hearts open and makes room for God. It shows us that we’re alive, and it can help us connect to God and other people. Jesus helps us find meaning in sadness. That’s the first of four points of good news in today’s gospel.
Second, why was Jesus upset? He probably felt compassion for Martha and Mary who were weeping, distraught about the loss of their brother Lazarus. But their sadness probably was not the primary thing that disturbed him.
Jesus’ tears, at least in part, were for himself. John didn’t tell about Jesus agonizing in Gethsemane. Instead, John gave us the raising of Lazarus. Here Jesus saw what was awaiting him – a grave with a stone covering the opening. His conflict with the Jewish religious establishment had become intense and violent. He had just escaped being stoned. His disciples had warned him not to go to back to Bethany in Judea to visit Martha and Mary because of the danger to him. Jesus had to know that by raising his friend Lazarus, he would enrage the religious authorities. It would seal his fate.
Indeed, three verses after this scene, the Temple authorities were fretting that on account of the raising of Lazarus people now believed, that more people were following Jesus as Messiah. They feared that the Romans would come and take away their power and privilege. They plotted to kill Jesus.
In restoring Lazarus to life, Jesus was facing his own death. He gave life to his friend, but in doing so he laid down his own life. At the Last Supper, Jesus said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (Jn 15:13)
A third point of good news. Our reading picks up in the middle of things. Jesus and Martha have just had a conversation about resurrection. Martha expressed her belief that her brother Lazarus would rise at the end of time, that she could anticipate their reunion in the distant future. Jesus had responded to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
What Martha didn’t get, what we have a hard time understanding, is that the resurrection and eternal life that Jesus offers is not far off, not in the distant future. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead not to comfort Martha and Mary, but to show humanity that his life and resurrection is here and now, and that changes everything. His message: eternal life is available to us now.
Eternal life is not a very, very long time; it’s not merely in the future, then and there; it’s God living in us here and now. It’s baptism. It’s communion. It’s love. It’s God in us, you and me, the saints, giving us richer, fuller lives, giving us growth and learning, strength and gratitude.
Sometimes we act as if our lives are mere preparation for things to come, always getting ready for something, preparing for the far off. Eternity is not a future reward, not a quid pro quo. Eternity is here, now, this moment, and always in the moment. The good news is that we don’t have to wait for eternal life.
A fourth point of good news. Lazarus was raised from the dead. His resurrection was different from Jesus’, sort of a resuscitation, or a restoration. He resumed a “normal” life. Lazarus came forth from the grave and then was freed from his graveclothes. It is a metaphor for what happens to us when we follow Jesus, when Jesus becomes the core of our identity.
Imagine your life without Jesus. Where’s your center, your grounding? Where’s your meaning and purpose in life? What informs your values and behavior, your attitudes and habits? What gives you hope or a sense of belonging? Without Jesus, doesn’t it become more difficult to love and be loved, to find strength and guidance? Without Jesus, doesn’t it become more difficult to trust other people? Without Jesus, life is snuffed out in a grave. That’s how I see it now, but I haven’t always.
In college, I was a fierce atheist; it was at the core of my identity. I’d only venom for Christianity. But toward the end of college, adulthood beckoning, I wondered: Where do I go from here? What am I going to do with my life? Why am I alive? What’s meaningful and permanent? I longed to have purpose, to belong to something bigger than me, something eternal, good.
Grace prevails. Swallowing a lot of misplaced pride, I did an about-face – not my first, or last. I came to believe that nothing mattered without God, that the most important thing for anybody was to know God’s love, to be able to say, “I am a precious and dearly loved child of God.” I saw God’s love in Jesus. A year out of college, I got baptized.
Baptism is a kind of death, dying to parts of ourselves, parts holding us back. Paul wrote to the Romans, “When we are lowered into the water, it is like the burial of Jesus; when we are raised up out of the water, it is like the resurrection of Jesus.” (Romans 6:4) That pattern of dying and rising is the pattern of life and growth… like tree rings, a continuing and growing pattern. The pattern of dying and rising shapes and identifies the life of saints. Our hearts grow in rings.
The saints, the followers of Jesus, you and me, we know darkness and death, sorrow and pain, but we also know light and life, joy and delight. We have been in the dark tomb, hearts broken, but have also been called out into the light. Lazarus represents the life of God’s people, the saints. The good news is that every one of us is Lazarus.
✠ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Garry Wills, What the Gospels Meant, Penguin Books (2008), pp. 182-86. This brief and excellent discussion of Lazarus was the source of points #2 and #4.