Sunday, April 22, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "Liviu"

John 11:11-16

11 He continued, “Our friend Lazarus is sleeping, but I am going in order to wake him up.”

12 The disciples said, “Lord, if he’s sleeping, he will get well.” 13 They thought Jesus meant that Lazarus was in a deep sleep, but Jesus had spoken about Lazarus’ death.

14 Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died. 15 For your sakes, I’m glad I wasn’t there so that you can believe. Let’s go to him.”

16 Then Thomas (the one called Didymus) said to the other disciples, “Let us go too so that we may die with Jesus.” (CEB)

“The Lazarus Mission: In Search of the Meaning of a Miracle,” Week Two

Five years ago, I was spending a beautiful spring morning on the beautiful campus of Western Oregon University in Monmouth, Oregon, and its bells were ringing.

I checked my watch—it was not yet an hour, or even half past.

I hurried onward—I was there to chaperone five of my students at the state high school speech and debate championships, and I wanted to check in on them.

But bells kept ringing.

Re-checking my watch, I realized exactly what time it was—it was the same time in the morning when, just a few days earlier, Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho, entered Norris Hall on the Virginia Tech campus, armed with a .22-caliber Walther pistol and a 9mm Glock 19.

The bells rang out 32 times—one chime for every victim. I finally stopped what I was doing, and recalling what had happened on that morning, of all the news stories I read about it afterwards, the most heart-rendering story in a day absolutely overflowing with them came from a room in Norris Hall where Tech professor Liviu Librescu’s solid mechanics class was convening on the second floor. As Cho made repeated attempts to enter the classroom, Liviu blockaded the door with his 76-year-old body as he beckoned his students to escape through the windows. He was shot five times through the door and died there, but all of his students save one survived. Had this been his life’s greatest work, it would be enough, but this was also a man who had survived the Holocaust and defected to Israel after refusing to swear allegiance to the Communist regime in his native Romania. And it was this tragedy, not another, that killed him. What I came to realize, listening to the memory of the bells, was that sacrifice is not merely inspirational, it is ironic. Because of one simple reality—it did not have to be this way!

This Sunday marks the second installment of a new sermon series for us that we are beginning as a celebration of the church season of Easter, as well as of the earthly season of spring—which means that for both Christians and non-Christians alike, this is a time of growth and renewal and, most importantly, of new life! Having just heard the most famous resurrection story the Bible has to offer on Easter Sunday, we will be spending four weeks going verse-by-verse through the second-most famous resurrection story—the story of the raising of Jesus’s friend Lazarus, a story that is only found in the Gospel of John. It is not the only resurrection miracle that Jesus performs—there is also, in the other three Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the story of Jairus’s daughter being resurrected by Jesus. But the raising of Lazarus is told in such rich and lavish detail that it has come to occupy a unique place in our collective memory as an exceptionally well-known and well-loved story.

Last week, to kick off the story, we began with Jesus first hearing that Lazarus has fallen ill—not that Lazarus has died—but that he is sick. This week, Jesus pronounces Lazarus dead and finally acts—to return to Judea to raise Lazarus—even though doing so would put Him in grave danger, because unlike in the other three Gospels, in John, Jesus’s opponents are onto Him from the beginning. The cleansing of the Temple comes at the very beginning of John's Gospel, in chapter 2, not towards the end like Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and for it, the Temple authorities in John hunt Jesus down throughout His entire ministry--and He knows it!

At first glance, the sacrifice involved appeared to be one of Lazarus himself—when we recall last week’s verses, we know, as it does with any senseless death, that it did not have to be this way. Jesus did not have to wait two days to return to Judea, He could have left immediately, heck, He could have healed Lazarus at a distance, which we know he can do because of the story of the centurion’s servant in John 4, where He heals the servant sight unseen. And the pain that Martha and Mary feel isn’t simply the pain of loss, it is the pain of “it didn’t have to be this way,” because as we’ll see next week, they know that Jesus could have acted—Martha will even say to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

But a remarkable thing happens in today’s passage, though—the onus of sacrifice shifts from Lazarus to Jesus, and the “it doesn’t have to be this way” sentiment comes not from Mary and Martha—that will come later—but from the disciples themselves. But, because they are the disciples after all, and thus are none too bright, they don’t quite get it until the very end of this passage—they are instead the comically inept foils to Jesus’ knowing brilliance, until when Thomas steps up and says, “Let us go too so that we may die with Him.”

Of all the candidates to demonstrate this kind of loyalty and courage, Thomas would not be at the top of probably anyone’s list. Simon Peter, maybe, because He is Jesus’ right-hand man. Or James and John—after all, they are nicknamed the Sons of Thunder by Jesus for their own zealousness and intensity. But Thomas? Doubting Thomas? That’s rich. But also poetically amazing and reassuring. See, I think that we have come to expect extraordinary things only from people who we consider to be extraordinary. We expect life-saving expertise from our nurses and doctors, but when an ordinary citizen steps in to save a life, it makes the news. We expect life-saving protection from our cops and firefighters, but when the Liviu Librescus of the world offer their own lives as shields for our own, it is the stuff of memorials and tributes. These stories move us because we have been customized not to expect them. And so too, then, should Thomas’s declaration move us, not simply for what he says, but because it is him saying it.

Because at this very moment, Thomas is each of us. In the Lazarus story, the job of acting as proxy for the audience jumps from character to character—at first, it is arguably Jesus Himself, and next week, it is Mary and Martha, but this week, it is all about Thomas. Because for once, and just a few verses after he and the other disciples painfully demonstrate how unaware they are of Jesus’ true capacity, Thomas gets it. He realizes that it did not have to be this way, it did not have to result in Jesus endangering His own life, and meets that sacrifice with his own willingness to sacrifice himself. He, more than anyone in this story aside from Jesus Himself, has chosen to do what is right, rather than what is easy or convenient.

Because that is what sacrifice ultimately is—it is doing what is right rather than what is easy, it is deviating from the path of least resistance to achieve a far better result than what otherwise could have ever happened. Sometimes those sacrifices are dramatic, and life-taking. Other times, they are nearly invisible to everyone but God. I worry that we have strayed from utilizing the church’s full ability to inspire right action, rather than easy action, because we want church to be easy today. We want being Christian to be easy--get baptized, say a Sinner's Prayer, and it's home free. But it isn’t. It’s work. It's a decision that you make every morning when you wake up deciding to be a good person, a Godly person, or not. From the moment God calls you to the moment you return to Him in Heaven, serving the world, your friends and family and community, as a Christian is work. Just like being a disciple was!

So where has God placed you in the life of someone else where you can be as Thomas to them? To be the person who is willing enough to step up and walk with them, to encourage them, to be there for them even at your own expense? We live in a time and place where self-interest, where respect for the individual is supreme, but where is God asking you to abandon your own self-interest to actually make someone else’s life better, even if it makes your life harder, even if that person never sees it, if nobody ever sees it but you? Would that be enough for you? My hope and prayer is that it would, because even those seemingly small decisions are where we are at our most powerful, with the ability to create for good or for bad in a fellow person’s life. Sometimes, we abuse that power, but in this story, Thomas could not. At Virginia Tech, Liviu Librescu could not.

We may ask ourselves, who are we, to measure up to heroes such as them? But to ask that would be to deny our own goodness.

So, instead, God asks us, who are you not to measure up? You are His children. Imagine what you can do!

By the grace of God, may it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
April 22, 2012

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