Sunday, May 6, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "Rise Up, Lazarus!"

John 11:34-44

34 He asked, “Where have you laid him?” They replied, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to cry. 36 The Jews said, “See how much he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “He healed the eyes of the man born blind. Couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying?” 38 Jesus was deeply disturbed again when he came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone covered the entrance. 39 Jesus said, “Remove the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said, “Lord, the smell will be awful! He’s been dead four days.” 40 Jesus replied, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory?” 41 So they removed the stone. Jesus looked up and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me. 42 I know you always hear me. I say this for the benefit of the crowd standing here so that they will believe that you sent me.” 43 Having said this, Jesus shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied, and his face covered with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.” (CEB)

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

I began this sermon series four weeks ago by invoking the dusty dunes of the outskirts of Tijuana, Mexico, and it is there that I want to end this sermon series as well.

When our time constructing houses there was complete, in June of 2010, we held a prayer circle for the families who would be moving into these new, humble, but lovingly created homes. We formed circles, prayed, sang, and gave each family a cross to decorate their new home with before departing.

And after the service at one of the new houses, I slipped away and saw the family next door—also moving into a new house—I saw the young husband and wife, both about my age, sitting on a rock together wrapped up in the fiercest hug I think I have ever seen.

But hearing the steps of my clearly not-very-stealthy-or-ninja-like feet, they broke apart. And as privileged as I felt to see such a display of love and intimacy, I felt even worse for having intruded upon it, for the simple truth that really, I had not earned the right to witness that kind of hope. And in that way, I had become like the crowd gathered at Lazarus’s tomb, who has not earned the right to witness that miracle, to intrude upon a family’s grief and celebration, but who have gathered here anyways. We are all in that crowd now, waiting for our own next miracle.

This Sunday marks the final installment of this sermon series for us that we have been exploring as a celebration of the church season of Easter, as well during 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 heard almost one month ago the most famous resurrection story the Bible has to offer on Easter Sunday, we have spent the last 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. The first 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. The second week, Jesus pronounces Lazarus dead and finally acts—to return to Judea to raise Lazarus, and last week, He arrives and we see the drama begin to unfold with his exchange with Lazarus’s sister Martha. And this is the grand finale, the moment we have all been waiting for, the moment that Lazarus is actually risen from the grave!

I spoke about this phenomenon two weeks earlier in this sermon series, but I really do believe that the character whom we are supposed to identify with as the audience, as people gathered in this crowd, changes as the story progresses. The story begins with Jesus, but in week two’s passage, we are meant to identify with the disciples and with Thomas as they figure out how they’re going to respond to Jesus’ intent to go on what could well be a suicide mission, to return to Judea where He is a wanted man. And in last week’s passage, we are clearly meant to identify with the frustration and faith of Martha. It would be easy to say we are still meant to identify with Martha and her sister Mary even now—in the interim, Mary echoes Martha’s frustration in saying to Jesus, “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” and we can tell that Martha’s faith is still incomplete when she objects to Jesus’ command to roll away the stone at Lazarus’s tomb, saying, “Lord, there will be a stench because he has been dead for four days.” Which only serves to drive the point home—this is not, John is saying to us, the raising of Jairus’s daughter, of a person thought dead but who was actually sleeping, this is a person who is, without a doubt, deader than Lindsay Lohan’s Hollywood career.

And it may not be our instinct to relate to that state of being dead, but we’re meant to. The person who represents us, the audience, in this last part of the story is Lazarus himself. Jesus, the Resurrection and the Life, is calling to the deadness in our own souls—the absence of life in our own journeys that has been caused by hurt and pain and sin and strife. Amid the death that those things create, Jesus invites us to experience life by simply saying, “Rise up, Lazarus.”

Eugene Lowry, an emeritus professor at Saint Paul School of Theology in my hometown of Kansas City, he calls it the “homiletical plot.” We would think of it in terms of the proverbial curveball—we see an obstacle coming, it looks like a fastball, but then it dips down, and it is up to us to adjust, and then we either swing and miss, or hit a home run. Professor Lowry calls these stages “upsetting the equilibrium,” which would be when Lazarus falls ill, the status quo has been altered. Then comes “analyzing the discrepancy,” which is a way of saying, “What are we going to do?” That took place during week two of the story, when Jesus and the disciples debate returning to Judea. Then there is learning “the clue to resolution,” discovering what it is that will solve the problem—which is us learning from Martha of Jesus’ status as the resurrection and the life. And now is best and greatest step—experiencing the Gospel—experiencing the Resurrection and the Life of Jesus Christ in Lazarus, and, by extension, in each of us as well.

Because when the equilibrium of our own lives is upset—when the delicate balance of health and work and finances and security that we are always carefully adjusting is thrown asunder, we are left asking, just like the disciples, “What are we going to do?” The answer from God is the same—experience the Gospel. Experience the Good News. For, Lazarus experiences the Gospel and is shown the way out of death and into life—to simply rise up, and walk!

A colleague and friend of mine in ministry was diagnosed with a T-1 cancerous carcinoma in his kidney last month. He underwent surgery this week to remove part of the kidney, and the pathology report came back this weekend to say that he is now cancer-free and will recover in 6-8 weeks. Out of death and into life…for Christ says, rise up, Lazarus!

Also just earlier this week, a classmate of mine from seminary was attending the general conference for the United Methodist Church in Tampa, Florida. She was struck by a Chevy Silverado pickup truck and rushed to Tampa General Hospital. She made it through with a heavily injured right foot, but without any life-threatening injuries, and after asking, “What am I going to do,” she returned to be at the general conference the next day. Rise up, Lazarus!

Those Sunday evenings I am able to visit the Narcotics Anonymous group that meets in our Upper Room, I see the ritual that they begin every meeting with, of asking those who have been sober for one month, three, six, nine, and then a whole year or more raise their hands to show the program works. I hear their stories, their testimonies, and I think, rise up, Lazarus!

A young family, impoverished and struggling, lives on a dirt floor of a cobbled-together shack. They are contacted by a non-profit charity that brings Christian volunteers from the States to build houses. A house is built. A family is saved. And God says, rise up, Lazarus!

A historic church that has been a pillar of its community for decades upon decades sees its numbers shrink and its ministries lessen. They respond by saying that they know that God is not finished with them yet, and fueled by this faith, they begin building new ministries, and initiating new missions, and spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ to more people. Their numbers slowly begin to grow again, and God says to this church…to our church, rise up, Lazarus!

And I wish I could tell you that we are given no burden that we cannot bear, but that is not always true, for as it is written in Ecclesiastes, time and chance happens to us all. But where in your life do you need to be risen up, to be resurrected and given new life by God? Because even as the forces of time and chance work against us, God continues to work for us by repeating to us the same mantra that worked a miracle two thousand years ago—“Rise up, Lazarus!”

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
May 6, 2012

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