Tuesday, March 21, 2017

What can we say come April 2? Lent 5

(to join an email list to continue to receive these and other preaching helps, email me.)

     Was Lazarus, as Ben Witherington believes, “the beloved disciple”?  Jesus certainly loved him dearly – so much so that, in the most pregnant, concise, and poignant (and shortest) verse in all of Scripture, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).  Indeed, onlookers who saw his tears remarked, “See how he loved him” (John 11:36).  What is more poignant, or a greater witness to the glory of the incarnation, than this moment when Jesus wept for his friend?

     I like it that Lazarus isn’t a stock character, or an allegorical type.  He’s just a guy who lives in Bethany with his sisters.  Jesus was intimate with real people; he had real friends; he was entirely like us.

     Bethany is a fascinating place.  Tourists can still visit the tomb – of the “sliding stone” type, not the “rolling stone” type: the burial shaft was straight down, below, not into the side of a hill (if this is in fact the right tomb!).  The image is riveting: when Lazarus came out, he actually came up, quite literally rising up from the stony ground.

     But visiting Bethany is way rougher than it used to be.  When the infamous wall was constructed, it was placed right across the main road in downtown Bethany.  For centuries, one could walk from Bethany to Bethpage, then over the Mt. of Olives and into Jerusalem, just as Jesus did.  Now, because of Israeli-Palestinian tension, what used to be a short walk is now a long, roundabout drive.  There’s a preaching image:  in the interests of peace and security, it is well nigh impossible to get to the place where Lazarus was raised. 

     I was trained not to cross over from one Gospel to another.  But why not?  We know Mary and Martha, primarily from that picturesque episode in Luke 10:38-42, where Martha serves fastidiously while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet.  He has history with these women; they aren’t random people seeking the Messiah.  But even they – even the women closest to him! – did not fully understand what he was about.

     The sticky point of John’s account is Jesus’ intentional delay.  Does the preacher just skate by this?  We prefer the notion that Jesus came upon a mess and fixed it.  And yet (1) didn’t Jesus delay on purpose to make a point?  Weren’t all his miracles teaching moments?  He didn’t seem to heal people to insure nobody suffered.  He healed to teach.  And then (2) don’t we experience suffering as if God has delayed?  Didn’t so many of the Psalms cry out because God has gone to sleep, God has delayed, God has tarried instead of coming on, now, when we want God?

     The first time I preached on this text, I believe, was the first Sunday my new girlfriend (who now is my wife) and her mother! came to worship.  Trembling nervously, I focused on “Unbind him, and let him go” – which I still think is more than rich with homiletical potential.  Mind you, we need not psychologize or allegorize everything.  But John begs us to do so at every turn!  Lazarus is bound, yes – for that is how they buried people in pre-embalming, pre-cremations epochs.  But how symbolic for the living?  Unbind him – unbind all of us who are bound by sin, bound to habit, bound to the ways of the world!  And let him go, set him free.  The resurrection isn’t just the ticket into eternal life.  The raising of Jesus shatters the bonds of the living; we are forgiven, we are liberated, we are empowered to be courageous, bold, radical disciples for this Lord.

     What after all is this resurrection?  N.T. Wright has helped us so much.  In Surprised by Hope: “Jesus's resurrection is the beginning of God's new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord's Prayer is about.”  And, “The point of the resurrection…is that the present bodily life is not valueless just because it will die…What you do with your body in the present matters because God has a great future in store for it…What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God's future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether (as the hymn so mistakenly puts it…). They are part of what we may call building for God's kingdom.”

     And yet I always wonder about the role of personal testimony in preaching.  A few years back at Easter, I paused in my sermon and basically said “The DaVinci Code and other critiques notwithstanding, as a guy, not as your pastor, but just as a person, I really do believe Jesus physically rose from the grave.”  The impact was palpable, and at least a few were moved. 
And so, pondering this, I find myself echoing Frederick Buechner’s C.S. Lewis-style longish claim:  We can say that the story of the Resurrection means simply that the teachings of Jesus are immortal like the plays of Shakespeare or the music of Beethoven and that their wisdom and truth will live on forever. Or we can say that the Resurrection means that the spirit of Jesus is undying, that he himself lives on among us, the way that Socrates does, for instance, in the good that he left behind him, in the lives of all who follow his great example. Or we can say that the language in which the Gospels describe the Resurrection of Jesus is the language of poetry and that, as such, it is not to be taken literally but as pointing to a truth more profound than the literal. But there really is no story about the Resurrection in the New Testament. Except in the most fragmentary way, it is not described at all. There is no poetry about it. Instead, it is simply proclaimed as a fact. Christ is risen! Unless something very real indeed took place on that strange, confused morning, there would be no New Testament, no Church, no Christianity."  
He continues: "Yet we try to reduce it to poetry anyway: the coming of spring with the return of life to the dead earth, the rebirth of hope in the despairing soul. We try to suggest that these are the miracles that the Resurrection is all about, but they are not. In their way they are all miracles, but they are not this miracle, this central one to which the whole Christian faith points.  Unlike the chief priests and the Pharisees, who tried with soldiers and a great stone to make themselves as secure as they could against the terrible possibility of Christ’s really rising again from the dead, we are considerably more subtle. We tend in our age to say, ‘Of course, it was bound to happen. Nothing could stop it.’ But when we are pressed to say what it was that actually did happen, what we are apt to come out with is something pretty meager: this ‘miracle’ of truth that never dies, the ‘miracle’ of a life so beautiful that two thousand years have left the memory of it undimmed, the ‘miracle’ of doubt turning into faith, fear into hope. If I believed that this or something like this was all that the Resurrection meant, then I would turn in my certificate of ordination and take up some other profession. Or at least I hope that I would have the courage to.”

     Did anyone recall Ezekiel 37 when Lazarus was raised?  Surely...  The OT passage is stunning, evoking hokey spirituals but also something revolutionary - the raising up, not of an individual, but a whole people, dead and lost.  I wonder if this is more fruitful, given the situation of our world today, than any sermon about individual resurrection...  You have to lost the overly-literalistic depiction of Ezekiel 37 in the Dura-Europos synagogue (3rd century!).

     Finally, I have all my adult life wondered (as have countless writers before me) what Lazarus’s life was like – after he was raised.  Already mourned, given up for good, he was back.  His friends had to be happy – and yet what about others who weren’t back?  Was he a novelty, as in a theological freak show?  He did grow old, and die – eventually, and finally.  The preacher isn’t merely allowed to speculate, but invited to do so!  Was he the one, at the cross, whom Jesus asked to care for his mother Mary?

     In the 2003 film, “The Gospel of John,” the crowds call his name – but Jesus’ foes plot to kill him.  In “The Last Temptation of Christ,” it is Paul who kills Lazarus – to destroy evidence of Jesus’ resurrecting power.  What would it be like to live as a resurrected person?  Wendell Berry's famous poem gets at it, I think:

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.