"Dropping the Luggage" Lent 5A (April 6, 2014)
Out of the depths I cry to you, O God;
God, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.
If you, O Holy One, kept a record of sins,
But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you.
I wait for the Holy One, my whole being waits, and in God’s word I put my hope.
I wait for the Holy One
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning.
Israel, put your hope in God,
for with the Eternal One is unfailing love
and with God is full redemption.
God’s very self will redeem Israel from all their sins.
Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair.) So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Teacher, the one you love is sick.”
When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Child may be glorified through it.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”
“But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the leaders there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?”
Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.”
After he had said this, Jesus went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”
His disciples replied, “Teacher, if he sleeps, he will get better.” Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.
So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
Then Thomas (also known as Didymus, or The Twin) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many neighbours and friends had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.
“Teacher,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
“Yes, Teacher,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Child of God, who is to come into the world.”
After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. When the friends and neighbours who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.
When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Teacher, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the neighbours and friends who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.
“Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Teacher,” they replied.
Then the crowd said, “See how he loved him!”
But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said.
“But, Teacher,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odour, for he has been there four days.”
Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”
So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Eternal One, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”
When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.
Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”
Therefore many of the neighbours and friends who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
Will you pray with and for me? Creator God, Source of all life, give us grace in this time to hear you speaking to us through each of us, in spite of each of us. Amen.
Lazarus is one of the most well-known people in the Biblical record; most people don’t know who Haman was, or Bartholomew, or Absalom—but they at least recognise the name of Lazarus, and that he was brought back to life. I did a little research on Lazarus, and found some very interesting things. According to one tradition, he went to the island of Cyprus and served as the first bishop there; he died again and this time was buried in the cathedral there. But at a later date, again according to tradition, his relics were moved to Constantinople—modern Istanbul in Turkey—and then lost during the sack of the city by Crusaders. Other traditions say the relics had already been moved to Marseilles, in France; that some were given to Russian Orthodox monks for a monastery dedicated to Lazarus; or that he never went to Cyprus at all, but just to Southern France. That is a lot of traveling, even for a saint!
By the way, the other Lazarus—who lay at the gate of the rich man and went to heaven when he died, where the rich man saw him across the great divide between heaven and hell, where the rich man was—that is another person, the inspiration for many of the hospitals and monasteries that treated what we now call Hansen’s disease—leprosy—and skin diseases. They are sometimes confused with one another, but they are two people. Eliazar was a common name in New Testament times.
Poor Lazarus—of Bethany, the one we read about today—he wasn’t allowed to stay dead, then once he was revived, he ended up becoming a bishop—a thankless task, believe me—then, when he died again, he was dragged all over the Mediterranean, in pieces. Sholem Asch, in his novel The Nazarene, describes Lazarus as looking like a ghost—he had been most completely dead, and yet was brought back to life—he is depicted as silent, quiet, on the outskirts of conversations and gatherings, certainly not dead, but not really quite all the way alive either.
What a metaphor for the way we sometimes live our lives—only half alive, hauling the old bones of our past with us, never at rest. We can’t let them be; we bring those old hurts and mistakes back to life over and over again, even when we say we have let them go and moved on. I know it can be hard to let go of some of those pains—the broken relationships that can never be healed because the person or people are gone from our lives; the roads we were too afraid to take; the words we never said—or should not have said; the compromises we have made—or that others made for us.
Remember the scene in Christmas Carol when Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his old business partner, Jacob Marley? Remember the chain Marley is wrapped up in, that clanks and rattles and weighs him down? That chain is made of all the things he did not do that he could have done; and all the things he did that he should not have done.
We all carry a chain like that—some of us longer, some of us shorter. But we have all done things we are not proud of, we have all stumbled and made mistakes. The hard part is letting go of those mistakes. Of course every action has a reaction—we may have amends to make for some of the things we have done—or not done. But once we have done that, it is time to let them go. Put them down, and don’t pick them back up. Let the bones rest.
Because what will live on is not our mistakes, but how we handled them.
I find it interesting that in the days right after someone dies, we tend to remember all the good things about that person—all the times she was there for us, the fun we had together, his great laugh, her beautiful singing voice. We want to remember only what was good in a person—in our grief and loss, we focus on what was good and positive, not on their mistakes or their failures. We try, sometimes, in our eulogies and speeches at funerals and memorial services, to remind ourselves that this person was not perfect, but generally the failings we mention are minor, and we turn it into a joke—he was always late, she couldn’t read a map and wouldn’t ask directions, and so on. As time goes on, we come to a more balanced memory of the person—yes, she was often careless about money, but her children knew they were loved completely; well, he did have a temper, but he was generous to everyone.
And that is what we should carry with us—the knowledge that while we may have stumbled and fallen, we have also stood back up and tried again—and again and again. We have made amends, as best we can, for the mistakes we made that hurt others. We have accepted that someone else is not the person we thought they were, and that is neither their fault nor ours. We missed the chance to make things right with someone, but we can make sure we don’t make that mistake again.
Lazarus died, and was raised, and died again; and what remained of his body was carried all over, never at rest. We have made mistakes, sometimes terrible ones, and made amends, or apologised, or worked it through; and we have stumbled again, and again made things as right as we could. Don’t drag those bones around anymore. Let them rest. It is done, it is over. Recognise the potential in the new chances we are given; let go of what you’ve done wrong in the past—that is the past. As we move forward to what is come, I invite you to release those things—events, actions, people—tying you to the past, to the pain and hurt and shame. Step forward into the present and then the future, knowing you have stumbled and fallen, but have gotten back on your feet and tried again. There will always be another time to let go of something, to unchain ourselves from our regrets. Lazarus died and was brought back and died again. His story was intended to be a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own resurrection. But Jesus did not die again; he rose and let go of the past; he did not wander Europe with a bag of bones.
As we prepare for Easter, remember this—with Jesus, it was once for all. We do not have to go back and take up those burdens, those chains, those mistakes, ever again.
Remember—Easter is coming.