This morning we hear two readings that some of us are used to hearing in other times and places. The dry bones reading from Ezekiel is used in our annual All Hallows service, and of course the reading from John is one that is often read at funerals. As such, both of these readings are connected in our minds with physical death, and with the promise of life after death. And this is a good thing. As believing Christians we do profess this. With Martha we proclaim our belief in the resurrection of the body. But as fallible and often struggling human beings, we know that there are many other ways that we can be dead other than being physically so. Just as Judi talked last week about various ways we may lack sight and be in need of healing….in our hearts, in our souls and in our minds, we can also be without life and in need of resurrecting while being apparently alive in a purely physical sense—dead folks walking. And in that state we can be every bit as much in need as Lazarus was of Jesus to come and call us out, to raise us from our graves, bound as we are in burial wraps, locked as we are in our tombs. We may need to hear the radical compassion of God weeping for us to bring us back to life as well.
In the last several weeks we have been hearing some amazing stories in John’s gospels. Starting with Nicodemus, and continuing through the woman at the well and the blind man and now Lazarus. In each of them, there has been something about an interaction between Jesus and another individual that has somehow been transformative for that person. With Nicodemus, we really didn’t get too many of the details. We knew a little bit about who he was as he came to Jesus. An important man in the community. A man of standing, a man with something to lose if it was discovered that he was conversing with this radical rabbi. And yet there was something compelling about Jesus that drew Nicodemus to come, in the dark, to talk with Jesus. And there was something about their conversation that changed Nicodemus. We know that Nicodemus struggled to understand what Jesus was trying to tell him. We know that it was hard for him to get past the words to hear the meaning of what Jesus really meant by the ideas of being born again and having a life that was directed by the Spirit. Something happened for him in this interaction that had an impact on him, that changed him enough to change the way he acted in his life. That somehow Jesus was able to move past his confusion to understanding. Because we know that he showed up at the end of Jesus life, that he was willing to take a risk to witness for Jesus in a way that even some of his committed followers could not find it in themselves to do, and we can imagine that this was not a very safe or politically expedient thing for him to do. Jesus seems to have had this effect on people. The woman at the well. Separated for some reasons from her community. Coming to the well in the heat of the day when that was not the time to come. Talking to a strange man when that was not the thing one did. Allowing him to move past her barriers, allowing herself to be seen as she truly was, allowing herself to be called out, transformed and converted as well. Because we heard in that story that she left her water jar and ran and told those from whom she had either excluded herself or been excluded, “come and see, come and see this man who told me everything I have ever done.” And we are told that somehow she had enough credibility that they did come and saw him for themselves. That her encounter with Jesus moved her too, called her out from exclusion into community. And the blind man from last week’s gospel. He too was trapped. Lost in his darkness, excluded from the full life of the community. Until Jesus came and called him out too. Called him out of his darkness into light. And he experienced a transformation and conversion as he realizes that there is something about this Jesus. He names it in the progression of his faith testimony….”he is a man…a prophet…he is from God…” and then finally as he says to Jesus himself, “Lord, I believe.”
From confusion into understanding, exclusion into community, darkness into light, and finally in today’s Gospel, in the ultimate triumph of God’s great love and compassion, Jesus brings an end to death as he calls Lazarus out of the grave back into life. Calls him out of a tomb and asks that those who are around him, his community, his family “unbind him and let him go.” It is not enough for Lazarus simply to be alive again, he must also be unbound. And so Lazarus comes forth—stumbling over his binding cloths and smelling of the grave.
Wherever Jesus shows up in these stories something profound happens, something radical that seemed as if it could not possibly happen does so, and lives are altered forever. Jesus who is God Incarnate, God with us. Jesus who shows us what God is like and tells us how we as humans can be like God.
There is so much in today’s Gospel. So many paths we could wander down. Each character could take us on his or her own journey. Each one has their own story, their own theology. Martha and Mary say “if only” with varying degrees of hope that something can change in the here and now. And Jesus, the Incarnate one, does what Jesus has consistently been doing, takes the step that removes the barriers, and brings new life in a way no one expected. I would remind us this that came at no small cost, as that in essence by this act Jesus was signing his own death warrant. We are moving ever closer to the cross.
But rather than follow those characters and their paths….what about us? What about those of us here and now who follow this Jesus? Are we perhaps like Lazarus, feeling caught in our tombs, bound in something we can’t quite get ourselves free of? Do we hear his voice saying, “Come, out” and find ourselves stumbling forward, blinking in the light, confused, and confounded but hopeful that perhaps there is another chance at life? Or are we perhaps those standing by to whom Jesus says, “Unbind him?” Do we need to attend to that command and notice those among us who might be bound by poverty or suffering or injustice or illness or any of the other myriad things that bind our brothers and sisters and keep them locked in their tombs, dead, not physically, but just as surely in every other way. This might require some risk, some action on our part that might stand apart from our culture, might make us uncomfortable. But again we remember that we are not alone. The Incarnate one that raised Lazarus is with us still. The Spirit of God that breathed over Ezekiel’s dry bones and caused them to live and breathe and act, the Spirit of God in the resurrected Jesus. The Spirit that reminds us who and whose we are, that calls us beloved and calls us out; that reminds us we are seen for all we are and all we have done and at the same time are created in God’s image.
Next Sunday is Palm Sunday. We begin again the familiar walk to the cross. We are reminded again how great God’s love for us is. God so loved the world, that God sent God’s own son into the world for us, as we were reminded just a couple of weeks ago, not because of anything we did, but simply as a gift of that love. We are reminded again that where Jesus appears, death in all its forms is conquered and can never again be victorious. That for us as an Easter people, death and the grave are never the end of the story. As we move toward Palm Sunday and Holy week, perhaps we too can hear the voice of Jesus say, “Come out” and “be unbound.”