Today’s scripture readings:
Liz Tichenor, an Episcopal priest in California, tells a story about a recent evening when bedtime with her two-and-a-half-year-old son, Sam, went on and on. First, he needed water, then he needed help finding something, then he wanted more snuggles. Then he turned to the preacher’s kid’s classic stalling tactic—he asked for another prayer. So Liz began to pray, but Sam promptly interrupted her. “Who came?” he asked. “Who came?”
Liz explains that, lately, Sam has been constantly asking questions about his older brother Fritz, who died tragically as an infant before Sam was born. He has learned about his older brother’s death and he can’t stop thinking about it. He has been completely preoccupied by questions like, “Who came? Who came for his brother’s funeral? Who showed up? Who poured out his ashes? Who threw the dirt?” This is the story Sam wants to hear, again and again. So, over and over again, they rehearse the guest list, telling about all those beloved family and friends who came to help bury this little baby Fritz. They talk about all those people who showed up and embodied the communion of saints—these dear people who stood close around the family, whose hands were still covered in dirt from the grave.
Somehow even a two-and-a-half-year-old is able to recognize that it matters. It matters who was there, who showed up. It matters who gathered around their grief-stricken family to offer solidarity in the midst of pain. It matters who entered into their sadness and stood with them in the thick of it. It matters that they didn’t go through it alone, that they didn’t have to bear that enormous weight on their own. It matters who came.
That’s one thing that has been so terribly hard about this pandemic. We’ve been confronted by so much death. So many people have died alone. On the rare occasion when a funeral was able to happen in a timely manner, hardly anyone came. Hardly anyone could come. It’s not that any of us had forgotten that it matters to show up. It’s that our circumstances demanded that we stay away.
I’ve always loved this scene with Jesus and Mary and Martha, grieving together over Lazarus. Jesus—whom the Gospel of John tells us is the Word incarnate, God in the flesh—Jesus shows up. He joins these two sisters who are mourning the death of a brother they have loved, and Jesus cries with them. I don’t know about you, but that is a God I can believe in: one who shows up alongside us, becomes present to us, is in it with us, when our grief is too much to bear by ourselves; who knows our pain, experiences our sorrow, and even shares our tears. The God we worship is a God who shows up.
As we remember those we love who have died, many of whom, in the past year and a half, we were unable to honor with a proper funeral; as we pause to contemplate 750,000 dead here in the United States and five million around the world taken from us by a virus; as we say their names, George Floyd, Daunte Wright, Ahmaud Arbery; as we imagine the distress of refugees and asylum-seekers fleeing their home countries for fear of their lives; as we continue to hear about a planet choking under the impact of human misuse and witness the failure of global governments to take action; as we hold on to so much grief and anxiety, isn’t this the kind of God we need—one who shows up, who knows our pain and shares our sorrows, who dwells with us and wipes every tear from our eyes?
But God shows up with more than just mercy and compassion. Some commentators point out something in this passage that we usually miss when reading this English translation. Twice in this Gospel lesson we read that upon hearing of Lazarus’s death, Jesus is “greatly disturbed.” But Greek scholars say this isn’t really a very good translation, because in other parts of the Bible, the word translated here as “greatly disturbed,” means something more like “angry” or “indignant.” Maybe the translators just didn’t like the idea of an angry Jesus so they chose instead a more dignified characterization, saying that Jesus was “greatly disturbed,” rather than just telling us straight-up that when Jesus was confronted by death and experienced first-hand its power to inflict such terrible pain, it made him angry.
Usually when we think of death we think of it as the force that stops our beating hearts at the end of our lives. But I’ve come to think of death as a force that is ever-present in our world, a force that is constantly at work trying to bring about destruction, sow chaos in our communities, and diminish our life. It’s the force that’s at work when we allow ourselves to believe that some lives matter less than others; when we find ourselves saying nasty things about people who don’t share our politics. It’s the voice in our heads that tells us we are defined by our mistakes and fills us with shame, that makes us believe we’re unworthy or unlovable. Death is always at work in our lives. Ultimately, Christ’s resurrection renders it powerless. As we say in the funeral liturgy, “By his death our Savior Jesus Christ destroyed the power of death and by his resurrection he opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.”
But here, in this moment, with Mary and Martha grieving the death of Lazarus, Jesus is angry. He weeps with the sisters. And then he goes to the place where death has claimed one of its victims. Lazarus has been bound, the tomb has been sealed, and the body reeks of decay. By all accounts, death’s victory is complete. But Jesus’ actions reveal that death is not the end of the story. He prays to God and calls Lazarus out of the tomb. The dead man lives again.
Most of the time when we talk about the resurrection of the dead, we think of it as something we will experience much later, at the end of time. But in today’s Gospel reading Jesus says he is the resurrection and the life, today, and Lazarus gets to experience resurrection in that very moment. New life is not something that lies off in the distant future; it’s available to us now. Even when it feels as though the whole world is under death’s grip, Jesus offers resurrection, today. We don’t need to live our days captive to the forces of death but instead can live under the promise of new life with God. “Here and now there is no death or grief or fear so deep and dark that the voice of Jesus cannot reach into it, call us out, and bring life” (Brian Peterson).
I do have one little problem with this story about Lazarus’ resurrection. It’s this: Lazarus must have died again, right? And this time once and for all, for good? I think it’s safe to assume that Lazarus didn’t go on living forever. Scripture and tradition don’t really tell us anything about how his story ultimately ends, so I guess we’ll never really know. Maybe it’s enough for us to imagine that Lazarus lived the rest of his earthly days with a sense of liberation, free to live without fear of death, knowing from experience that there is a force at work in the world more powerful than death. Been there, done that. Death has been stripped of its power. Maybe we can imagine that Lazarus lived the rest of his life free to live his truth most fully and love others more deeply, because Jesus has shown up, stood at his side, and stared death in the face, and Lazarus has been delivered.
We’ll never know what exactly happened to Lazarus, but we can know for ourselves what it feels like to claim resurrection and live without fear of death. We can choose to live in the power of resurrection today, trusting that we do not face death alone, but that Jesus shows up and accompanies us and transforms every one of our encounters with death, so that we can step into new life, just as Lazarus stepped out of the tomb and emerged into the light of a new day once more.
A. K. M. Adam, “John 11:32-44: Exegetical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 4, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).
Gail R. O’Day and Susan E. Hylen, John, in the Westminster Bible Companion series, eds. Patrick D. Miller and David L. Bartlett (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006).
Brian Peterson, “Commentary on John 11:32-44” on WorkingPreacher.org, 2018, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3849.
Liz Tichenor, “The Stories that Change Us,” in the Christian Century, November 3, 2021.