Lazarus Come Out!

I preached the following sermon the morning of my installation as a Pastor of St. Paul’s UCC in Eureka, SD. As of tonight it is all official. The scripture used was the common lectionary and is listed below. The subject matter was a variety of personal experiences and historical fact. This came pouring out on Friday when I knew this had to be finished. It needed to be said, and I needed an opportunity to say it. No one slept, most everyone cried. They all felt the emotions that I felt as the words poured out through my fingers on Friday. I kept repeating in middle of the message at random places, “I will get through this with a strong voice.” It slipped a few times, like when I looked up and saw the woman who had lost her mother about two months ago. The part about my mother was hard, but the hardest was the part about her tv, and it was a part I needed to keep. It was the piece that helped me connect. If you have ever lost someone you care about, get a tissue before you sit down to read. And God Bless you today and tomorrow and the weeks to come.

Scripture used was: John 11: 1-45, Ezekiel 37: 1-14, and Romans 8: 6-11. The title of the day was “What to Pray for.”

Perhaps we should keep it short this morning, what with another sermon and all of the other hoop dee doo this afternoon, we are in for a long time of sitting, and since it looks to be a nice day outside, it seems a bit unfair. Unfortunately, I didn’t look at the lectionary that we would have to deal with when the conference and Pastor Keith called to give us choices about which date to have this installation. I didn’t bother to look up what I would have to ponder and study for the service before this event on this day. I had no idea that we would be talking about dry bones and death and Lazarus and all the pain that is so obvious in that passage.

I also didn’t look at the family calendar when I agreed to this date. I sort of had an idea, but I didn’t stop to count it out or to think about it. It was today in 1989 that my father passed away. Since he wasn’t found until Saturday the 8th and there had been some decomposition, it was hard for the authorities to be exactly certain on the time of death, but from talking to others about when he had been out and about, it was determined that he died on Thursday, April 6th. Whether it was accidentally or on purpose, all we aren’t completely sure, but we do know that his own actions caused his death.

The funeral director advised that we as family not pressure him to show us the remains. He didn’t want us to have that sort of memory of our father. And so the last picture I have in my mind is the photo on the driver’s license that was in his billfold that they gave us as proof that it was him. The whole event was so surreal that for a time my siblings and I felt like we were in one of those soap operas, and at any time our father would come storming in the house slamming through the north door asking what was going on and why we were all sitting around with all that crazy company. But real life is not a laundry detergent drama. It is far more permanent, and the drama we face often feels much harsher than any of the pettiness you see on television.

Lazarus died and his sisters were distraught. I also know what it is like to be a sister, whose brother is taken away. It was 50 years ago last New Year’s Eve when the older of my two brothers fell into an open auger of a silo bunk. My father found him at the end. When he told my mother she screamed and wanted to call here to town to Dr. McIntosh. She was sure he could fix it. She was sure he could fix anything. No one could fix that. Mary and Martha felt the same about the death of Lazarus. They were sure that nothing could bring back their brother. He was gone for four days. In their day it was common knowledge that after three days, the soul leaves the body, and nothing can restore a body to life.

They were holding a funeral, perhaps not quite like our funerals that last a few hours, and then we go home to the empty house. I live beside my mother’s empty house. Some days when I go there to check on it, I look at her bed, the chair she often sat in, the television where we watched Holly on Survivor every Wednesday in that last year we were together, and I want to call her back to us. One day, shortly after she passed on, I even yelled at her that it wasn’t fair the way she left us.

How did Lazarus die? We aren’t told exactly what it was, only that there was time to send a message to Jesus to come because the sisters felt he could intervene, he could have prevented the death, perhaps called him back if he would have gotten there right away like he did for others that are listed elsewhere in the gospels. But Jesus doesn’t come. Lazarus dies, and they, these sisters are mourning, they are having a funeral. They are looking for closure.

Closure: funerals are supposed to give you closure. That term gives me a headache. Funerals give you a chance to grieve, to mourn publicly, to celebrate the life of the one you loved, but nothing takes away that hurt or that loss. Time eases the pain, but it doesn’t erase it. I certainly can attest to the fact that I don’t think of my brother or even my father as often as I do of my mother. And there might be a day or two that goes by when I don’t think of them, but certainly not a week or a month. Those who go on ahead are always in our minds, and that is ok. That is as it should be. It is part of the hope of going to also be with them.

As much as we see the compassion of Jesus in this passage that John shares with us, this story isn’t just about easing the suffering of Mary and Martha. And it certainly isn’t about helping out Lazarus. Think about this for a bit. If Jesus would have left Lazarus in the grave, he would have been with Jesus in the presence of God on Easter morning.

Bringing Lazarus back may have dried the tears of his sisters, Mary and Martha, for the time, but what about later on when he really dies? The pain they feel will happen all over again. And we don’t hear how the story ends. This is one of those points that just ends. We are never told what Lazarus goes on to do.

This story that is only found in the gospel of John isn’t about Lazarus or Mary or Martha. It is about Jesus, and what he was sent to accomplish. This raising of Lazarus was about how far Jesus was able to go to bring back a person from the dead. This was the last of the stories of Jesus raising anyone other than himself. This was the last of the miracles of Jesus before he is sent to the cross.

Lazarus was in the tomb with a stone in front of it for four days; everyone there knew that after three days not only is the body decomposing, Martha says so herself…there will be a stench, but the soul is gone too, there is no point to Jesus trying to raise this man. We read that Jesus is moved to tears, and we can also hear a sense of anger in him. According to the Tyndall commentaries on the gospel of John, Jesus was enraged, but not just at the death of his friend, a man who hosted Jesus and the disciples and followers on occasion.

Jesus is enraged at the power of evil that causes death in this world. In calling Lazarus to come out, Jesus is letting Death and the powers that have caused the initial death and sin of humankind know that it is over. Raising Lazarus is one last miracle before Jesus submits to the death on the cross so that he can fight the last battle with death and win the victory for all.

In his conversation with Martha when she says, if only you had been here to save him,” Jesus lets her know that he/Jesus is the resurrection, he is the Life. And by waiting to let Lazarus die, then raising him after four days, he shows us what is to come for all of us. His followers, his disciples, all of the people we have been talking about during this season of Lent, they all believed that Jesus was the Messiah, but they wanted a Messiah for themselves for their own time. That is not what Jesus was, most importantly that is not what Jesus IS. Jesus is for us as well as for them.

The Jews wanted a Messiah to end the conflict with Rome. Jesus was the Messiah to end the conflict with Death and the powers that cause it, the evil that fell from heaven when Satan revolted.

Today we know that as hard as it is to see our loved ones go on ahead of us, as hard as it is to carry on against some of the evil we see in the world around us, Jesus promises to be our light, our life our resurrection if we just believe. Just as Paul wrote to the early believers in Rome if we believe in Jesus, and we accept his spirit, we too will live with him. Let’s remember this as we finish up our season of Lent. We know that we can’t get to Easter without Good Friday, but it isn’t all about grief and sadness. It is about getting through it.

The title of our message is “What to Pray for” and though it might not seem that we have touched that at all, the point is this. If Mary and Martha had been granted their prayers that Jesus come and heals Lazarus, he wouldn’t have died and we would not have known that Jesus was able to raise him. Sometimes it seems our prayers aren’t answered, but maybe there is something more. As we leave here this morning for a few hours or a few days, let us remember that Jesus wants what is best for us, and if we take time for him, he will be there for us. Amen!

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