John 11:1-45
Rev. Dr. Christy Newton
2 April 2017—5th Sunday of Lent

11Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus,* ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’
4But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ 5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6after having heard that Lazarus* was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ 8The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’
Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ 11After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’
12The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ 13Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14
Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. 15For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ 16Thomas, who was called the Twin,* said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus* had already been in the tomb for four days. 18Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles* away, 19and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’
23Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’
24Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’
25Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.* Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’
27She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah,* the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’ When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ 29And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there.
32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’
They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ 35Jesus began to weep.
36So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ 37But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’
Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’
40Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’
43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’ Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

Remember the questions from Adam’s class last Sunday:  What does it mean to be a Christian?  What are the qualities and characteristics of Christians?  And then to flip it on its head:  What does American culture and society understand to be Christian?  We came up with very different lists.
And I left that conversation feeling like, once again, the Religious Right has coopted and grotesquely distorted popular perceptions of my faith.  And I left that conversation feeling like we need to come out—as a community of faith. As Christians.  As progressives. As socially liberal Christians who adamantly advocate for a social gospel that connects economic, political, and social policies with the good news of Jesus Christ here and now. 
I left that conversation feeling like we need to come out as a Christian people who respond to the vulnerable with compassion; who create communities that welcome, include and care for all people and all creation; who commit ourselves to defeating any and all deeply entrenched systems that discriminate and oppress any of God’s beloved children. 
I left that conversation feeling like we need to spend a little time unbinding what we believe and what we stand for—as well as what we need to repent and what we need to let go of.
Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski’s metaphor of the lobster illustrates what I mean by coming out and unbinding. . . .  The lobster is a soft mushy animal in a hard, rigid shell.  The shell doesn’t expand.  How does lobster grow?  The shell is quite confining.  Under pressure.  Uncomfortable.  The lobster goes under rock formation to protect it from predators, and casts off the old shell and produces a new bigger one. . . .  When that new shell becomes uncomfortable, it repeats.  Repeats… numerous times.  “The stimulus for the lobster to be able to grow is that it feels uncomfortable.”  Today it is so easy to find a quick fix for our discomfort.  Valium.  Percocet… we never need to cast off our shell.  We must realize that times of stress are also times that are signals for growth
In other words, adversity can open us up, unbind us, and lead us out.
     But we must be willing to be authentic—even when it feels uncomfortable and hard.  We must be willing to cast off what doesn’t fit, come out, and unbind our truth—
to say what we believe and why it matters—especially in a world that seems to think that truth is optional and fear is a legitimate tool to “keep people in their places.”  Which is really just another way to oppress, neglect, and maintain the entrenched status quo.
     So, even though it may make us feel incredibly vulnerable, we must shed that hard, rigid, protective yet confining shell that we have outgrown.  And when we do that, each one of us may feel so very alone, but we’re not.  Each one of us has shells we’ve outgrown.  We all have closets we must come out of.  We all need to burst open the doors that confine us and our spirits in small spaces. 
     We need to step out of our closets, unbind our hearts, and live courageously and with authenticity. We can’t be content to drift along, living shallowly in the shadows.  We are called into life-giving transformation and greater awareness of the power and possibilities of deeply living.  We all need resurrection.
     Now, during this Lenten season, we’ve heard the story of Nicodemus.  The Samaritan Woman at the Well. The story of the Man Blind from Birth.  And throughout these stories, Jesus is talking on one level, and the people, accustomed to understanding things simplistically and literally, often fail to grasp his deeper and wider meanings.
     Now, in today’s story, first it’s the disciples—the good ol’ disciples. . . .  They just never seem to get it, do they?  Do they really think Lazarus is asleep?  And then it’s Martha.  She approaches Jesus with a bold faith, which empowers her to speak directly to Jesus.  But even Martha, in her faithfulness, misunderstands Jesus’ talk of resurrection. 
     Jesus clearly tells Martha that Lazarus will live again because of who he is:  “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”  But when she goes back to Mary, she simply tells her that the nice teacher Jesus is here.  Maybe she doesn’t realize Jesus’ immediate intention?  Maybe in her grief, she can’t quite grasp the enormity of his revelation?
     But this resurrection is no futuristic event.  The resurrection Jesus is talking about happens here and now.  It is not something far away.  It is not some divine bribe or cosmic reward.  It is no pie in the sky.  Here, Jesus overhauls traditional understandings of life and death.  Even people who live can be dead.  And even people who die can live.  As if explicitly preparing us for Holy Week and Good Friday, Jesus is saying death is not final, and ultimately, it has no power.  He teaches us that the life-giving power of God is limitless—not just after we die—but NOW. 
Lazarus makes this tangible for us.  His illness—like the blind man’s blindness—reveal the glory of God.  They remind us that resurrection is a possibility for each of us right now.  They remind us of the power of stepping out of our closets, unbinding our hearts, having those hard conversations, and shifting the focus of our lives—from death, despair, fear, anger, and grief to life, grace, hope, and joy.  Even when we suffer agonizing losses and we wrestle with intense grief, trauma, and pain.  Even then, at some point, we will be visited by questions about what new life waits for us.  And then, we will have a choice:  Will we cling to the grave clothes? 
Or will we respond to the voice of Christ who calls us to come out?
Unfortunately, we live in a world where there is a profound focus on death.  Shootings, genocide, terrorism, threat of war, ongoing war. . . .  When Jesus came to Lazarus’s tomb and witnessed so many people consumed by death, he wept.  Not just because he loved Lazarus, but because of the power death wields in the world.  He wept because the destructive power of death was all around him.  He wept because he felt its sharp opposition to God’s generous, life-giving power of love.  He wept because the religious authorities were threatened by his gifts of transformation.  And he weeps still because this same obsession with death continues to be at work in the world. . . .
In the scripture immediately following the one we just read in John, the Sanhedrin—the highest Judean court and governing body—will meet to decide what to do about Jesus. . . .
And heavily dependent on violence to solve their problems, they will decide that Jesus must die.  He’s too much of a threat to the powers-that-be.  Giving Lazarus his life will result in the decision to put Jesus to death. . . . 
The stone was rolled back, Lazarus was unbound, and he left the tomb.  But the price is that Jesus has to enter it. . . .  Life, you see, has enemies.  Good news has enemies.  And even resurrection has enemies. 
But this is not the final word.  It is never the final word.  Grace, transformation, hope, and love have more power, and they offer to unbind us.  THIS is the Christian faith I know:  Throughout his ministry, Jesus teaches us to be a life-giving, gracious presence in a world that glorifies bullies, swoons after violence, and marvels at the spectacle of death.  And he stirs in us the power to rise up and come out of our closets—to embody resurrection and life.
And if we forget this—in our busyness or the in the commotion of the season—if we find ourselves dwelling in the anger, fear, bitterness, or anything else that denies life, let us remember and listen. . . . 
It is Jesus standing just beyond the edge of our tomb, crying out to us in a loud voice, “You, beloved one, come out!”  Life is waiting.