A Word from Our Sponsor

a sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent (Year A)

John 11:1-45

I’m a radio listener when I’m driving in the car, and I jump around between a variety of FM stations each day depending on my mood. One thing this means is that I am subjected to a range of radio ads that aren’t crafted by some algorithm to suit my own preferences. In case you were wondering, the jingle is alive and well. I am used to so many by now, whether it’s O, O, O’Reilly Auto parts or (my personal favorite) Gillman Heating, Cooling, and Plumbing (“With the G Man on-site, you’ll know it’s done right!”). The other day as I was driving, however, I heard a new ad that really caught me off guard. I’ve been waiting for it to come up again,  but it hasn’t yet. It was a radio ad for, of all things, getting my burial plot. No jingle, just a calm and insistent reminder that now is never too soon to reserve a plot for me and even my loved one at the local cemetery. As I recall, they weren’t just limited to burial plots; they could even handle my cremated ashes, if that was how I was going to be prepared. And, just to add some urgency, the ad mentioned that prices are rising! “Lock in your burial plot now,” they insisted, “while prices are still cheap!”

I can’t remember which exact cemetery or memorial park made the ad, but in a way it doesn’t really matter. I was more struck that there, in the middle of the love songs and the ads for getting my oil changed was a blunt reminder of my death. Talk about hearing a word from our sponsors! It’s like bringing up the subject that no one likes to talk about, but what in many ways is the real matter at hand.

Today, on this fifth Sunday in Lent, we hear about the real matter at hand. At Bethany by Jerusalem we discover that Jesus mainly wants to address the matter of death. It’s not just an advertisement on the way to something more important. It is the main mission and purpose of Jesus. Death and dying is the thing God wants to talk about. God’s going to confront this issue head on and it is time to listen up.

And this is important to note because so often Christian faith comes across as being primarily about something else, like helping our neighbor or serving the community. We come away from worship or any other church activity (or at least I often do) most likely with thoughts about how to live better in the world. And if it’s not that, then the point of Christian faith often seems to be to look inward and improve ourselves there. We concentrate on things like forgiving our enemies and loving our enemies. We come away from worship encouraged about God’s unconditional love for us and a peace that surpasses all understanding.

tornado destruction in Rolling Fork, MS, March 25, 2023

Jesus does deal with both of these matters, and how they’re inter-related—that is, the pursuit of inner peace and making the world look more like God’s kingdom. But we can forget or even intentionally sweep under the rug the big issue of the messy end of our lives and that Jesus mainly comes to confront that. I wonder what the people of Bucha or Bahkmut could teach us here, if their experiences in the horrors of war would pierce our comfortable calm. I wonder what we’d hear from those waking up in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, as they survey the aftermath of a tornado’s destruction. And for the Reckenbeil family, gathered around the deathbed of their matriarch, Joan, as they were last Thursday, I suppose a hope built simply on good deeds and inner peace in this life might have rung hollow. Our mortality does interrupt life and pretty soon we realize we need a God who has something to say about it.

Jesus is living water, for sure, a source of hope that never runs dry. And Jesus is the light of the world who helps us see God as God really is. Chiefly, though, Jesus is the resurrection and the life who comes to stand at the door of death and speak into it. Jesus is the resurrection and the life who comes to confront the matter we all wish could get drowned out by the music of life.

That is precisely what Mary and Martha, Jesus’ besties in Bethany, discover when their brother Lazarus dies. And it starts when Jesus’ disciples bring him news that Lazarus is ill. Jesus decides to confront the situation, to see for himself what is happening, even though they advise him against it because his own life has already been threatened. But Jesus goes because he knows what they are struggling to believe: that death ultimately has no power over him. In fact, he even delays his arrival in Bethany by a couple of days. It’s unclear why Jesus waits, but maybe he’s doing it to add emphasis to his own confidence that death doesn’t ultimately deserve the anxiety we give it.

When he does arrive, Jesus finds anxiety all over the place. Martha runs to him in anguish, and then a little while later Mary comes to him, too. Both of them seem too distraught to fully comprehend Jesus’ power. I find that in many instances where I am emotionally drained by grief or fear that I can’t think clearly either. Everywhere Jesus turns there is weeping and sadness in people’s faces. Jesus is still undeterred even though he himself is beginning to reflect that grief in his own emotions.

Many people over the centuries find Jesus’ weeping to be very profound. It’s one of the shortest verses in the Bible, but it packs a big punch. People who can confront their emotions and even shed authentic tears with others display a kindness and strength that is rare and healing. But it is difficult to cry, especially in front of others. We’ve internalized so many unhelpful messages about weakness and gender when it comes to crying and sharing grief.

I remember one funeral I conducted in my first congregation. The deceased was an elderly woman who had two grown children who were in their sixties. At the graveside committal the son, who I didn’t really know, came to me with tears visibly welling up in his eyes. And yet his face muscles were tense in a fake smile. He pulled me aside for a conversation, utterly confused why he felt so sad when his faith tradition had always taught him only to be happy at someone’s grave because it wasn’t an ending but the beginning of eternal life. He had been taught it was a celebration of life and that any tears and any sadness was a sign of a lack of faith in God And he didn’t want to seen to have no faith in God, especially at his mother’s death. I wasn’t sure how to help him in that moment but I wish I had thought to tell him that Jesus is OK with tears. Jesus comes to bear our pain and feel our sorrow and also express it, legitimating the real emotions we feel and the real tears we shed.

“The Raising of Lazarus after Rembrandt” (Van Gogh)

But the tears don’t stop him. He continues in his confrontation of death, driving to the heart of his whole mission as he stands at the opening to Lazarus’ tomb. To everyone’s surprise, he calls Lazarus to come forth and to everyone’s shock, Lazarus comes walking out.

When we look at this event as a whole, we see Jesus seeking to inspire faith in everyone around him. In Martha and Mary, in the crowds that are supporting them, in his disciples, and through his prayer to his Father—Jesus wants us all to have faith that he has power over death, that he is the resurrection and the life. And this faith is not some reciting of specific beliefs or agreeing to certain creeds about him but a trust in God’s ability to bring life where we see death. It is not knowing the exact mechanics of how Jesus will bring about restoration but trusting that he will, even when it seems too late.

Confronting danger, confronting doubt, confronting pain, confronting death itself. These are the things God is really about if God is about anything at all. These are the things that try to separate us from the good God intends for God’s people. Jesus eventually goes to his own cross and his own tomb in order to interrupt once and for all the steady stream of selfishness and sadness the world plays for us. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. He is God’s promise to put all the dry bones of our hopelessness and the world’s sorrow back together into vibrant bodies that will live forever in his presence.

Lazarus’ tomb in modern day Bethany

The last thing Jesus does as he stands at Lazarus’ tomb is to tell the people to unbind the man and let him go. This is our cue to be apart of Jesus’ resurrection and life now, to then go out and confront the things of the world that decay relationships and that are obstacles to goodness,  even when it is difficult. Jesus wants us to take part in freeing people from the forces that constrict them and keep them in the tombs. That may be a Stephen Minister sitting down with someone stuck in a situation with one of life’s problems to help them unpack what they’re feeling. That may be picking up a hammer for Habitat for Humanity work day on Saturday in order to help unbind someone from homelessness.

Yesterday a group of church volunteers collected the lunches that many of you helped make that were part of unbinding some of our Richmond neighbors from hunger. Moments of Hope is a ministry that confronts that issue directly by handing out lunches and other items directly into the hands of people each Saturday at a location near downtown. Our task was to assemble sack lunches. We needed 500 of them, but when the team arrived at the assigned location yesterday, they were greeted by 547 guests. As our team began to count (somewhat panicked), they realized some people apparently doubled up on their sandwiches, and one person who hadn’t signed up provided 10 lunches, and so they had enough to provide everyone with food. Working with the one who is the resurrection and the life will always involve surprises!

These things aren’t just about making the world a better place, or merely finding inner peace for our souls. This is the ministry of resurrection and life, pointing to the God who confronts death and overcomes it. This is being people who stand in awe of Jesus’ word, who feel the tears on their faces, and moving forward in faith. This is us, interrupting the world’s sorrow with a word from our sponsor.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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