Plymouth United Church of Christ

Sermon, Year A Lent 5, April 10, 2011
Plymouth United Church of Christ , Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber, 2011

Focus Scripture: John 11:1–45 (Raising of Lazarus)

The road to Easter goes through Good Friday.

The road to resurrection and new life goes through death and the tomb.

That’s our Lenten journey. We started Ash Wednesday with “from dust you are made, and to dust you shall return” ... a reminder that we are mortal and finite, and a reminder of Genesis’ second creation story from chapter 2 when God made the human being from the dust of the earth and breathed life into its nostrils and it became a living being.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We start there, but we don’t stay there. We move to Easter, the dawn waiting behind the cross that promises to burst forth again. But we have to go through Good Friday to get to Easter. We have to go into the tomb to know new life of leaving it. We’ll do that next Sunday. We will read the passion narrative, the Good Friday story, up to Jesus being placed in the tomb.

And we get a bit of a prelude to that in today’s gospel lesson. Lazarus has his time in the tomb. Martha and Mary both say to Jesus that Lazarus didn’t need that tomb time if Jesus had acted more quickly. “If you had been here,” they each say to him separately, “he would still be alive.” A cry of lament, as so many cries of lament in the Bible. But is it lament because Lazarus died, or because Jesus wasn’t there when they needed him? Did they really expect Jesus to save Lazarus and so were upset that didn’t happen, or was their lament pointed at Jesus for his failure to show up and be present with them, to share their anxiety and fear? He did wait to go to them. He hung out for another two days after hearing the news and being asked to come. Why?

Why doesn’t God act immediately when we ask? Because God’s time isn’t our time? Because God’s will isn’t our will? I don’t know. But we still pray, faithful in the hope that God does listen and care even when the answer is “no” or “not yet.”

So Jesus arrives, and he goes through the dramatic reunion with Martha and Mary. And he weeps. I like a God who is able to cry in grief. So like us.

Martha and Mary had seen Jesus heal, or certainly heard stories of it, and are shattered that Jesus came too late. But Jesus isn’t just Lord of healing, he’s the Lord of Life. They think him powerless now that Lazarus is dead. But he is going to show them he isn’t.

He says, “Take away the stone!” “But there’s already a stench!” Martha says. Lazarus is truly dead; they can smell it. They smell death coming from the tomb. But maybe Martha begins to think to herself, “Can he raise the dead, too? He’s healed sickness. Dare I hope that he can restore not only health but life itself?” And he does! The Lord of Life yells, “Lazarus, come out!” And beyond belief, beyond understanding, maybe even beyond hope, Lazarus walks out.

I am intrigued by what Jesus said earlier: “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” And I wonder if maybe the belief here was not on the part of Martha and Mary, but if he was talking about Lazarus’ belief. Lazarus’ ability to believe Jesus’ words “Come out!” To believe that “Come out of the tomb!” were believable and trustworthy, that coming out of the tomb was indeed possible.

That kind of belief can lead to new life. To say that I can walk out of this tomb. I don’t have to stay here. Belief not just that Jesus can raise someone from death, but that he can raise you. He can raise the “I” in each of us. If he can give new life to a smelly corpse stuck in a tomb for four days, maybe he can give life to me, too! Maybe he can transform your life, too. Maybe he can transform our life.

Jesus holds our lives in his hands, because he is the holder of life.

Yesterday, the Master Singers sang at Mass at the Basilica in the Twin Cities, and we had an experience of resurrection and life, the gift of life, after the Mass. We normally do a few songs after Mass as the postlude, and we did, but two were quite special. Yesterday we celebrated two long lives as we sang for a couple who renewed their marriage vows for their 50th anniversary. They renewed their vows in the chancel in front of the choir stalls and we sang the old hymn, “O Perfect Love”. The second verse goes:

O perfect Life, be now their full assurance
of tender charity and steadfast faith,
of patient hope and quiet, brave endurance,
with childlike trust that fears no pain or death.

So we had that couple up there, and their family with them, and then we had another family that we had another piece for. It was a work we premiered last night that was inspired by and included text from their family member, Tim Robinson, who as a corporal in the Army in Vietnam wrote a letter to his family on Easter Sunday, 1968. In his letter he said:

Remember when we were kids on Easter the girls would be all dressed up in new hats, pretty dresses, and new gloves and we boys with new shoes and shirts and off to church we would go and after came home and looked for our Easter baskets. What good times. I hope God will bring me back home so that I may marry the girl I love, which will be in March if things go OK. Then I can watch the kids get all dressed up and head for church and live that day over again. Holidays are no different that any other day. Every day is Monday in Vietnam.

(Cpl. Robinson's letter is available at PBS, and at his family's memorial.)

Five days later he stepped on a land mine and was instantly killed. So we had one family celebrating 50 years of marriage, another still mourning the death of a son, brother, nephew, cousin who was cut down at age 21, and both families there surrounded by the love of the church, by Christ’s love, encompassing all of life. And while a baritone soloist sings parts of that letter, the choir sings the words the angel said to the women when they came to Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning: Quid quaeritis veventum cum mortuis? Non est hic, sed surrexit. “Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen.”

It was a healing moment for the family — one woman, who looked to be about the age to be his sister or cousin, sobbed deeply through the next few songs we sang. When we were all done, the family were still there, so I walked down and thanked one woman for allowing us to use the letter and she gave me a huge bear hug, tears streaming from her eyes. And she thanked me, and us, for bringing life in this way. It was an experience of resurrection and new life: recommital to a life already shared for the couple renewing their vows, affirmation of a life that ended too soon, all held in Jesus’ hands.

The road to Easter goes through Good Friday and the tomb, but the promise of Life is that Good Friday always – always – ends in Easter.

“Lazarus, come out!”

“Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen.”

Let us pray: God of life, you hold our lives in your loving hands. You meet us in the tombs of our lives, the deaths and darknesses we bring on ourselves or that we are forced to bear by others or by circumstances of life, and you roll away the stones and call us to come out into new life. Give us faith like Martha and Mary to believe. Give us the faith of Lazarus to trust your promise and listen to your call and leave behind all that keeps us tied to death, to come into the fullness of life in your grace and love. We pray in the name of Jesus, the Lord of Life. Amen.


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Plymouth United Church of Christ
2010 Moholt Drive
Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 54703

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