My previous church was an urban congregation in Midtown Manhattan. Small in number. Intimately connected. Filled with a lot of young people on the front end of their lives and the early stages of their dreams. So when someone in that congregation died, the news fell suddenly and heavily on us all.
Our friend and church member, Nancy, died on a Sunday morning. We knew she had a debilitating illness, so when she didn’t show up for choir practice that morning, a couple friends feared the worst and raced to her apartment a few blocks away, sending back news just moments before the service began. There was no way to proceed with a service as planned, so we prayed, we told some stories, gifted musicians in the congregation played what music they knew for such a time, and all of us sat and grieved together to the tune of “It is Well With My Soul.”
While I stayed with the congregation, my friend and the other pastor of our church, Rev. Tiffany Triplett Henkel, left the service to be with family and friends who were starting to gather at Nancy’s place. Arriving to the high rise apartment building, Tiffany boarded the elevator and on her way up to the room, she caught the elevator door as a young couple entered – the woman was holding a tiny baby, and the man was fumbling with supplies, car seat, stuffed animals and balloons, all with a gleeful smile on his face.
“How old?” Tiffany asked, glancing at the baby. “Three days old,” the mother replied, looking up then back down again. “We’re bringing her home for the first time.”
Tiffany cracked a smile through her tear. She said nothing to the couple, so blissfully unaware of anything but this hopeful moment and the little one they held, but Tiffany thought of this new life in contrast to the death that had occurred. Within steps of death and loss was new birth and hope, in the same building, just a few doors down. The family got off on floor 3. “Congratulations,” Tiffany said in a cracked voice, as she took the elevator up to level 5.
Our lives are layered with life and death, both. Hope and loss at the same time. A rosebud next to a luminary on our altar table. A visit to a newborn baby on the day of a funeral. Two casseroles in the oven on a Saturday – one for a big dinner with your whole family and another for a friend who has just lost a loved one. We have known life and death, both.
In our passage today we are assured that Jesus knew the fullness of both life and death, too. Jesus hears the sudden word that Lazarus is ill and then lost to this world. Of all people, Lazarus – the one described as his friend, whom Jesus loved. We don’t know if Jesus had many friends like that, but we do know he had three: Mary, Martha and Lazarus. They were the kind of friends who invited him to dinner, and before they knew it they’d been sitting there at the table for hours telling stories. They were the friends he stayed with on the way to Jerusalem. They end up being the last people he will see before the pivotal moment when he enters Jerusalem for the last week of his life. Lazarus was a true friend.
So the news is sudden. Breathtaking. Jesus makes his way to Bethany, and arrives to find the scene thick with death, with so many gathered and grieving. If hymns are playing, no one is singing along that it is well with them. They have entombed him. By the time Jesus arrives, Lazarus had been dead and in his tomb for some four days. The common ancient belief held that the spirit of a dead person remained for three days, but by the fourth day, the spirit was long departed. In other words, Lazarus is really, really dead.
And just so we can’t miss the point, the writer imagines how bad the stench must have been from the really dead man. When Jesus asks a bystander to remove the stone, the ever-practical Martha reminds him that opening the tomb will release some odors. In the elegant King James Version, Lazarus’ sister says, “Surely he stinketh.” He’s really, really dead.
And so Jesus wept. Some of you recognize it as the shortest verse in the Bible. Jesus wept at the loss of a companion. Jesus wept because the death that was encircling him had claimed the life of his friend. Jesus wept for his friend. Some might say that shows you he’s human. I think it shows you he’s divine. Jesus weeps for his friends, because God is a God who weeps.
But there is more than compassion in these tears. The verb conveys a sense of frustration. Jesus weeps with frustration, not at the death itself, but at the fact that everyone there has given in to it. They do what we so often so often do. They can only imagine a world where dead people stay dead. Where this is the way things are, and the way they will always be. Where there is nothing more than the evidence of death in front of them and they are powerless to do little more than weep and prepare a body for a grave. All they can see is this tomb, the stone in front of it, and the finality of the loss. And Jesus weeps, as he weeps in frustration and agony any time we live our life trapped in believing that death, and fear, and loss are inevitable, and irredeemable.
He weeps any time he arrives to find us dwelling amidst the tombs of our world. There are so many of them, composed not only of stone, but sometimes of our circumstances, sometimes of things imposed on us, sometimes even of our own making.
Some people describe living in a place of deep depression and loneliness as almost like being in a tomb. It’s a feeling familiar to the woman I met this week who is jobless and wondering about next steps. Or the person in a struggling relationship that once dawned with such promise. Or the teenager weighed down with enormous pressures of home. Or the young man who recently lost his father, batting practice pitcher, and best friend. Or the one who is restricted – it almost seems like she’s trapped – by the addictions that encircle her and threaten to destroy her.
So many of us, at times, are closed up in tombs – wrapped in the things we’ve learned to fear, clothed in the things we’ve come to believe about ourselves, dragging behind us the scraps of what others have told us about ourselves, tied up by those things that threaten life and vitality. And Jesus weeps for his friends – for any of us suffocated, alienated, bound and entombed.
But through his tears, he wants us to know who he is, what is possible with him, and how he works in the world and in our lives. So he clears his throat and wipes his eyes. He asks for the stone to be removed. Then in a transcendent moment, with a voice still echoing all these years later, he calls out, “Lazarus, come out.”
Jesus doesn’t roll the stone away himself. He doesn’t run into the tomb to shake his friend awake and embrace him. He doesn’t walk alongside Lazarus as he stumbles out of his tomb.
Jesus calls to him. He calls on his friend to come out of the tomb, to take some steps and to walk, even with body wrapped in strips of cloth. “Lazarus, come out of your tomb.” Some of you know how redemptive such call can be.
The Garifuna people of Belize, CA know this. I once heard a fascinating account of this community by Jacquelyn Campbell – a sociologist and public health specialist at Johns Hopkins. Campbell’s work focuses on domestic violence, and in the course of her studies she learned of the Garifuna – descendants of slaves, who generations ago escaped the wreckage of a slave ship to start new life on the island of Belize. But, situated as they are on the margins of Belize’s already fragmented society, there is much in these villages that goes unseen. So, in these coastal communities, men who hurt their wives rarely face consequence. Faced with neglect and the limits of legality, the community has developed its own practice. When members of the community have reason to suspect violence – when abuse is overheard or evidence of it is seen – the community has a practice of gathering together in the streets, where they are led by the women to walk through the streets. Then, arriving at the door of the house, this throng breaks the silence and calls out to the woman inside – “Come out. Come out to us.” The community then surrounds the woman as she emerges from what must have felt like a tomb. (1)
It’s the way a community of faith can surround a person living with depression with the support of friends that free from loneliness. Or the woman who faces joblessness and finds help and support form faith community and hope in the voices of those who have faced it before, with some support in the meantime on the way to something else. And maybe the community can’t fix the broken relationship that started with such promise, but they can support and bless and walk together through transition. They can surround that teen in the fractured home and journey with them through adolescence. They can share the grief of the young man who lost his father, and maybe even go to the batting cage and buy a roll of tokens. They can encircle the one suffocating in addiction and help her find wholeness again.
Because at some point or another, we have all known what it is like to feel like we’re living amidst a tomb. Cold walls. No light. Tied up in grave clothes, or whatever binds us. Needing to hear that word, “Lazarus, come out.”
It’s not only the name of Jesus’ true friend. It’s also a name that is translated to mean, “God has helped.” Imagine that. “God has helped.” Those are words that at some point you’ll need to hear, too.
Maybe you’re here today grieving, and struggling to imagine what new life emerges after loss. God is helping you.
Maybe you feel holed up, suffocating amidst some hopelessness. God can help you.
Or maybe there’s something entombing you, threatening the purpose that God has for your life. God is helping you, too.
When Jesus called the name Lazarus, he was calling the name of all of those who have ever needed the help of God. He was calling the name of Charlie Patterson, whom we grieved on Friday. He was calling the name John Gee, whom we lost suddenly Saturday morning. He was calling the name of Nancy, who left us in New York too soon. He was calling the name of all of those alive yet entombed by the story of death and the fear that it is final. If you’ve ever felt like you needed God’s help, then when Jesus called out Lazarus, he was calling your name, too.
My friend Dr. John Roberts is a retired minister, who serves with me on the board of Wake Divinity School, where I get to benefit from his stories and wisdom a couple times a year. Years ago, Dr. Roberts wanted the children of the church to know of this God who helps. So during the Children’s Sermon, he gathered them around and told them the story of Lazarus, and he imagined with them what it must have been like for Lazarus waking up in that tomb, still tied up in his grave clothes. He couldn’t see. He couldn’t move. To illustrate, Dr. Roberts had one willing child stand up and wrapped him in paper towels head to toe. “How’s he going to move?” He asked. “He can’t walk. Can’t run.” And the kids shouted out, “He has to hop!”
“That’s right!” he said. And then he began to teach the kids something he called the “Lazarus Hop.” It went like this. Everyone stood up. Then the organist played the theme of the Adams Family. Dananana (snap, snap). Only instead of the snap they would hop. Dananana (hop, hop)… Dananana (hop, hop)… Dananana (hop)… Dananana (hop)… Dananana (hop, hop). On and on it went, the whole sanctuary filled with the laughter of these hopping kids and plenty of adults too, until the music stopped abruptly. And Dr. Roberts crouched down, “Come here, children.” In a soft voice he said, ‘”There will be times in your life when you feel bound up. You can’t see where you’re going. Maybe you can’t even move. And I want you to remember to listen to the voices you trust. And whatever it takes, I want you to move towards those voices, even if all you can do is hop.”
Dr. Roberts said not a person moved. Silence. Because they knew it was true. There will be times for every one of us where we need to move toward the voices we trust.
I think that’s why Jesus raises Lazarus the way he does. Tied in his grave clothes, wrapped in strips of cloth, Lazarus must have stumbled, even bumping into the jagged walls of the tomb, finally hopping out to this friend who called him, his family, and the others.
Then Jesus turns to the crowd – to those standing around – and says, “Unbind him. Let him go.” Or as one translation says, “To those standing around… Jesus said, ‘You unbind him. Set him free.’”
Even after Jesus has brought a person to new life, there’s a second act that is entirely the work of the community. (2) We can only make it so far on our own. We can stumble, or trip on the cloths trailing behind us, or find ourselves hung up on the things we no longer need.
So to those standing around, Jesus says, “Can’t you see he’s suffocating? Untie him.”
To those standing around, Jesus says, “He doesn’t need those cloths wrapped around him any longer. Unbind him.”
To those standing around, Jesus says, “I’ve called him out of his tomb. Now you set him free.”
Immediately after Jesus says these words in the gospel of John, the plot to kill him intensifies. This great work of redemption and new life sets things in motion in the hearts and minds of those who feared him and are trapped in the ways of death. Because any time you step out of death into life, there will be someone or another who wants to put you back behind stone.
So standing at his friend’s tomb, Jesus can already imagine another. He is on his way to it – a final visit to the city, a last supper, a looming cross, a stone and his own tomb. When his followers are faced with such death, he wants them to remember this tomb in Bethany. When they can only see death and are tempted to hole up in fear and finality, he wants them to remember Lazarus – that God has helped.
So, friends and followers of Jesus, remember the one who knows your name. Remember the ones who surround and call you. Remember the ones who rush to you and release you.
When they are holed up, closed in, and really, really dying, Jesus weeps for his friends. He calls to them as in their suffocating tombs. And to those standing around he says, “Unbind them. Set them free.”
- Story shared during a public lecture event, Spring 2005.
- I am grateful to Dr. Brian Ammons, whose Chapel sermon at Wake Divinity School in 2003 pointed this out to me for the first time.