The date was November 2003, but I remember it like it was yesterday:
How I arrived at work on a Friday morning, exhausted from covering the Medicare prescription drug plan almost 24/7, sat down at my computer and checked my e-mail. Among the scores of messages from senator’s offices and lobbying groups was an e-mail from a former colleague with an intriguing, one-word subject line: Todd.
Todd was my beloved dog trainer and boarder, a huge bear of a man with the soul of a yogi, the dry wit of a comedian and an uncanny ability to commune with canines. He was a dog whisperer who communicated just as effectively with people; he loved to say that training humans was far more difficult than training dogs.
I hadn’t seen Todd in a while, so I wondered what Marla—one of those humans who had flunked Todd’s training methods—had to say about him. But after opening the e-mail, I found that it raised more questions than it answered: “I was walking my dog this morning,” it said, “and ran into someone who told me about Todd. I’m so sorry.”
I didn’t have time for this, but now Marla’s email had me worried. So, I went to Todd’s web site. His normal home-page information had been replaced with a banner headline that read, “Todd Anthony Stewart, Rest in Peace,” and listed the dates of his birth and death, indicating he had passed away six days earlier.
Now, I knew a little about death. My house church had been deeply involved in the illness and death of our friend Ginny, who died of cancer at age 41, leaving behind a husband and two children. I had cared for my brother for 10 months and was holding his hand when at age 33, lying in my house in what had been my bed, he took his last breath.
But Todd?!? Right there in the middle of the Washington Bureau of the L.A. Times, I burst into tears. How could this be? Sobbing, I looked again at the website and saw there was a place to write tributes to Todd. I went to the guest book, started reading the entries and began to piece together at least the “what,” if not the “why,” of what had happened.
Todd had killed himself.
This man who was madly loved by both dogs and humans had taken his own life. This man who had brought joy and laughter and companionship to so many had become too despondent to go on. I had never known Todd well—none of his clients did—and yet his death shook me to the core.
Why am I telling you this? Why am I dredging up such a painful memory—especially when I could have focused only on the “resurrection and life” parts of our Gospel story this morning?
I’m not sure I can answer that question. All I can tell you is that as I began meditating on and praying over the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, that is what came to me. And as I read the story in different translations, studied the commentaries, and read some very moving, upbeat sermons, this is what stayed with me:
The inescapable human reality of death, and the soul-searing, heart-rending, gut-level grief that comes with the apparent finality of death. The beside-one’s-self kind of grief a professor of mine encountered when, at age 25, fresh out of seminary and three weeks into his first pastorate, he presided over the agonizing graveside service of a young mother—only to watch her husband jump into the grave. The kind of grief Jesus encountered when he met Martha and then Mary and the other mourners, the kind of grief Jesus himself felt when he allowed their pain to penetrate his heart.
But I think it also has to do with this: As real as our grief is, as deadening as our problems may be, we should never underestimate the power of God’s love to transform them into something good; we should never underestimate the desire of God’s heart to bring us to life. Why do I believe this? Well, beyond the Lazarus story, I can tell you that God entered into my grief over Todd’s death and prompted me to start asking questions about my life—questions that led me away from my job and ultimately led me here.
Around and in and through all through the story of Lazarus, we find and hear the good news of God’s resurrection power, the promise of God’s transforming love, and the new life that can be ours if we allow God to enter into our weak, fearful, discouraged and beaten-down places. The good news made clear both in the life of Jesus and in Jesus’ actions in this story is that, despite the pain and the cost to God’s own self, God hears our cries from the depths and God wants to accompany us through them and out of them into new life.
No one wants to experience the pain of death or the raw grief that comes with it, and yet this story is full of it. Martha and Mary have reached out to Jesus for a miracle cure—but Jesus doesn’t come. By the time he finally starts on his way he knows Lazarus is already dead. And even then he takes his time; it seems as if he doesn’t really want to be there.
For all those reasons and more, this is a disturbing story. We want to know why Jesus didn’t come sooner, what took him so long, and yet—if we put ourselves in his shoes, it isn’t so hard to understand. And if we put Jesus in our shoes—that is, human shoes—it isn’t hard to understand at all.
But the very human, God-with-us Jesus does finally arrive—not only encountering the wailing and weeping but even participating in it. Spirit’s love overcomes his all-too-human reluctance and ultimately transforms death into life and weeping into rejoicing. And that is where I find the good news this morning: Not in the promise of a transcendent God to make everything better in another life, but in the here-and-now resurrection from despair and surrender to the forces of death, in the here-and-now abundant life for all.
The good news is that God-with-us comes right now into the depths of our grief, the depths of our anxieties, our depression, our illness, our worries about our children, our doubts and our fears. God-with-us comes into the depths with us; God-with-us acknowledges and shares our pain and deadness of spirit. God-with-us comes into those dead places we thought we never could escape, into those situations we thought could never be redeemed, into the heartbreak and loss we thought could never be healed—God comes into those places and calls us back to life, to wholeness, to hope and to new ways of seeing and being.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Maybe I should explain that I approach a gospel story expecting two things: First, I expect it to tell me something about who God is and, second, I expect it to tell me something about how I should live. And, maybe I should confess that while I love the poetry of the Gospel of John, I sometimes find its Jesus very one-dimensional. Fortunately for all of us, God is too big and Jesus is too human to fit into any gospel writer’s agenda, any reader’s expectations or any other preconceived notions.
So what I offer you this morning and every Sunday is a reflection of my wrestling with the scriptures and theology, personal experience, the conditions of our hearts and our lives and the state of our world, guided—I hope—by God’s Spirit. I strongly encourage you to undertake a similar exercise and hear what our still-speaking God has to say to you.
In this case it was helpful for me to remember that the Jesus of John’s Gospel is a very focused God incarnate; everything he says and does is all about embodying and glorifying God. To put it in today’s language, the one-and-only question in this Jesus’ life was “What would God do?”—or WWGD. The Jesus of John’s Gospel knows he will be killed, and almost looks forward to it. In John’s Gospel there is no sweating of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane, no prayers to let the cup of martyrdom pass him by. The Jesus of John’s Gospel is almost Buddhist in his detachment and selfless focus.
That’s all well and good—and challenging, to say the least—but in those moments when I wonder what Jesus would do, in those times when I need to know God is with me, it helps me to remember the human Jesus. It helps me to know that Jesus, God’s love revealed in human form, may have struggled with some of the same fears and feelings I do. In this story I find strength and hope in considering that, in the end, Jesus’ very human fear for his life, his very understandable desire to stay away from pain and grief, is transformed by the Spirit’s love and conquered by the Creator’s life-giving power—which means mine and yours can be, too.
Think about it: By the time Jesus gets word of Lazarus’ illness from Mary and Martha, he is in a heap of trouble. Religious zealots have tried to stone him and political authorities have tried to arrest him. Jesus has escaped for now, but the writing is on the wall; he is a marked man.
So who could blame Jesus for wanting a couple more days of relative safety? But even if Jesus delayed going to Lazarus to give God more glory, as our text says, once he finally leaves why does it take him so long to get there? When Martha meets him on the road, he has not yet entered the village. And by the time Mary reaches Jesus, the sisters have traveled twice the distance between Jesus and Lazarus’ tomb—and yet Jesus is exactly where he was when Martha left him.
Surely, one possible explanation is that Jesus realized that his raising of Lazarus would probably be the last straw for the religious authorities. And it is: Jesus’ raising of Lazarus causes such a commotion among the people that the authorities decide they must kill not only Jesus but Lazarus as well.
But could it be that Jesus was slow in arriving because he also dreaded seeing and feeling the loss of his friend and the grief of his sisters? Could it be that some part of him wanted to avoid confronting the pain and grief of his own certain death?
Perhaps. Whatever the reasons for Jesus’ delay, the pain and grief do eventually find him:
First Martha and then Mary, his devoted followers, confront him with the same anguished statement: “If you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.” When Martha confronts Jesus with this cut-to-the-quick combination of faith and blame, Jesus doesn’t immediately engage at heart level. Like countless well-meaning, pain-avoiding pastors, Jesus responds first with theology.
But by the time Mary and the other mourners reach Jesus, so has the grief. The verse we’re most familiar with says, “Jesus wept,” but the Greek origins of the descriptions of him as “greatly disturbed and deeply moved” suggest that he was, in fact, distraught, angry, visibly shaken and sobbing. When he finally reaches the tomb, these feelings only deepen.
Then, watch what happens next: After all the delay, after days of mourning and grief, there is resistance when Jesus finally signals his intention to raise Lazarus from the dead. “What are you thinking?” Martha says. “He’s been dead four days already; the stench will be horrible.”
That feels real to me, too. Our lives may be difficult, our pain may be deep, our problems may be real—but they’re ours and we’re used to them.
But to Martha’s very practical resistance, and to our choice of the devil we know over something or someone we don’t, Jesus says, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
In other words, do you believe all this stuff about transformation and Spirit power, or not? Do you really want your heartache to be healed, your depression to be lifted, your fears to be relieved, your life to be changed—or not?!?
And if I had written the story, this is where I would have Jesus say, with his God-with-us love and compassion and understanding, “Hey—it’s me, the resurrection and the life. You spend so much emotional energy denying pain and death; you spend so much time, money and energy trying to prevent grief and death. But you can’t. I can’t. But I can enter the depths with you and transform them; through your faithfulness I can enter the dead places of this world, I can love the people who have given up all hope, and Spirit can bring them to life. If you simply trust in me,” he would say, “you would live as if you believe the truth that God’s love, not human or spiritual death, has the final word. You would live as if you trust in the truth that God’s life never ends, that our life in God never ends.”
“Do you believe this?” Jesus asks Martha.
“Do you trust this?” he asks us.
“If you do,” he says, “take away the stone the covers your heart, take down the defenses that hide your pain, and let me enter into your depths. There, I will speak my word of life and love to your wounds, your fears, and your pain, saying, ‘Come out.’ There, I will say in a loud voice to all the forces of death, ‘Unbind this child, and let him go. Unbind my child, and let her live.”
May it be so.