Many thanks to Augsburg University in Sioux Falls, SD for asking me to deliver this sermon in chapel on October 29th, 2018. Before the Gospel reading we heard a poem from October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard, by Leslea Newman.
When 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.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But 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. Jesus 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 four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I 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.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The 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.”
Good morning, everyone.
Today’s readings feel especially heavy, don’t they? And in fact, this week has felt heavy. First we heard about the attempted bombings, and thankfully no one was hurt. But then we heard about how, when a white man in Kentucky was stopped from entering a historically Black church, he instead entered a nearby grocery store and shot two Black patrons. We’ve heard about a gunman shouting anti-Semitic slurs and opening fire on a synagogue in Pittsburgh killing eleven worshippers. And we’ve remembered the horror of Matthew Shepherd’s murder as he was finally laid to rest at the National Cathedral. The world has been too much to carry.
And today we hear the story of Lazarus’ death. Lazarus, who was one of Jesus’ best friends, but when Jesus is told earlier in chapter 11 that his friend is sick, he doesn’t go to see him. Instead, we’re told in verse 6 that “after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” So you can’t really blame Mary for what she says when Jesus finally shows up. She’s grieving, and you can hear the anger and the sorrow in her voice when she confronts the person who could have spared everyone all this suffering. Mary calls him out, in front of everyone, asking the question that we also ask in times like these. God, why did you let this happen?
In theology there’s a word for asking this kind of question. When we ask the question “How can a good God allow truly awful things to happen,” we’re practicing something called theodicy. This question has always perplexed people in monotheistic religions, because if you believe in one God, and if you believe everything in existence comes from that one God, and is ruled by that one God, then that God also has to have some responsibility for the way things are. Within Christianity we’ve come up with many different possible answers. For instance, some Christians believe that bad things happen because humans have free will, which means that we’re allowed to choose the terrible thing rather than the good thing, and in order to keep that free will God has to let us make our own mistakes. Some Christians believe that evil has to exist in the world as a sort of divine balancing act—like you have to have the Devil if you’re going to have God, or you have to have Hell if you’re going to have Heaven. Other Christians believe that God allows short term suffering because in the long term the end result will be good, and this idea is often tied to a belief that God will allow someone to suffer in order to get them to repent and act in a kinder or more virtuous way.
In modern Jewish traditions, there’s been a resistance to practicing theodicy at all. In the years following the Shoah, also known as the Holocaust, it became clear that it just wasn’t possible to explain away the unimaginable horrors that the Jewish people experienced at the hands of the Nazis. No justification could ever be good enough. No defense could ever make it make sense. But many Jewish scholars looked to scripture to help them understand how to go on, even without any satisfying answers. Theologians like David Blumenthal have suggested that we might take a cue from the story of Job, who was afflicted with all kinds of suffering for what seemed like no reason. In that story, Job is constantly in conversation with God, sometimes in a trusting way, but at other times in a sad or frustrated or hopeless way. Blumenthal and others argued that in the end, the reason for suffering isn’t as important as the continuing relationship between people and God, and that it’s okay if that relationship includes us being angry and sad and frustrated with God. Blumenthal calls it “a theology of protest.”
Because of the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue this week, I was especially aware of the negative way Jewish people show up in our reading. In the book of John, particularly, Jewish people are blamed for just about everything that goes wrong for Jesus, and Christians have used these texts to bolster anti-Semitism. Martin Luther himself, who we remember on Reformation Day on November 1st, wrote some terrible anti-Semitic papers towards the end of his life which were used as part of Nazi propaganda during World War 2. As Christians, and as Lutherans, this is an awful part of our heritage that we don’t know how to deal with, but unless we grapple with it we allow that shadow to keep growing.
What I appreciate most about the Jewish way of approaching this question of evil is that it focuses on our relationship with God throughout the suffering we experience. Because when it comes right down to it, none of the two dozen theoretical reasons WHY mean very much in the moment when you’re experiencing sorrow. Words don’t matter in that moment. In that moment, we react like both Mary and Jesus. We yell, we cry, we crumple to the ground, we hold the people close to us. When Jesus sees Mary’s tears, we’re told that he is “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved,” which in the Greek is actually even more upsetting, because the words for being greatly disturbed are the same words people would use to describe a horse shuddering and rearing in fear, and the words for being deeply moved are used conjure up images of turbulent waters, of lighting storms and hurricane seas. This is how it felt to face the loss of the person they loved so much—this is how it feels to witness death.
But Jesus doesn’t get angry with Mary for asking the question, and Jesus doesn’t get mad at her for weeping. Throughout this storm of emotion, Jesus is there, experiencing it alongside the people suffering most. Jesus is crying too.
The true power of this companionship, of Jesus as Emmanuel, as God-With-Us, really hits me when I think about people like Matthew Shepherd. Like Matthew, Jesus experienced torture at the hands of the people who killed him. Like Jesus, Matthew was tied to a piece of wood and murdered. Because God knew that experience personally, God was with Matthew in every single moment. God is there in the hopeless places, reminding us that there is no such thing. God was there, reminding Matthew that death is not the end.
And I think it’s easier for us to put these pieces together in Matthew’s case, because it happened 20 years ago, and because it happened to a white, cisgender boy who was well loved by so many. But friends, the same terrible thing Matthew experienced is still happening to transgender women of color all over the world. So far this year at least 22 transgender people have been murdered in the US, including Ciara Carter, who was tortured and killed just this month, but these deaths go unreported. As a society, we’ve decided that transgender people—trans women of color specifically—are not important enough to warrant our attention or our protection. But the same could have been said of a poor wandering preacher in Galilee two thousand years ago who was killed for being himself.
It’s not until Jesus and Mary go to meet Martha at the tomb that we begin to see any possibility for hope in this story. Up until this point this could be the story of any funeral you or I might have been to. But then, Jesus tells Martha that they should remove the stone in front of the tomb, and after a moment’s hesitation, they do it. Jesus prays, and we’re reminded again of the constant companionship of God when he says “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me.” Again, God is present, listening, experiencing alongside the people.
And then the miraculous happens. Jesus calls, “Lazarus, come out!” and if there was ever a scarier or more joyful coming out party I’d be surprised! I wonder sometimes about whether any of Lazarus’ friends and family were too freaked out to be happy about seeing him. Sometimes when LGBTQ+ people come out, even in supportive families, it takes a while to get used to a new reality that nobody had planned for. I wonder if the same thing happened for Lazarus—if any of his family members had finally accepted his death now that three days had gone by, and if they felt thrown off by this change in the program.
But Jesus doesn’t give everyone time to get used to the idea—he calls Lazarus’ friends and family to action. Lazarus is still wrapped in the linen he was buried in, and that won’t do, for someone called into life and freedom and joy! Jesus calls out to the people and says “Unbind him and let him go!” And you can imagine the crowd reacting in all different kinds of ways—some like Mary and Martha running forward and gently but excitedly unwinding the cloth from their brother’s arms and legs, and others trying to budge up close to see if Lazarus looks the same or totally different now, and a few people in the back looking freaked out and wondering if maybe they should go start running a bath or get something for him to eat. Everyone is invited to the task of freeing the person that God called out.
And that’s the kind of community that I believe we’re called to be as the people of God, and as Christians who believe in the communion of ALL saints. We are a community made up of straight, cisgender, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, asexual, queer, intersex, and Two Spirit people from throughout time and across space who are called to both come out and to unbind each other. We are called to be who God made us to be, and to make the world safer for our siblings to be who THEY are called to be.
And there will be times when we don’t get it right, because as Luther observed, we are both 100% sinner and 100% saint. There will be days when we are grieving, and when we are angrily asking God for answers, and when we prioritize our practical, everyday concerns over life and freedom, like Martha did when she said rolling away the tombstone probably wasn’t a good idea. On days like that, we might make bad choices, and we might do things that hurt each other, intentionally or not. But even in those times, God does not abandon us or give up on us. Jesus weeps with us, but Jesus also rejoices with us when the bandages are finally unwound and we can breathe again.
The story of Lazarus has a special place in my heart, because I remember that feeling pretty vividly myself. Three years ago I was blessed to be able to have surgery that gave me this incredibly flat and handsome chest you see before you today. Prior to having surgery I’d been wearing these tight compression shirts for quite a while, and they were starting to give me back and rib pain, but not wearing them made me feel even worse mentally. Being constricted like that is terrible, especially for people who have allergies or asthma or any other kind of breathing problem. A week after surgery I went in to the doctor’s office to have the bandages removed, and I finally got to see my chest for the first time. Getting to take that first deep breath in felt like heaven. It felt like coming back to life. It felt like finally stepping out of the grave after hearing God call my name.
That is the life we’re called to, friends. That is the kind of resurrection we can experience now, working together, and with God’s help. And it’s just a taste of the kind of resurrection we’ll know one day in a larger kingdom. There, with Lazarus and Martha and Mary, and Matthew and Ciara and Marsha P. and Sylvia and so many others—that’s where we’ll all be welcome. All of us. All saints.