A: 5th Sunday of Lent

The Need to Surrender

March 13, 2005

John  11:1-45

The most important thing that happens in this long passage from the gospel of John is what Martha learns about life.  Martha knew Jesus and loved Jesus, yet Martha looks for life in the wrong place.  She imagines that life is going to be available to her brother, Lazarus, in the future.  She says, “I know my brother will rise again at the resurrection on the last day.”  Jesus challenges her.  He says, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even if they die shall live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”

Jesus proclaims, “I am life, and I am now. The deepest part of life is available to you now.  Not just physical life, but the most important things of life.  Your own dignity as a person is available to you now.  Peace is available now.  Joy is available now.  It flows from your status as a child of God.  It flows from your relationship with me.”

I do not believe there is a more difficult or challenging passage in the Scriptures than this assertion by Jesus: that today, now, we have access to life, to joy, and to peace in his presence.  We are all so much like Martha:  we postpone life to some future time, to a time when we have met the conditions that we think are necessary in order to have life.  We imagine that life will happen once we have attained a certain success or once we have corrected what is  wrong in our life.  Then, in that future, we suppose we will have life.  Like Martha we say to ourselves, “Life will happen once I graduate from college, once I get married, once I stop smoking, once I retire, once I lose twenty pounds, once I make enough money, once I have the right kind of friends, once I get over this cold, once spring comes.”   Whatever conditions we imagine, those conditions move life away from us. Jesus insists that we are mistaken.  Life in its deepest sense does not result from anything we do or fail to do.  Life happens when we surrender, when we surrender to Christ and God’s love for us which is available to us in this moment.

We keep thinking that life in its’ deepest sense is about us and our accomplishments.  The shocking thing that Jesus tells us in today’s gospel is that your life is not about you—you are about life!  Real life is available to you the moment that you accept  God’s love which is freely given to you as  a son or daughter of God, available to you in this moment.  To the extent that we are able to open ourselves to that present free gift of love we can experience life and peace and joy.  To the extent that we place conditions on that gift, we push life into to the future, a future which we will never reach.

Of course the things we do have some importance.  We must earn a living, we must get an education, we probably should lose twenty pounds.  But the minute we think that these conditions, these goals that we set for ourselves, are what is going to bring us life and peace and joy, in that moment we begin a futile and useless chase.  Life comes when we surrender, when we accept God’s free love for us in this moment, when we claim our status as sons and daughters and begin to live out of the relationship which is God’s free gift to us.

In the 1950’s a famous millionaire held an exclusive dinner party in which he invited two famous people.  One of them was the brilliant British actor, Richard Burton.  The other was Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, who was a religious leader, famous for his preaching of the gospel in the modern media.  As a gift to his guests that evening he asked both men to prepare and to read the 23rd psalm, probably the most famous of all the psalms: “the Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want”.   Richard Burton spoke first.  He took up the text and he proclaimed it with conviction, insight and drama, using all of his professional skills.  At the end of that reading the guests were so moved that they jumped to their feet and burst into applause.  When the applause died down, Bishop Sheen took up the same text, and he read it with humility, conviction and faith.  When he was finished, there was absolute silence.   Finally the host stood up and thanked both men for there readings.  He then said to his guests, “If I had to summarize what took place here tonight, it would be this:  Mr. Burton knew the psalm, but Bishop Sheen knew the Shepherd.”

The secret to life is to know the Shepherd, to know the unconditional love that God gives to each one of us regardless of our achievements or our failures.  Accept that love.  Live out of that relationship.  Do not postpone life to some future time, placing conditions upon it which you imagine you must meet.  God loves you now.  God loves you in this moment.  Surrender!


A Hope Which Never Dies

March 9, 2008

John 11:1-45

When does hope die?  When do we come to a situation where we can no longer imagine any future good?  When do we reach a place when we look forward and all we can see is despair?  For the followers of Jesus, the answer to these profound questions is “never.”  Never do we believe that hope and goodness will be conquered by evil.  Never do we believe that we come to the point where we can no longer look forward with some confidence.  Never will hope die.

Now these are daring statements, statements that many would not accept. But we who believe accept them because we believe in God’s power. We believe that God’s power is active in our midst.  We believe that God is in charge of the world, and God will not let the world fall apart.  We believe that God is in charge of our lives, and God will not abandon us.  We believe that God is opposed to the evil that surrounds us, and God has promised us an ultimate victory.  For those who believe in Christ, there never comes a point where hope dies, because we believe that the power of God is stronger than any other power.

This does not mean that we are preserved from every evil, for the power of God is not yet complete.  It waits for the day for Christ’s final victory and return.  Evil can still touch us and those who we love.  But even as we face loss and sickness and rejection and death, we hold on to the hope that God’s power is still active, and God’s power will preserve us.

Martha, in today’s gospel, believed in Jesus’ power.  She believed that he was a great healer.  She believed that had Jesus come, he could have saved her brother.  “Lord,” she said, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But he did die, and he was now in the tomb.”  And so for Martha, hope was gone.  There was no way that she could imagine her brother alive again.  Jesus confronts her understanding and asserts, “I am the resurrection and the life.” To show that power Jesus calls forth Lazarus from the tomb.  So we, too, if we believe in God’s power, can always hold our hearts open to God’s power in our lives.

Even when there has been resentment in relationships for years, we still believe that God has power, and there may come a time when those relationships can be reconciled.  Even when we face addiction and illness, we believe that God is healer and that God’s power can still protect us and heal us.  Even when we see injustice and violence around us in the world, we continue to believe that our actions on behalf of the kingdom can make a difference and that God is acting in ways we cannot foresee to bring about a better world.

It is not easy to hope in a world where so much is wrong, but Christians hold on to hope because we believe in the power of God.  We believe in the power that raised Lazarus from the tomb. We believe in the power that brought Jesus to life after the third day.  That power of God’s presence is our hope, and that hope can never die.


Life in the Presence of Death

March 10, 2011

John 11:  1-45

Today’s gospel is filled with death. Lazarus, the one who Jesus loved, has died. You can see the impact of that death upon his sister Martha and those who come to grieve with her. Martha certainly believes in Jesus’ power, but she also believes that the time for that power to help has passed. She says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Maybe at one time, Jesus could have helped. But now He can no longer do so.

The people who come to grieve with Martha also think that the possibility of life has passed them. They say, “He healed the eyes of the blind man. Why could he not have done something to prevent that this man from dying?” Death holds sway over this story—over Lazarus and over those who loved him. Into this story of death, Jesus enters. He enters as life.

Jesus speaks to Martha and promises her that life will come. It is important for us to note that Jesus promises Martha two kinds of life. We must understand and accept both of them. Jesus first promises future life: Lazarus will be raised up on the last day. That promise is also given to us. We, like Lazarus, will be raised from our graves to the new life of God’s kingdom. This promise of future life is important. It consoles us, telling us that our beloved dead are now with the Lord in Heaven and that when Jesus comes, they will be raised up bodily together with us to live in God’s presence forever.

So, the promise of future life is important. But that is not the only life that Jesus gives to Martha. He offers her present life. Jesus says to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live. And all those who believe in me will never die.” Jesus not only promises life on the last day, he promises life here and now, in his presence. We not only await for a life to come. In some sense we possess that life at this moment. How do we attain resurrection and life now?

Here, we have to be careful. We cannot be naïve or glib about the presence of evil. Evil is a part of our world. It touches us and those that we love. We suffer. The people we love die. We make disastrous mistakes that hurt ourselves and others. Yet, even in the presence of this evil, Jesus promises us life. We must be clear what he means. Evil is still with us. Evil will not be defeated until the victory of Christ on the last day. Therefore, the life that Jesus offers us today is not life instead of evil, but life in the midst of evil. Jesus does not promise us that we can avoid death. He promises us that we can have life, even in the presence of death.

How do we do this? By looking for the good. By looking for life. Even in our darkest moments, goodness and life are available. Jesus promises us that he will lead us to that goodness. We find life when we believe in the love of others. For that love continues even as we grieve and even as we suffer. We find life when we give ourselves to others in service. For even when we are discouraged and sick, we can still offer something of ourselves to others, and that gives us life. We find resurrection when we open ourselves to the beauty of nature and of music, when we laugh with friends, when we decide to light one candle rather than curse the darkness.

Jesus does indeed promise us future resurrection on the last day. We trust in that promise. But, He also offers us life now. Each time that we accept the love of others, that we give ourselves in service, that we look for the good and the beauty that surrounds us, we are able to rise above evil and death. In those moments we accept Jesus as our present resurrection and life.


Lazarus as a Disciple

April 6, 2014

John 11: 1- 45

Today’s gospel is the raising of Lazarus. We have heard the story many times. Therefore, we might be tempted to say, “Lazarus? I know that one”, and then turn to thinking of something else. But every great story can become fresh, if you look at it from a new perspective. So here is the question I would like us to consider today: How do we imagine that Lazarus felt about being raised from the dead? Now remember, Lazarus was not resurrected. Resurrection is a movement from death into a perfect new life. Resurrection is what happened to Jesus on Easter and what we hope will happen to us when Jesus returns on the last day. Lazarus was not, however, resurrected. He was resuscitated. Instead of being called forward into a new and perfect life, Lazarus was called backward into the life that he had just left four days earlier. That life had ended with a serious sickness whose ravages probably still scarred his emaciated body. Lazarus was being called back into a life where there would be further sickness and further pain, a life that would again end with a death that he would have to endure.

So how do we imagine that Lazarus felt about being called back to that life? Could we picture him suddenly waking up in the still, dark tomb and hearing Jesus from outside calling, “Lazarus come out!” Could there be a part of Lazarus that thought, “Come out to what—to work, responsibility, hunger, hurt, misunderstanding, suffering and death?” Could there have been a part of Lazarus that objected, “Come out? I like it here. It’s peaceful, safe, easy.” Could Lazarus have thought even for a moment, “Maybe if I lie very still, he‘ll just go away?”

But Lazarus did come out—out of the tomb, into the light, back to the real life in which we live. And by that action, Lazarus became an example to us of what discipleship entails. Because discipleship involves the courage to leave behind what is peaceful, safe, and easy and answer the call of Christ. Every day Christ is calling us to “come out” into the real world where our responsibilities lie. Perhaps he is calling us to come out into difficult relationships that are characterized by misunderstanding and competition, or into a difficult job that is not fulfilling or even just. He might be calling us to come out and again take up the burden of grief over a loved one who we have lost or to struggle with a sickness that is threatening our future. He very likely is calling us to come out and use our abilities for the sake of others, to be a mentor to those who want to learn or an advocate for the poor and the oppressed.

Every time that Jesus calls us to “come out,” we can be tempted to choose what is easy, to lie still in our tombs of denial, fear, and inactivity and hope that he just goes away. But Lazarus shows us that a disciple is one who stands up and walks. And that action of Lazarus is not without hope, because when we leave the tomb behind, we discover that we are not alone. As our eyes adjust to the light of the real world in which we live, we come to see that Jesus who has called us is the one who is also standing by our side.


If Only

April 2, 2017

John 11:1-45

There are many characters in today’s gospel: Jesus, his disciples, Martha, Mary, Lazarus, and a group of Jews who come to mourn Lazarus’ death. But of all these characters, it is Martha who speaks for us. Because Martha expresses in one line a situation that is all too often ours, a situation in which we have lost something that is dear to us and we can do nothing about it. Martha believed that Jesus was a great healer and a miracle-worker, so she was convinced that if Jesus could touch her brother, Lazarus, he would not die. But Jesus arrived too late to do that. He came after Lazarus was dead for four days. So Martha says to Jesus, “Lord, if only had you been here, my brother would not have died.” If only Jesus had been there. But he was not, and now her brother was gone.

Martha’s words of sad resignation characterize many moments in our own lives, moments that could be captured in the phrase “if only.” If only my son did not go out with his friends that night, he would not have been in a traffic accident. If only my daughter did not fall in with that group, she would not be abusing drugs. If only my father did not smoke two packs of cigarettes a day, he would still be alive. If only I had been faithful to my spouse, I would still be married. If only the circumstances were different or the mistakes were not made, this tragedy could have been avoided. But the circumstances were not different, the mistakes were made, and now we, like Martha, face a tragedy we cannot escape.

Martha knows our experiences of resignation and regret and she speaks them to Jesus. But it is good news for us that she does not stop there. Martha adds another line, a line of faith. She says, “Yet even now, I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” Martha knows she cannot do anything about her situation, all the “if-onlies” did not occur. Her brother is now dead. But her faith in Jesus is real. So Martha hands over her life to Jesus. She says, “I know that God will grant you anything you ask.” Martha does not tell Jesus what to ask. She trusts him, and he does not disappoint her. In this powerful gospel, Martha moves from the resignation that nothing can be done to the recognition that God is still able to act. She moves from hopelessness in the face of death to trust in someone who loves her.

And Martha invites us to do the same. As we count all the losses in our lives, as we grieve over the mistakes we have made, as we fret over all the “if-onlies” that never happened, Martha invites us to entrust our lives to the one to whom all things are possible. She does not promise us that our beloved dead will come back to life like her brother, Lazarus. She does not suggest that all of our regrets will become happy endings. But she does remind us that there is one greater than us and that it is always wise to trust him.

Martha tells us that with God there are no “if-onlies.” There are only “not-yets.” So as strange as it sounds, it is right that we gather together all that is hopeless and seemingly finished in our lives and turn it over to Jesus, and then wait in hushed darkness for the first rays of light.

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