Editor's Note: This post is adapted from a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Nixon.
Some of us have stood at a tomb, faced an open grave, scattered the ashes of one beloved. We know what it’s like to be confronted with the stark reality of death and the flood of conflicting emotions that comes with it. I’ve stood at different sites at Dry Creek Cemetery in Boise, Idaho, and the Veteran’s Cemetery next to it, to bury my father, my brother, my nephew, my step-father and-step sister, my brother-in-law, not to mention my beloved piano teacher, and a dear high school friend. Not so long ago I stood by the open grave of Patrice Heath as her casket was lowered into the ground. We prayed and wept and celebrated her life, but it is not an easy thing, under any circumstances, to lay a loved one to rest.
The ancient story of Lazarus being raised from the dead in John 11:1-45 is just such a situation. It’s also another occasion to encounter Jesus in his divinity and his humanity. It’s a long, complicated story. You have heard it read. I will not attempt to unpack it all.
Before I get to my main point, though, I want to say that there are aspects of the story that trouble me. I have difficulty with Jesus’ decision to tarry long enough for his friend to be good and dead before he shows up. I hear the words that it is all for God’s glory and the ultimate good of those who will come to see and believe because of what he will do. And I understand that Christ is operating on God’s time, not Martha’s or Mary’s or mine. There is mystery here that I cannot completely understand, and I still tend to side with those who wonder why he didn’t show up sooner.
I will share with you the best I word I’ve found so far about this action and then leave you to decide for yourselves. Fred Craddock writes of this text, which is the last and greatest of the signs that Jesus gives in John’s gospel, “At least two features mark sign stories. First, Jesus acts according to his own time and not according to external pressures. … In this Gospel, Jesus’ actions are ‘from above.’ Second, to say this is a sign story is to say that its primary function is revelation. Some truth about the meaning of God’s glory and presence in the world is made known through Jesus’ ministry. For the stories to function this way, they must be seen to operate on two levels. On one level Jesus heals a cripple, opens the eyes of the blind, or raises the dead, but on another level he reveals a truth about life eternal which God makes available in Jesus Christ” (Fred B. Craddock, “A Two-fold Death and Resurrection,” The Christian Century, March 21, 1999, p. 299).
What we do see here, which is much easier to understand, is Jesus’ compassion. The closer he gets to Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, the more deeply he feels their pain, their grief, their loss. He starts out proclaiming that those around him will see a mighty miracle to the glory of God. It will help confirm his claim to being God’s Chosen One. But after his encounters with both Martha and Mary, grieving and chiding him for not coming sooner, he arrives at the stone-sealed tomb. It is chilling.
Remember we started this reflection standing before open graves and sealed tombs. Remember what it feels like — pain, loss, grief, aching hearts, gratitude for a loved one — all the myriad feelings that can flood our consciousness to the point of temporary numbness followed by inevitable tears. That’s Jesus on this day. We have a pretty good idea of how he felt when he suddenly broke out in tears. Plain and simple. No elaborate embellishment. He just stood in that place of stone-cold death and wept.
For me, there is nothing more powerful than these tears. In fact, I wonder if there could have been any raising of his dead friend without these tears. Lazarus is raised on the flood of Jesus’ tears. Marjorie Suchocki writes of the universal consequences of Jesus’ compassion for his friend. She assures us that we are not “…forsaken by God in our own times of trouble. God does not prevent trouble from happening: we are finite, we are fragile — it is not possible to live without some kind of trouble entering our lives. We all face the worst of troubles in the deaths of those we dearly love, as well as in our own impending death. God is not impassive in the face of our troubles: Jesus wept. God feels us in our pain; the love of God is empathic, a 'feeling with'" (Marjorie Suchocki, “Fifth Sunday in Lent,” April 6, 2014, processandfaith.org). God loves us and cares for us more than we’ll ever know or completely understand.
I want to share another tale of the tomb, one that is also marked by an act of remarkable compassion. I was reminded this week of a powerful film I’ve seen a couple of times in the past year. Its title is God Loves Uganda. The film is the work of Academy Award winning documentary director, Roger Ross Williams. Williams is a young, gay, African American, raised in an American Baptist Church. The focus of the film is on the way that certain right-winged, Christian fundamentalists are fueling the homo-hatred that has grown in the past few years in Uganda. This has culminated in virulent anti-gay laws. At one time parliament was considering being gay as a capital crime. If you’re interested in any of this you can see the movie for yourselves. It has been well-received at a number of film festivals around the world, including Sundance.
The story I want to take from the film involves an Anglican bishop named Christopher Senjonyo. I was moved to tears of my own by this excerpt from the movie; then I had the great privilege to meet the bishop last October at the AWAB event in Providence, Rhode Island. For what it’s worth, I consider this man to be a peer of Bishop Tutu and the other great elders who share their wisdom in today’s troubled world. He moves with grace and dignity and is filled with the love of God for God’s world and God’s children. At 82, Bishop Christopher has been stripped of his standing in the Anglican church of Uganda because of his unwavering support for the lgtbtq people of that country. Among other things, after 34 years of service, the church took away his pension.
Another character in the film is a young gay activist. A very courageous soul, Jonathan Hall is eventually murdered. The scenes that touched me so deeply are from Jonathan’s funeral. Before his family, friends, and supporters, many of whom were LGBTQ, the presiding clergyman proceeded to unleash a homo-hating monologue basically condemning the young man at his own funeral. It is an appalling illustration of the church at its very worst. I can only imagine Jesus wept once more at the cruelty and injustice being perpetrated in his name.
After the service, the scene shifts to a smaller group of friends and family accompanying the casket to the grave site. The offending clergyman is nowhere to be seen, but there, in the middle of the procession, is Bishop Christopher. Arriving at the open grave, the casket is lowered into ground. At this point, Bishop Christopher spontaneously steps forward to offer a blessing. His are simple words of loving grace and compassion for the murdered man and all those suffering the hurt and hatred that has infected his people and their culture. Once more, Christ, in the person of his representative, stands at the tomb of his friend weeping, and then offers the blessing, the word, with the power to heal, to make whole. On that day, resurrection was practiced in the African countryside.
At the end of today’s text, the consequence of Christ’s compassion is revealed. Remember, the outcome of the raising of Lazarus "…was a turnaround for many of the friends who were with Mary. They saw what Jesus did, and believed in him. But,” the text continues, “some went back to the Pharisees and told on Jesus. The high priests and Pharisees called a meeting of the … ruling body. ‘What do we do now?’ they asked. ‘This man keeps on doing things, creating God-signs. If we let him go on, pretty soon everyone will be believing in him and the Romans will come and remove what little power and privilege we still have.’” So, “from that day on, they plotted to kill him” (John 11:45-48, 53).
In this world there are consequences for living a life of compassion. Jesus knew it and Bishop Christopher knows it — yet they remain faithful. As Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus, perhaps he also wept for his own coming abandonment and execution; as the bishop continues to minister in Christ’s name, he is now threatened with seven years in prison for loving and supporting his LGBTQ sisters and brothers.
But we also know the story doesn’t end with sealed tombs or prison sentences. Jesus’ cry to “Come out,” the bishop’s prayer of blessing, prove that life is stronger than death, that love is stronger than hate, that resurrection is possible through the Living Word of God. And we, friends, are part of that Living Word, the Body of Christ. Jesus effects the miracle of the raising of his friend, but he leaves a vital part to that community of family and friends gathered round. “You unbind him. You set him free. You work for justice and peace and love and compassion. I’ve given you all you need, now you make it real in your own lives and in the lives of all you encounter.” Not this time. Not this time will death or hate or injustice have the victory, because we have seen the resurrection and the life and it has set us free. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon is pastor of First Baptist Church of Palo Alto, Calif.
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