For many of us, the challenge of Jesus, the challenge of the Incarnation is getting God into human life. But the opposite is true in the story of Lazarus. Here the challenge is getting human life into Jesus.
Today we hear a story of Jesus learning what it means to be human, that to be human is to grieve, to encounter the grief of another, to be moved by someone mourning a death, and to have that change you.
Before the death of Lazarus, before Martha weeps, before the bands of cloth fall from the risen body – before that, Jesus makes his way to Bethany.
“A certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany.” This isn’t any man, another stranger reaching out to Jesus. Mary sends word. “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” His friend, the one Jesus loves, this one is ill. He is sick. He needs his friend.
And Jesus can’t seem to find his way into this grief. It’s too far away, too far in so many ways. Jesus’ is confident that this sickness will not ultimately overtake Lazarus. He delays. He stays two days longer before going to them.
At this point in the story, in this first part, Lazarus’ death is understood as an object lesson to reveal the glory of God. Why should Jesus mourn for his friend who will be raised from the dead? Jesus knows the future. Before the news is delivered, he tells the disciples that Lazarus has died.
Jesus stands above it all, untouched by this news.
Can’t you see, Jesus? Can’t you feel it? Can’t you feel the terror, the cold chill, the dizziness of separation, the sweeping emptiness? Can’t you see, Jesus? “He whom you love is ill.”
Jesus learns how to be human. He learns from Martha how to be inside a human life, how to grieve, how fragile life is, how much it matters. Martha shows Jesus that the defeat of death is not a balm for grief. It means something.
C.S. Lewis wrote down a series of reflections, observations on the death of his wife. And I imagine him conveying these words as Martha might have to Jesus:
“It is hard to have patience with people who say, ‘There is no death’ or ‘Death doesn’t matter’. There is death. And whatever is matters. And whatever happens has consequences, and it and they are irrevocable and irreversible. You might as well say that birth doesn’t matter. I look up at the night sky. Is anything more certain than that in all those vast times and spaces, if I were allowed to search them, I should nowhere find her face, her voice, her touch? She died. She is dead. Is the word so difficult to learn?”
I was one of many people who gathered around Marge in her final hours.
When I came to the hospital to see her, I was surprised at how nervous I felt. But rarely have I sat with someone who was well enough to process the news that her death was only a few days away. I wondered how Marge was handling all this. What could she be feeling? Would she be angry or afraid? And what could I possibly say?
As I pushed the elevator button, those words, “I believe in the resurrection of the body”– those words I said every week of my childhood felt flimsy in my head. As the elevator bell signaled each new floor, I felt more and more unsure. I got off the elevator. This hospital, these people, this sickness overtaking Marge’s body – it all felt so big, like a weight that was crushing those fragile words.
I walked into Marge’s room and she greeted me with a tired smile. “Come in and sit down,” she said. “I’m glad we finally have a chance to talk.” I asked her what she loved about her life. She told me about the desert, and singing, of traveling with the choir and seeing the world, about her sister and her mother, of growing up in the church. We grieved her life, we wept for the life that could have been, for the beauty of this world that was ending for her.
Finally, I asked her about this news she just received, that her body was dying. Marge looked at me and said, “I’m not afraid to die. I don’t have any worries about what happens next. But it is such a great mystery.”
For a full minute we sat in silence. I held her hand and her steady gaze.
“The Forsythia Bush” by Brian Doyle
One morning this summer I was basking in the sun
With the brother closest to me in age. We had been
Brought up almost as twins but then took disparate
Roads, as twins do. He was sobbing and I was near
Tears and the ocean was muttering. I heard a heron.
We had been having the most naked open talk we’d
Had in many years. I wanted to tell him how deeply
I loved him but words are just so weak and shallow.
So I talked about the forsythia bush we used to hide
Under together. It was the safest place on the planet.
The light was always amazing in there and it wasn’t
Ever muddy somehow and you were draped in gold.
It was a hut a huddle a tent a canopy a cave a refuge.
Sometimes you have to use a thing to say something
Else. We do this all the time. We talk sideways, yes?
But sidelong is often the only road that gets to where
You know you need to go. So much means lots more
Than it seems like it could mean. Tears, for example.
Lazarus’ death and raising is a foretaste. It is a sign of the thing to come, of Jesus’ death. And I wonder if in this moment, as the theory of death gives way to the rotting body, the cold stillness–as Jesus encounters the immensity of crushing grief, if here he finally comes to understand what his own death will mean, not for himself, but for the others, for those left behind. I wonder if he comes to understand that Martha and Mary will miss him.
Jesus, God in flesh, is learning to be human. And here he begins to understand, as he sees Mary and Martha in the devastation of their grief, Jesus beings to grasp that these same women will reenact this scene for him, for his own dead body, his corpse in a tomb. Jesus now realizes that they will tear their garments and hair at the foot of the cross, the women who will follow him to the tomb – he begins to understand how much he means to them.
And he weeps.
To be human is to be bound up in someone’s grief, to know that the absence of your life will be a grief to another. Jesus learns from Martha, the one who believes in the resurrection, that even raising a person from the dead is not enough to inoculate a heart from grief. They, too, will mourn him, will search their memories for a picture of him that fades over time. They, too, will mourn him, will search for Jesus’ face in the faces of others. They, too, will mourn him, will hear a voice like his that will make them jump. They, too, will mourn him, will long for his words, will ache for his touch.
“When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.”
“So much means lots more
Than it seems like it could mean. Tears, for example.”
We come to discover that the raising of Lazarus is what finally puts the religious leaders over the edge. From that day on they planned to put him to death.
Because what can you do with a people for whom life is immeasurably weighty who, at the same time, are not afraid of death?
For the chief priests, the bureaucrats, this is a dangerous combination. How can you control a people whose lives are no longer organized around a fear of death? The chief priests calculated their survival on the basis of compromise, an assumption that everyone was working from the same motivation, the same fears driving their participation with Rome. “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.”
Michael Sharp would walk into the jungle. Michael would take his friends from church and walk to the base of the FDLR rebel camp, one of the warring militia groups vying for power in the Democratic Republic of Congo. His first encounter with the Congolese came through his work with Mennonite Central Committee as a community partner with the Congolese Protestant Council of Churches. Unarmed, he’d sit with rebels under a banana tree, drink tea, and listen.
Moving through the jungles with UN peacekeeping forces would betray confidence. Carrying a weapon would erode the relationships Michael worked hard to establish. And the Congo needed another way to address those at the heart of the decades long conflict.
On Monday Michael’s body was found in a shallow grave, alongside the body of a colleague and translator, a week after he disappeared, kidnapped and killed while on one of the hundreds of these journeys through the jungle.
He worried about being safe, but he knew this was the way of peace, to walk without a weapon into the possibility of new life. This week Michael’s mother reported to the press that Michael had told her he didn’t want to die, but he wasn’t afraid of death.
Michael was deeply knit into the fabric of the Mennonite Church, and his death is shattering. But for his friends, Michael’s life, MJ’s life, wasn’t being a peacemaker, a UN researchers, a friend of the militias, a Mennonite from Kansas whose team persuaded 1,600 militia members to return home. They are weeping for their friend. The one they loved has died and their lives will never be the same.
But we also know that Michael’s imagination was dangerous, that he imagined the possibility of another world, another Congo. He had an imagination where life was endlessly meaningful and where death would never win. He believed this would world was possible, that it could come to fruition under bananas trees, sipping tea and listening.
I’ve wept for Michael this week, for the violence for the world that Jesus left behind, for those who loved him, for the world that might have been.
And in the midst of it, I came across the poem we read earlier, The Forsythia Bush, as I was trying to make sense of this week, of Jesus weeping for Lazarus, Jesus weeping for Michael. All of it, it seems, is a way of talking sideways, as Brian Doyle says, all of it the way of love when words are weak and shallow. Love always means so much more, the devastation of loving bodies that will die, all if means so much more.
I haven’t forgotten how this story ends, how the raising of Lazarus foreshadows Jesus’ resurrection, an act that will make all of us dangerous, an ungovernable people, a people who see life as immeasurably precious, who are also unafraid to die.
I haven’t forgotten Jesus’ words: Lazarus, come out. Unbind him and let him go.