These stories (of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, of Ezekiel in the valley of the dry bones)—these stories are why we believe.
It’s admittedly a strange thing. Looking back on a week that has led us to grieve with the O’Neill-Mullin family and the St. Paul’s School for Girls community the tragic death of Cameron and her host sister in Australia, Paris Wilson. It’s a week that confronts us with the disturbing question if Jesus raised from the dead, if that is God’s power at work, then why then and not now? Why him and not her? The mystery of the will of God? Not good enough. Not for me. Maybe it should be. It’s not.
And if it were possible for someone to be called forth from the dead, certainly a sixteen year old full of life and potential would be one to call forth. And yet, of course, the truth of life is, there’s always a sixteen year old—in a mall in the Netherlands, on the ravaged coast of Japan, in Haiti’s camps, in Libya’s war zones, in downtown Baltimore. So much death. Every week confronts us with the question. We just don’t always hear it. If then, why not now?
I don’t, in fact, know whether or not Jesus raised people from the dead. Nobody, in fact, knows. I do know that’s not my experience of God-with-us. But I also know we live in a world of so much death—a world full of so many different ways of dying and so many different kinds of death, and I do know that God does raise people from the dead. Am I dismissing the story as just metaphor? Disrespecting it? No. I’m claiming it as truth—claiming it as truth we experience—mashing this story up with our stories. God absolutely does call us forth from that which kills us. Calls you. Calls me.
I’m not going to spend a whole lot of time on the text this morning. It deserves more attention than we’re going to give it. More time to observe that while it’s only in John that we find this particular story, Jesus does raise someone from the dead in each gospel—to note that the name Lazarus resonates with the parable Luke tells of the poor man, Lazarus, who dies and goes to heaven, and the rich man who dies and doesn’t, and the rich man wants Lazarus to go warn his family, and do you remember, oddly enough, what Abraham tells the rich man? “They’re not going to believe even if someone should rise from the dead!” (Luke 16:31) The various details of the unfolding of this story are worth more consideration than we will give them this morning.
I do want to note this is a story told in conversations leading up to miracle: Jesus’ conversation with his disciples, Jesus’ conversation with Martha, Jesus’ conversation with Mary. Would you look at that? Three conversations! And I do want to note that it’s a fascinating beginning. “Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill.” So, that hadn’t happened yet! That bit about Mary anointing Jesus. That’s not until the next chapter! So, we have a story in which what is yet to be is mashed up with—already a part of what is.
I do want to point out the original message from the sisters to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill,” and that when Jesus wept, the onlookers commented on how he loved Lazarus. And I want to ask you, “Well, whom does Jesus not love? So for whom does Jesus not weep? For who isn’t touched by death?” This Bible story of God’s grief is not just mashed up with our stories, but with everyone’s stories.
I want you to note in Jesus’ conversation with Martha, Martha affirms a belief in the resurrection of the dead on the last day, but Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” It’s now, in other words. It’s all now—all mashed up into right now. Death is already now, as is resurrection—life. What is yet to be is already a part of what is. Death is now—amidst life. There are so many different ways of dying and so many different kinds of death. And we know too many of them all too well. But resurrection is now as well. Resurrection is God-with-us amidst the death—in the valley of death—the valley of dry bones—the dry bones of lost hopes and shattered dreams, of unfulfilled potential—the dry bones of fear given free reign—of narcissim, selfishness and unrealistic expectations, cynicism, despair, and the dry bones of grief without hope, of love and dreams all dried up like raisins in the sun (Langston Hughes, “Dream Deferred”)—the dry bones of those who are just so tired—those who are depressed. “I am the resurrection and the life. Come forth from your death.”
Finally, I want to let you know that the words translated “greatly disturbed”—Jesus was “greatly disturbed”—first, at all the weeping—at the grief—those words could be translated, might better be translated, as “angry” (Gail R. O’Day, The Gospel of John: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes: Volume IX (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995) 690). Jesus was angry. That’s a tough one. Jesus was angry at people in grief? Angry at the depth of their loss? What’s up with that? Or was Jesus angry at death? The simple fact of death. The pervasive reality of death. And Jesus wept. Wept at the finality of death. Wept at its power. Wept at loss and grief, relationships sundered, futures undone. Jesus weeps for sixteen year olds killed in Australia, and on Japan’s coast, and in Haiti’s camps and Libya’s streets and Baltimore’s. Jesus weeps for the deaths that touch you—the dying that’s part of your living.
And some saw his tears and 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?” If then, why not now? And for the second time, Jesus was greatly disturbed. Jesus was angry that anyone would think—that anyone would presume he doesn’t always “rage, rage against the dying of the light” (Dylan Thomas, “Do not go gentle into that good night”). And furious too, don’t you think? at a world that doesn’t rage against death—every death. That all too often condones it—justifies it—ignores it—accepts it and calls it the collateral damage of the way we choose to live.
For whose death is Jesus not angry? And whom does he not call from death? God is always calling forth from death. In ways we know to name, and in the mysteries that surpass all understanding. Remember Ezekiel’s response to the question can these dry bones live? “O Lord God, you know.”
Death, you see, is not the final exam for Jesus’ authority that we get to grade. Death is the depth from which we cry out. All of us. And it is the darkness into which light explodes …. (Katy Perry, Firework video, 3:55 minutes).
Okay, so maybe it’s not the best writing. Not what I would have said or how I would have said it. But she gets it—something essentially true. Katy Perry, who gets songwriting credit on this song she performs. She is the daughter of a minister. Maybe that’s where it comes from. Nice to think so! And it was my daughters who introduced me to this song dancing around the house singing this song at the top of their lungs yesterday! And not only is it what we’re to be about as the people of God, it’s also how we’re to be about it. Not figuring out who to get mad at. Not deciding who we should condemn or exclude. Not judging who’s right and who’s wrong. We get too caught up in thinking we know too much of what’s most important instead of joyfully celebrating the firework that is each image of God. The light bursting into the darkness from each unique living and the darkness not just illuminated in light, but also in streaks of color and sparkle and sizzle and dazzle.
Imagine seeing people with the same wonder and excitement with which you watch roman candles and bottle rockets and pinwheels. Imagine looking at each person in wonder and in awe. Seeing some of what God sees. With appreciation and with joy. Seeing with surpassing value. Seeing with love. Because God has called you forth. Imagine confronting violence and disrespect, fear and intolerance, misunderstanding and self-esteem issues, the misperceptions and injustices of others with fierce light exploding with courage and passion because God has called you forth. Called you to see God’s children—all God’s children—as a glorious firework display. Light streaking up into the sky—exploding—lighting up the far horizons—raining down color and light.
These stories are why we believe. Precisely because we do at times feel like plastic bags, drifting through the wind, wanting to start again. Precisely because we do sometimes feel paper thin, like a house of cards, one blow from caving in. Precisely because we do feel already buried deep, six feet under, screaming, but no one seems to hear a thing (Esther Dean, Mikkel Eriksen, Tor Erik Hermansen, Katy Perry, Sandy Julien Wilhelm, “Firework”). Now here’s where Katy gets it wrong. It’s not so simple. We can’t just ignite the light and let it shine. We need someone to call it forth. Someone to see it within us. Someone who knows its there because that’s how we were created to be.
These stories are why we believe. Not because Lazarus, Cameron or Paris are called forth, but because we are. Because you are. Called to life. And what is yet to be is now. “Baby you’re a firework. Come on show them what you’re worth. Make the world go ‘Oh, oh, oh’” (Dean, Eriksen, Hermansen, Perry, Wilhelm)! God has called you!