All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
This is the first sentence in Leo Tolstoy’s nineteenth century novel in which he explores the family dynamics of a prominent Russian, St. Petersburg family against a background of social change and questioning of values. It is a family story. The story ends unhappily.
The story that we heard read so well this morning is a family story. It too is set in a context. However, its outcome is positive. it ends happily. It is , a “happy”-- family story.
This idea that it is a family story may seem odd to some, because it is most often presented as a miracle story without looking at the family and community dynamics. But it is first and foremost a family story, set in a community -- a family and neighbourhood story. It is a family story set against a background of clashing value. -These values are explored through the narrative of John’s gospel.
In John’s gospel the “everlasting life-giving” power and will of God is pitted against the final enemy, the powers of darkness and death.
The “death” is not only death of the human body. The Death is spiritual, just as the blindness that we looked at last week was spiritual not physical blindness. The story of Lazarus is a metaphor for the forces that build and lead to sustained health and to “everlasting life” pitted against the forces that hold back the will of God . These forces are the same ones we have been exploring through the stories we have been following over the past several Sundays, the forces of darkness against light, mortal birth and spiritual birth in the Nicodemus , the forced of pre-judgement and prejudice against the forces of inclusion , and refreshment in the “Samaritan Woman at the Well” story, and the forces of blindness against the forces of vison in “The man Born Blind” story.
All these clashing values and forces are here in this story of resuscitation and revitalization , a precursor to Jesus final sign , God’s miracle through Christ, the victory over death in the resurrection.
The story begins by telling us who it’s about: Lazarus; and where it takes place: Bethany; and who the family members are , the sisters of Lazarus: Mary and Martha We know the setting, the people and their relationship. It tells us what the family problem is – serious illness. Lazarus is ill. He is at death’s door. It tells us something more that is very important -- this family’s relationship to Jesus. These people are very close friends of Jesus. More than admirers, they are devoted to him. They believe. “…whosoever believeth in him…”
Mary was the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair it tells us – an act of deep intimacy. This family is devoted, committed and faithful to Jesus. At least, it is trying to be.
Our Bible is full of stories. Many of them are family stories. The first story, once the universe and earth are formed, is a family story – Adam, Eve and the two boys – Cain and Able. It is a family story fraught with trouble and tension. Tension between husband and wife. –“She offered me the fruit.” Blame and accusation. Tension between brothers – jealousy. Cain is jealous of Abel’s offering being more pleasing to God. The first family’s dispute results in a murder.
Our Bible doesn’t sugar coat family problems. Here, in today’s story this family is faced with a very serious illness – an illness that leads to a very tragic outcome – Lazarus’ death. Serious illness and death, these are among the worst events that a family can face.
But our story today does not limit itself to the worst of a family’s challenges. It provides a most amazing and satisfactory outcome. The kind of outcome that every family that has faced the loss of a loved one would long for, would desire with all its heart -- release of their loved one from the bonds of death; relief from their grief, pain and suffering.
Jesus is confident that for the family in question, in Bethany, this relief is immanent. He tells his disciples immediately after he hears the news of his friend’s illness, “this illness does not lead to death.” Jesus is so convinced of this that he dismisses the urgent nature of the message and delays their departure. And his disciples are relieved when they learn of this delay. They are glad that they won’t have to go back to Judea where they narrowly escaped a stoning. “Whew!” But then Jesus changes his mind. “Let’s go to Lazarus…” and the disciples have huge misgivings. But Jesus reassures them and clarifies the issue with his purpose. He declares that Lazarus is indeed dead and that his death will be an opportunity – Jesus turns crisis into opportunity. Thomas, always the doubter, and even the cynic, understands the perils of the journey and the hostility of the people that they may meet along the way. “Sure we might as well go to Judea and risk our lives, so we can die with Lazarus.”
When they arrive, they find that the community, the neighbours, has gathered around the afflicted family’s home. They have come to morn the loss of their friend and neighbour. Now the story is expanded to include the wider community.
In recent years, with the violence and carnage that we see on the nightly news from the Middle East, we have seen the processions of wailing mourners. This is the scene that Jesus and the disciples walk into. A crowd carrying a body on a litter or in a coffin.
The pain of grief express by the Middle Eastern cultures is open , loud , painful to hear. We can recall the pictures of mourners carrying a body or a casket through a mob in Gaza, Baghdad, Cairo or Aleppo in Syria. . We can hear their moans, their groans their keening and ululations. What we see depicted on TV is very much like what is happening here. The wild and inconsolable, loud and open expressions of grief – this outpouring is the community’s way of sharing in the loss and sharing in the pain of the family. This tradition has not changed for thousands of years.
But Jesus presence is about to change this scene. He seizes the opportunity to turn this chaotic scene into a scene of joy and thanksgiving.
Jesus announces his purpose and makes very specific claims about who he is. He states his purpose there, on that day in the Bethany neighbourhood, and confirms his purpose for all humanity for all time. Jesus expands this family, this community, and this event to declare his mission. 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. Do you believe? (v.25,26). He challenges Martha.
You see, Martha believes in a resurrection in some distant future, “end-of-the-world” time. This is what she has been taught through the Hebrew Scriptures But Jesus is challenging her, “ I am the resurrection, here, now, today, right beside you, with you, in your presence – here and now. Do you believe?”
That question, “Do you believe?” is a central question in John’s Gospel. It is central to those who cling to their belief in the Law, the Torah Law of Moses and the traditions from the Levites like the learned elder Nicodemus who comes to Jesus by night. to find out how to attain eternal life. It is central to those outside the “true” faith who worship differently and are outcasts but are thirsty for “living water”, those like the Samaritan woman at the well.
It is central to all those who hear his words, experience his healing. The question “Do you believe?” echoes into our world today. Those words bounce of the office towers of our cities, and the vaulted lobbies of our pleasure palaces—hotels casinos and amusement parks, and off the walls in the rooms of our homes when we face the challenges – the terrorist attacks, the hollow laughter, the desperation of addiction, the anger, the emptiness, the illness the death both literal and symbolic of all those things that we see and know about our world.
These words are there in front of us as we face the future of our church, the national church and this church too. The second fastest dying church in Canada are the Presbyterians. Only the Anglicans are doing worse, and only by 1%.
“Do you believe?” asks Jesus of Martha. Do you believe that Jesus can make a difference today? Do you believe that Jesus can make a difference at Kerrisdale Presbyterian Church? This story places Jesus at the center of the issue.
So how do we understand this family story in today’s context? How do we place this family story into the context of our Kerrisdale Church family?
Do we accept it literally as a miracle of the raising of an already smelly, even stinking body? We have medical science to tell us what is possible and what is not possible. Four-day-old corpses just don’t get up and start walking around. Where is the “truth” here? How are we to understand this? What are we to “believe?”
Let me tell you another family story.
A couple had been waiting for a child many years. Numerous miscarriages and an early infant’s death had left them discouraged and resigned to remain childless Yet miraculously, with the help of modern gynecology, a pregnancy was brought to term and a beautiful baby boy was born to them just days before Christmas. A gift like no other. The boy was a delight to his parents and all who learned to know him. He was kind and fun. He was athletic, artistic and clever. His teachers complimented his diligence and imagination. But he was a bit of a risk taker. He loved the adrenaline rush of whitewater kayaking and was happiest when he was coursing through the fastest and most turbulent rapids. He was training for the Olympics in this sport.
He also loved to ski with the same abandon. For his seventeenth birthday his parents bought him a new ski outfit. He went to Whistler to spend the weekend at a close friend’s family cabin. The boy’s parents were pleased about the arrangements and looked forward to hearing about the fun he would have.
At 2:00 AM on the Saturday night of that ski weekend there was a knock on of the door of their home. The young policeman standing in the cold and dark, his lips trembling asked. “Are you the parents of Alex? I’m here to tell you your son has died in a fall at Whistler.” The parents gasped in shock and disbelief. The wife began to pound the walls and the husbands back wailing, “No! No! No!” After the policeman left they stared at each other with tear-streaked faces. What to do. “Let’s call Ian.” Ian was their minister.
Ian arrived with them. He sat with them. He said “I have no answers.” . He wept with them. When the wife asked , “Will I ever see my son again?” he said, “Yes, I believe you will.”
Both wife and husband suffered from ther dry ache of grief. Their differing expressions of grief caused tension. The wife cried, the husband busied himself with tasks. in silence. They both prayed for healing. The husband especially prayed that his life would be restored. He used to be a happy and energetic man. Now he was lost in a fog of darkness and suffering and pain—real pain, body pain, stomach pain, head pain.
They continued to pray and seek help. The best help came from other parents who had lost a child. Their experience, understanding and compassion worked better than professionals.
They found help and strength through their church family, lifting them up and supporting them in prayer. The husband prayed “Lord please release me from the pain, restore me, let me not remain angry and bitter. Please God, give me a life.”
I can truthfully say that that husband’s prayers are being answered. After twenty-five years, the pain ahs subsided, the restoration is happening. That husband and father is standing before you now. I am the husband of Cathy, Alex’s mom, and I am the father of Alex. Iis dead ,. I was dead too, emotionally, spiritually dead. I did get my life back.
These days as a minister I visit people. I have visited many people in the places I have served. I visit people in this parish. I listen to their family stories. Their family stories are not sugar coated. They are filled with crises, accidents, illness, death, sadness and pain, just like my family story and not unlike the family story of Lazarus and his sisters.
When I listen I often detect a strong thread of deep faith running through their stories, Sure their stories are about hopes and dreams unrealized. Stories of frustrations, tensions, illness and death – community stories, family stories, couple stories. But I often leave their homes uplifted because there is a strong belief in something greater, something stronger, something brighter that the darkness of despair that their stories might hold. I can feel that their lives of faith in God steadfast love and Jesus redeeming and restoring power is palpable and present. Sometimes despite the pain we have a good laugh together. When I leave I often feel a sense of hope and peace.
These days I am a witness to the tensions between the people in a church family. I have come into a church that has gone through many challenges . probably the most significant challenge is sustainability . Can this church survive? Deaths outnumber baptisms twenty to one. There are people who want to push this church forward. Their intentions are sincere. They know that whatever changes they try to implement will be met with resistance. There are others that cling to their long held traditions .
“This is the way we do things around here. “
And I ask myself, “How can this body of Christ be restored, revitalized?” Will the community come together to roll away the stone and open itself up to the prospects of possibility? What values will emerge in this turmoil and tension? Can they find the harmony , the consensus, the worshipful grace that they so desire? Can their viability, their vitality , their “Life” be restored?
This restoration of life can be found in other place in our community –at meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous when recovering addicts tell their stories. It can be found in prison when convicts talk of forgiveness and reconciliation. This restoration and revitalization can be found in churches that face the reality of their demise and boldly step forward, working together as a community to make the adjustments in worship, participation , inclusion. This “rising from the grave” is not a painless process. It invariably causes divison. It invariable meets with resistance.
When Jesus comes into the picture, whether in Bethany, or some church basement filled a group of recovering alcoholics, a bunch of people who are tired of the insanity of doing the same thing over and over again an expecting a different result, everything changes. Depressing, smelly death becomes renewed , revitalized life. When God, when Jesus, is the focus for any group that is dying spiritually everything changes.
Jesus is the life giver. Jesus does not see the death of his friend as final, physical death is not the end. We humans , we who are committed to preserving the life that we know , the patterns that bring us comfort, we who are bound by “maintenance ‘—keeping , keeping things the same. We bound up by the grave cloths and spices of preservation. We are constrained with a rigoroumortus, a blindness that relegates us. We need to look to Jesus. Jesus , the healer , the life giver , he revitalizes with God’s power. Jesus brings life. “Do you believe?”
Jesus reframes this ‘death of Lazarus” event, saying that “this happened for the sake and glory of God.” When Martha says, “ If Jesus had come earlier my brother would not have died”, Jesus responds that God’s healing powers go beyond the physical limitations that we place on them. Jesus shows that God’s timing is not our timing. This is not to say that Jesus dismisses this death.
Jesus wept. He loved this man and he loves this family. Jesus’ humanness is expressed in this outpouring.
This is God’s opportunity to show his power, through Jesus. Jesus’ story here plays the natural, historical Jesus story into the life of the community so God can demonstrate and enact God’s own will. The will to heal, the will to restore, the will to bring this wounded family together. Jesus’ God-like-ness, his incarnation, his Godliness, his spirituality, is expressed in his revival of Lazarus. His power over death.
He commands Lazarus, “Lazarus, come out!”
And, Lazarus comes out of the tomb, the rock having been rolled away by the people of the community. The whole community is involved in this restoration by helping and accepting Jesus’ conviction. The community could have said “No we won’t roll away the rock. What’ the point. He’s been bound up and properly spiced. He even smells .”
They could have resisted the will of the Father coming down through the son. But no, they help out. They don’t know for sure. They have no guarantee that Lazarus will be revived., but they trust. They trust in Jesus. They trust in God. They roll away the stone.
Lazarus comes out of the tomb, his arms and limbs and face bearing the hanging grave cloths. Lazarus presents himself to the family, to the community still wrapped in what has bound him in death. But he has broken these bonds and now he is revived.
We too personally, corporately and societally, in our community, are bound by the grave clothes that keep us figuratively dead. We are bound by the materialism and amusement, the escapes that we seek to fill the voids of life’s pain and uncertainty. We are bound by the grave clothes of despair and hopelessness that comes with serious illness, aging and death. We are bound by the grave cloths that bind us to expressing our faith through forms that have lost their currency. We are bound by loyalties that put Christ in second place. Sometimes God is not even in the picture.
But Jesus says “I am the resurrection and the Life.” Jesus can turn bitterness into vitality. Jesus can turn resentment into harmony, Jesus can turn addiction into wholeness. Jesus can turn despair into hope. Jesus can turn death into life. Jesus can turn entrenchment into enlightenment. Our story , our Kerrisdale story can become a family story with a positive outcome. Our Kerrisdale story can have a happy ending. Our own story can become a part of the Jesus story. Our family story too, can become a revitalization story , even a resurrection story.
“Do you believe?” Amen.
POST MESSAGE PRAYER
Holy and life giving God,
We give you thanks for your Holy Scripture
And the stories that challenge us to examine our personal lives
And our relationships with all those in our community.
Strengthen our belief so your reviving light will shine through us.
Give us faith to believe in your life-giving love.
Give us minds and hearts to enter the mystery
Of your son, Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Fill us with confidence in your faithfulness
Give us hearts to accept your love for us through Jesus Christ, AMEN