The church has a role in the story of Lazarus. Like Jesus, we need to bring our whole selves to Bethany. This means bringing our intellect, our emotions, our actions, and, yes, our faith and values to the ballot box.
Texts: Isaiah 25:6-9; John 11:28-44
Isaiah’s shroud of death has been cast over us this past week. With every new report of killings, another strip of cloth covers us, binding us in feelings of terror, frustration, and anger. On this All Saints Sunday, we are having to light more candles than any table should have to hold. But John’s Gospel is inviting us into a story, a dialogue, to remind us that the story those death clothes are not the final word.
We’re just getting the tail end of this story in John’s Gospel today. This is just a snippet of the larger dialogue. It begins in a few verses earlier with Jesus’s tense exchange with the disciples about whether or not to go to Lazarus. Jesus has been threatened with stoning. Going back to Judea will invite more trouble.
And then just prior to this exchange with Mary is the one with Martha, one of the most pivotal dialogues in the Gospel. Jesus says to Martha: ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha says to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus responds, ‘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 this?’ And in a profound declaration of faith – even in the midst of her deepest grief, she says: ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’
Jesus then encounters Mary and is moved to tears. Jesus cries. He knows what’s at stake. It’s a matter of life and death. Lazarus’ life. Jesus’ life. The life of the community in the face of immense religious and political forces.
But Jesus does not back down from this. He brings his whole self to Bethany, to his relationships, to his ministry. His emotions are real and raw. His relationships are real and deeply personal.
On this All Saints Sunday, we too, are in the midst of a heated conversation about who we will be as people of God in the face of immense religious and political forces.
What are the conversations WE are having?
There is a great deal of debate about the role of the church in this tense political time. Like some of the disciples, there are those who say: stay away from Bethany. The church should stay out of these issues of public concern. Others, like Thomas, say: let’s go with Jesus. Let’s put legs to that faith and follow him.
When we follow Jesus, we know that our hearts will break, too. What is breaking our heart the way Mary’s and Martha’s and Jesus’ hearts were broken?
If the radicalized right-wing pipe bomber had had his way, we would be burying the remains of a media newsroom and thirteen prominent Democrats, including two former presidents. A radicalized anti-Semitic gunman did have his way, and eleven souls at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh have been buried this week. Another radicalized racist gunman attempted a similar massacre at a black church near Louisville, but when he found the doors locked, he made his way to a Kroger and murdered two African American elders. And in Florida, a gunman killed two and injured five at a yoga studio.
Many of those killed this week were people doing some of the most peaceful things a human being can do – engaging in prayer, worship, and mind-body meditation. Yet the rise of hateful and inflammatory rhetoric from the one who occupies the highest office in this country has created the conditions in which no one – not even a 97-year-old great-grandmother attending synagogue – is safe.
How are we bringing our whole selves to these issues, just as Jesus did?
What’s at stake? It’s a matter of life and death. Victims of gun violence. Victims of hate crimes. Victims of political violence. The life of the community in the face of immense religious and political forces. Just like the disciples, Martha, Mary and Jesus himself, our emotions are real and raw. Our relationships are real and deeply personal.
And just like the disciples, Martha, Mary, and Jesus, we share common values. Jesus cherishes friendship, relationships, and life itself, just as Mary and Martha do. We also cherish friendships, relationships, life.
So as Christians, as a community of faith, I want to pose a question for us to consider:
What is our “best self” that could emerge during this difficult time? Do we have the courage to go to Bethany and face what needs to be faced? Can we have the tough conversations, just as Jesus did?
On this All Saints Sunday, I believe that this is part of what it means to be one of the Saints of God.
Notice what Jesus is doing in the midst of this interchange. He is stepping into the smell of death hanging like Isaiah’s shroud and veil over the community. He’s taking risks in order to meet people in their profound loss. And he is raising Lazarus and restoring life – even at great cost. This is the the incident that will eventually lead to his arrest and crucifixion. Make no mistake – going to Bethany and raising Lazarus was a decision with political consequences.
So what is the story of Jesus raising Lazarus teaching us about what it means to be the church in the midst of contentious public issues?Jesus is coming to us – coming to the church – coming to us as followers, inviting us to engage these issues of life and death. So what are next steps we might take based on what this biblical passage models for us? Are we sensing God’s invitation to engage public concerns? Are we being invited into dialogue with each other, with this passage, and with God about specific justice issues?
I will stay after church today if anyone would like to talk about this. You all know the needs of this community. You know what has Lazarus bound and trapped in the tomb. Let’s talk about that, and how the ministry of this church can be part of Jesus’ ministry. Let’s talk about what kind of church we shall be, knowing what the Bible models for us, and knowing what challenges our community is facing.
As we do this work, I can tell you that we’re not alone.
A new force for goodness is organizing across this country. There are interfaith organizations, secular organizations, and groups like the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival that are gathering people of good will to organize for change. The energy of love and resolve among these multi-faith, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-gender, multi-racial gatherings and organizations is piercing the shroud of terror and despair hanging like a death sheet around our nation.
On Tuesday, people of faith must overwhelm the ballot box with goodness, solidarity, and love.
And then, it’s time to get to work putting our minds, hands, and legs on that love. No matter the outcome of the midterm elections, the work still remains. Lazarus is still in the tomb waiting to be unbound.
It’s time to make our way to Bethany with Jesus, to stand alongside the disciples, Martha, Mary, and all the saints of God, the “great cloud of witnesses,” to engage with Jesus on these issues of life and death. It’s time to bring our whole selves to this democracy, to this country, to this public discourse about what kind of people we will be. Bringing our whole selves means bringing our intellect, our emotions, our actions, and, yes, our faith and values.
Jesus brought it all when he came to Bethany.
Are you ready to bring it all?
Are you ready to join with Thomas and go to Bethany? Are you ready to bring your whole self? Are you ready to bring your faith and values to the ballot box? Are you ready to put your hands on Lazarus?
Because here’s what you need to remember: Jesus has already completed the miracle! Our task is only to unbind him, unbind her, unbind our brothers and sisters wrapped in the shroud of death. Our only task is to follow Jesus’ command: Unbind them and let them go!
Epilogue: I preached this sermon at St. Thomas Lutheran Church in Richmond, Kentucky. A group of members stayed after the service to dialogue about how they want to respond as a church to the challenges facing people in their community. They decided to explore how they might expand their food bank ministry, and will be engaging in a deliberative dialogue about addressing hunger. We’ll be using the issue guide “Land of Plenty” from the National Issues Forum Institute to help us think about different approaches and concrete steps their congregation can take to help unbind people from hunger.
Leah D. Schade is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary (Kentucky) and author of the book Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015). She is an ordained minister in the Lutheran Church (ELCA). The views expressed here are her own and do not represent the institutions she serves.