Last Sunday we just touched this text and thinking of it during the week, I recalled this sermon I wrote several years ago. It asks a question pertinent to this time of pandemic this time that troubles us mightily.
It asks it in this time when we worry about those in health care and other helping professions, those who are without income, those who are ill. We long for a return to health, physical, spiritual, economic, communal. What lies between the longing and the receiving, the captivity and the setting free? What are we willing to relinquish or receive not only so the curve can be flattened but so that life on the other side can be given a different shape?
It seems we’re all over this text.
At least I can see myself there.
I can hear the pitch of my longing in Martha’s words
and in Mary’s, if only . . .”
I can hear the tenor of my fears in those, “it’s been four days now” words.
I can hear the ‘but’ there.
I can feel the shape of my arms in the arms of those who consoled the bereaved.
I can sense on my cheeks the hot rivulets of tears
and I can feel the hoarseness of my voice after four days of mourning aloud.
I feel my scepticism in the words of one little group
and my belief in the belief of the others.
I am all over this text.
And I suspect I don’t come alone.
between the words
we can see one another popping up
to take a quick dart around amongst the phrases.
Three kilometres out from Jerusalem a grieving woman runs down the road to meet her friend; the one her heart has craved for days.
In the family home another woman sits with the mourners,
who custom says cannot be left alone.
She too has yearned for Jesus’ presence.
In the family tomb a beloved brother lies dead,
four days dead,
one day past the time rabbinic authorities would have pronounced his soul to have left the realm of his body,
one day more than the third defining day of death.
Four days gone.
Four days in the sacred text of threes.
I see us there somewhere,
switching places perhaps between the mourners and the curious,
the dead and the living,
the beloved and the be-longing.
This text where we find ourselves recounts the seventh and final ‘sign’ of Christ’s identity.
All through John we can follow the signs,
from water changed to wine,
through the mud wet hands of God on the lids of a blind man,
and finally, to this. the most incredible of reversals,
re-starting life in a man four days dead.
As with our narrative of the blind man’s healing,
in this long text, little space is given to the actual transformation of physical life.
What the gospeller John seeks to show us in the chatter all around the signs
is the one thing he knows leads to transformation,
understanding the identity of Jesus, knowing him as theos, kyrios, God.
As John says, later in his writing,
“. . these [all these things I write] are written
so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah,
the Son of God,
and that through believing you may have life in his name”, (John 29:31).
Whatever we believe,
it’s important to know what John is writing
with every fibre of his being
into the signs and sayings and reactions of those that people his text.
The text where we can find ourselves hiding out.
It’s an edgy, counter-cultural thing John argues so passionately.
We hear it in texts that often seem to malign Jews.
But we must understand,
that as in our text about sight for a blind man two weeks ago,
it is some part of the religious community that John himself originally sprang from that he is angry at,
a part of that community that has excised him
and those who agree with his trajectory.
We know the splinters and factions that have wounded the body in our own congregations,
our own faith communities,
that have wounded the body all through time.
We can recall that emotions ran high.
So we can imagine what led to the scathing accusations that rise up in some of John’s texts.
We should never understand them as a license
or encouragement to point fingers or harm at any religion.
For the Jews John speaks of
we may read any group that is so afraid that it will strike out or withhold
or any group that holds over tight to an old conversation,
a conversation long since concluded by life,
a conversation whose remnants fill the space where a new one is longing to grow.
We can understand John’s references as being to any group refusing to open their hearts to the new and sometimes frightening conversation that calls them into transformation.
Sometimes we can read them as us.
It is the new conversation that Jesus has with Martha that has coiled itself around me this week like a growing tendril, inviting me into the conversation that changes everything.
Jesus, is met by Martha,
who has left a houseful of mourners behind to come to his comfort.
They stand on the road outside of town
and Martha, speaks her longing and her accusation and her love and her belief,
“Lord, If you had been here my brother would not have died.
But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”
We mustn’t assume that Martha was already fully in tune with John’s revelation of Jesus’ divine identity.
As a woman in that culture it would have been expected that Martha call a man, lord.
And it might only have been a sign of confidence in Jesus’ gifts as teacher and healer for Martha to believe he had God’s ear.
It would have been an expression of the current custom of her religion to say that she knew her brother would rise on the last day.
It would even have been within the bounds of her religion,
though out on the edge,
for her to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah, God’s anointed one.
In all she speaks she has still not come to the place John longs to lead us.
That is to see all our hopes of some future wholeness,
pulled into the midst of our present reality,
pulled into life in the moment of Martha’s words and in the moment of our listening.
pulled by the one who is the expression of God with us,
here, now, always.
“I am the resurrection and the life” Jesus says to Martha.
To Martha’s “if only”,
to her “even now”,
to her longing,
Jesus speaks the assurance of present possibility.
He answers her longing with the great yes to life that he is.
Her longing at that moment is for Lazarus,
Lazarus’ relishing of life and of her
Martha longs for him.
This is the great burgeoning want, that launches her “if only” words.
And yet as they walk through the village,
to the tomb,
as they encounter Mary
and the mourners,
as they stand before the very moment of the fulfillment of all she desires,
we come to find something has happened in the space between if only and but.
faced with life,
faced with deep desire fulfilled, says,
perhaps placing a restraining hand on Jesus’ arm ,
But . . .” it has been four days now. By this time, there will be a stench”.
Can you see yourself lurking in those words, as I can see myself.
Can you see our congregation,
our pastoral charge,
perhaps our denomination.
Can you see us,
faced with the thing we so greatly long for,
faced with the possibility of new life,
yet wondering what will fill the air,
what we might have to experience,
as our desire comes into being.
Because it can.
Our deepest, truest desires can come into being in ways beyond our imagining.
Who could have imagined this?
Who could have imagined the narrative of God in the red, wrinkled skin of a baby,
who could have imagined God making a meal,
God with us.
What a strange and shaky and resilient story.
What calls from us the words of longing.
And in the face of longing about to be satisfied,
what calls from us the words of hesitation.
What happens to us in between, if only and but?
I knew of a congregation that longed for a Sunday School,
not a small Sunday School, which they already had,
but a large 50’s kind of Sunday School
with children who paraded in and out of church with little disruption,
who learned Scripture verses by memory
and went home to a roast beef dinner.
The girls wore patent leather shoes
and the boys, shirts with buttons.
There was nothing wrong with that picture,
many of us lived in it,
except that the time in which it existed had passed.
It was time for a new conversation to come to life.
The Sunday School grew child by child in this congregation,
a small youth group began,
largely attended by young boys with ADHD,
Children and youth were invited into the worship life of the congregation
invited through music and drama,
the writing of prayers and through their service at communion.
If only, the congregation had cried,
we could have a Sunday School.
and then as the stone holding the dead conversation in place was about to be rolled away,
But. “There may be a stench”.
There may be a disruption.
We may not like what happens.
Even if it is good it may not be familiar.
We may not be able to control it.
We may need to live into our fear.
The new life coming to the congregation was shunned.
There is no other word for it. Shunned, withdrawn from,
Boycotted, undermined in very particular ways.
The stone that had begun to creak aside was left in place.
What calls from us the words of longing?
How do we meet the possibility of longing satisfied?
Even if it’s disruptive,
Even if it leads us to even deeper longing,
longing we thought we had locked away?
What happens in our lives between the longing “If only”
and “but . . .”
It’s important that we keep asking ourselves,
We need to ‘get ready’ for the story, as the Godly Play way tells us
To get ready
Because the next thing that happens is life
Jesus commands the removal of that which seals up life
He instructs that the closed stone of the cave be rolled away
He reassures Martha and us that we will be given by his ‘I am’
resources to meet that which we long for
And then he calls life out
But this is not the end
Not the end of this piece of narrative
or of the narrative of God with us
Because the next piece is given to us
Those of us making our way closer to the place where the stone is rolled away
I see you and you and me and others
I see some who are away today and some who have not yet come
We are participants in this mission
When life stumbles into the light still bound by scraps of death
We are called to unbind it
We the community are to receive life
And let it go free.