November 4, 2012
Hope Central Church
Jamaica Plain, MA
All Saints Day
Up from the grave
John 11: 32-45
Our second reading today is from John’s gospel. It’s a passage you’ve no doubt heard before. But don’t fool yourself, people, into thinking that means you know this story. We believe God is in this scripture, which means infinity, an eternity, exists in each of these stories…that means there is always the possibility of the Spirit whispering something new into your ear.
In the passages just before this one I’m about to read, the sisters Mary and Martha, followers of Jesus, sent him a message asking him to come quickly because their brother, Lazarus, whom Jesus loved, was sick and close to death. Jesus waits several days before heading to Bethany. But he does go to them, against the better wishes of his disciples who know the authorities in Jerusalem are watching Jesus, and won’t like him coming near their turf. On his arrival, Jesus finds grieving family members. Lazarus has gone beyond already. The sisters express remorse, anger with Jesus and so God – the kind of emotions we might expect of grieving family. He reminds them that those who believe in him never die, truly. What comes next is this passage we’re about to read… the final miracle performed by Jesus, one that attracts the attention of the authorities in Jerusalem and so sets in motion the events that eventually lead to his own death.
Now listen closely for the surprising, whispering Word of God in these familiar words of scripture…
32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” 38Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “God, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
45Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
The Word of our God.
Thanks be to God.
Beloved, will you please take a moment now to pray with me?
God of life: This is the season of soundbites. Of wonk. Of the cacophony of endless accusations, rhetorical manipulations, carefully scripted, poll-tested, deliberations. God, in this hour – let us hear something different. We ask that you send us your Spirit so that our ears might become attuned to Your voice rising above the worldly clamor and din. Send us your Spirit so that these imperfect human words I am about to speak might be transformed, through your grace, and in our hearts, into your sweet life-giving Word. Amen.
It seems to me just about perfect that just as our days are growing longer and darker, as the world seems to be dying around us, the trees growing thin and barren, the cold wind settling in… we are reminded of what’s to come in four months: resurrection, life over death. A tantalizing morsel of the ultimate Easter banquet that awaits us on the other side of this dark winter into which we are entering.
And it is also telling, I think, that the lectionary gave us these passages mere days before we are set to vote in what has, once again as if for the first time, been deemed The Most Important Election Ever. The Massachusetts Congregationalists, our ancestral forebears, had a tradition in the 18th century of preaching an Election Day sermon, reminding citizens and politicians what it’s all about, ultimately. So in doing something similar here today, I plead historical precedent.
And, like the good Congregationalist descendants we are, let’s begin with scripture.
This story about Lazarus, I know, is familiar to you. You’ve heard about a man who was not just a little dead, but 4 days gone, stinking and decomposing. You’ve heard about the mourners weeping, about Mary and Martha angry and pleading with Je sus. You’ve heard that in the midst of all this, Jesus wept. He wept. Reminding us that just as our hearts break open in the face of death, so does God’s. And the good news this passage contains? I bet it’s familiar to you as well: that after Jesus wept, after his heart was broken open, the grace of God came hurtling out like a roar– Jesus shouted, the original Greek tells us, shouted into Lazarus’s tomb, shouted into the face of death. And out walked Lazarus. Alive, so that the glory of God might be known. Alive, so that you, a follower of Jesus, might believe that our God can free us from what kills us, body and soul.
You’ve heard this story before. Right?
Well what about this story about Lazarus – have you heard this one?:
It takes place in Georgia in 1877, a decade after the end of the civil war, seven years after the ratification of the 15th amendment giving African American men the right to vote. There in Georgia, the first poll tax is levied for the direct purpose of keeping blacks and poor white folks from voting. And that’s just the beginning. Over the next three decades, ten of the eleven Southern states rewrote their constitutions to enshrine restrictions on access to the vote — new requirements for poll taxes, residency, and literacy tests. Jim Crow laws were passed, restricting the freedom of black Americans. And these measures, they were deemed constitutional by the Supreme Court.
This is a story about death too. A story about the dignity of an entire group of people being entombed, locked away from the light of day, their supposed newfound freedom bound up, once again, by the interests of those with power seeking to maintain their hold on power.
But there is good news in this story, too. In 1909, from the midst of this broken situation, rose the NAACP. They roared into the face of death. And eventually, not immediately, but over time, up walked Lazarus from the grave: a cascade of legal battles, a persistent chipping away at the new forms of suppression concocted by the forces of death, culminating, finally in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This Act of liberation passed amongst a wave of social, political, and spiritual renewal in our country brought about by the civil rights movement, led by a young preacher from Georgia, where our story began.
Surely this, too, is a story you’ve heard before. But brothers and sisters, there is a purpose in reminding ourselves of these stories, in reading and hearing these stories over and over again.
The other morning, on the anniversary of the Occupy movement, as my I rode to work on a bus that bumped its way down K Street in Washington, DC – symbolic and real home to the lobbyists, the big money interests — I saw the Occupy misfits convening in a park, just a block from the White House, preparing to march. They held a large banner between them that said in big block letters: DON’T VOTE.
I get it. I get the frustration, the grief, the anger. The sense that the system is irrevocably broken. Our political leaders are circumscribed and held hostage by money. Corporations have undue influence over the democratic system, their power protected by the Supreme Court. Untruths inform a voting public’s understanding. Evidence is daily revealed of gerrymandering and voter suppression. And we are hardly even fazed anymore, our outrage muted by a sense of its inevitability, by our cynicism. 2 billion dollars have been spent on this election campaign, because that’s how you win. Meanwhile, in DC and NYC and San Francisco, signs hang in the Metro that call Muslims savages. Women fight to protect rights all over again. The poor are disparaged as lazy and untrustworthy. The immigrants as moochers. The gays as power-thirsty. Racism and hate groups are on the rise, the polls say. And so I am hardly surprised when my partner turns and says to me over dinner: it is helpless, hopeless. The forces are too big, their hands dug too deep into the system, their power too entrenched. I am sympathetic when she says that perhaps true democracy – a system responsive to the needs of the people — is dead and gone, beyond resuscitation. Perhaps what you smell is the rot of its decay. So what’s the point?
Here is the truth: the forces of politics and economics in this country are mighty, but they are not almighty.
Here is the truth: things may seem beyond hope. But they never are.
That’s what our faith tradition tells us. Do you believe it?
If you struggle to believe this stories from scripture, that a man named Lazarus really was brought from death to life, consider the stories in our more recent nation’s history. America is a country born out of contradiction — enshrining the value that all men are created equal into the same Constitution that denied most people the right to vote, that protected slavery. But our country’s history is a story of awakenings – of the constant wresting of life from the forces of death, the constant rebirth, widening, broadening of justice and liberation, even in the face of hopelessly entrenched power interests.
Consider our national saints, like Martin Luther King, Jr., Harvey Milk, Susan B. Anthony –who helped push this country to live up to its ideals that all people are created equal. Surely their spirits are still alive in this world. Like those of the saints amongst us who died this year… is it not clear that though they have gone on to glory, their influence and their spirit continues to shape you and this community and this country? That somehow, in some mysterious but very real way, they live on amongst us?
Nothing is hopeless. Whoever believes this shall never die. Despite every evidence to the contrary, despite mountains of legal hurdles, the obstruction of power interests, the reality of violent pushback, Martin and Susan and Harvey knew things weren’t hopeless when they lifted their voices, when they shouted into the tomb.
Go and vote. It is crucial. There are, in fact, important differences between the candidates and there are important ballot measures here in Massachusetts. Let the gospel, honestly, guide your decisions. But remember that voting by itself does not cause the kind of redemptive change for which we deeply yearn. The promises of those campaigning may sound like something biblical – a new Jerusalem, a new DC, a King who can end all suffering. But we know that there is only one King of Glory, Lord of Hosts, whose campaign promises are enduring and real and trustworthy. We know that political platforms are shaky foundations on which to stand. We know that the work of not only building democracy, but of building the true Kingdom, is up to us. It’s the ordinary people, the activists and artists, the preachers from Atlanta and from Nazareth, more often than not, who have brought redemption to this country and this world.
No matter what happens Tuesday, if your guy wins or not, if the ballot initiatives pass or not, we will have work to do on Wednesday. To heal the wounds that bled during this long winter of an election season. To reconcile communities driven apart by cocktails of political passion and misinformation. To breathe life into the places of decline and death. To let our weary, broken hearts, crack open so that the grace of God can come hurtling out, to unbind justice and mercy from the forces of death and wealth. To keep shaping and pushing and feeding and caring – to keep voting and voting: by how we spend our money, or raise our voices, or march and sing and write and mobilize. To dismantle the machinery of war, stop the forces of environmental destruction, to eradicate poverty and injustice. With the help of the Spirit, motivated by the example of Christ, holding hands with the community of God. We do this not because we want to be good citizens of this country, ultimately, but because we strive to be good citizens of the heavenly Kingdom, building it up around us here on earth.
That is what we are called to do. And that is what we have the power to do. Because this is, finally the message at the heart of all these stories: God’s power to resurrect, to bring life out of the places of death, it does not just belong to Jesus’s body and spirit, but to Lazarus and to all of us, and to everything.
Thanks be to God.