The Fifth Sunday in Lent
The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
John 11:1-44


Two quotes from two famous philosophers: First, Woody Allen: “It’s not that I’m afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” And the second, more well-known quote from Benjamin Franklin: “There are only two sure things in life: death and taxes.” But, you know, old Ben’s quote is only half true. You don’t have to pay taxes. For instance, you can renounce your citizenship and move to the Cayman Islands, or, if you’re less given to fleeing the country, you can “just say no,” in which case the government would be more than accommodating. Let a couple of April the 15ths go by without anteing up and Uncle Sam will provide you with a roof over your head, three square meals a day, access to a library, and visiting privileges on weekends.

So, in fact, we are left with only one sure thing in life, or maybe we’re back to two: We will die, and we will be there when it happens.

But that doesn’t stop us from using “avoidance tactics” to keep death and the subject of death as far away as possible for as long a time as possible.

And I think it’s because dying—our own death—is a thing we really don’t want to deal with. It’s that “thing” none of us much likes to talk about. That “thing” that makes us prefer to ostrich under a mountain of busyness. That “thing” we would like to send back to the universe like a wrong-sized L.L. Bean shirt returned after Christmas.

It’s that “thing” that happens to “other people” but not to us. Like the terminally ill friend I visited in the hospital who said to me, in a comical but dead serious way: “You know, I realize deep down that death that comes to everyone. But I guess I just always thought, in my case, God would make an exception.” There are no exceptions. Death does come to everyone.

There’s an old Russian proverb that goes something like, “Death doesn’t take the old but the ripe.” And you get the feeling that when death came to Bethany that day, the proverb rang as true and terrible as ever. The death of Lazarus must not have been a “good” one (as we say).

That is, it wasn’t a death that took place after a fulfilled, fruitful life, or a death that happened after a long, dignity-robbing disease. If it had been simply a case of a “merciful release,” Lazarus’ sisters wouldn’t have sent word to Jesus that Lazarus was ill, and to come and intervene. They would have let their brother “pass on,” and then have called Jesus to attend the funeral.

So, I believe we can assume this was an untimely death. Death not as a friend, but as a thief; Death not as the next adventure that follows naturally after the first, but death as a terrifying wrenching apart of relationships; Death that brings to mind all those things “done and left undone,” things that were never fully worked out; Death that creates that cemetery silence that cries out among all on hand: This, too, will happen to me.

Some time ago, I received a book from the Episcopal Center in New York called, Dialogue With Scripture. And it contains several different ways of doing Bible study, one of which is the “African Bible Study Method.” This method is a very simple, yet profound way of encountering the Word. After reading the passage out loud, slowly, the participants are to write down a key word or phrase from the passage, and then share it with the group.

The “key word” that kept jumping off the page at me in reading this passage was “if.” It’s the “if” that accompanies any tragedy. “If” she had just had her seat-belt on. “If” the ambulance had arrived 10 minutes sooner “If” he had only left the office two minutes earlier. “If” she had just taken her usual way home.

Martha says to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” The same “if” Mary would also bring to a grieving Jesus before they arrived at the tomb. And you can’t blame the sisters for bringing up the inevitable “if.” The hard reality of the situation was that Jesus had not been there, had actually stayed two more days in the place where he was when he got the news of Lazarus’ illness. So, in every sense, their “if” was as legitimate as it was useless.

Useless, because regardless of the “if,” they still would have to live without their brother. They would still have to look at the empty chair at the breakfast table. Stare into his empty room. Listen to the strange, uncomfortable silence that replaced his familiar and comforting voice.

“If” is as inevitable as it is haunting, as it is futile. The “if” of tragedy is born of events that we believe shouldn’t have happened, but have; and we tell ourselves that things could have been different if life were fair, or if we were just more in control.

There is only one hope we have in such situations. The same one and only hope Jesus offers Mary and Martha when they present their “if” to him. It’s the same hope the Church has to give to all the “ifs” that befall us in this suffering and death-dealing world we live in – the hope that is proclaimed at every service for the burial of the dead.

“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.” And to prove the point that he is not just waxing poetic, or talking symbolically, Jesus performs an act so earth-shaking, so impenetrable, so totally hair-raising that the Jerusalem authorities will immediately call for his arrest. (It is the last straw.)

Healing the blind and the crippled is one thing, but if this man can raise the dead, then what might he do to the nation? What might he do to them? To their hearts?

It’s been said that Will Rogers never met a man he didn’t like. Well, Jesus never met a corpse he didn’t raise: Jairus’ daughter, the widow of Nain’s son, after four days in the tomb, and with the command, “Lazarus, come out!” the only friend of Jesus mentioned in the Gospels who was not a disciple, does the unthinkable. He inches his way out of a tomb wrapped in burial clothes.

And then, Jesus makes what is to me one of the most powerful statements in all of scripture: “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Listen to me. No matter what happens in this world, no matter how many tragedies we encounter, no matter how many “ifs” haunt us in their aftermath, Jesus will bring life out of death for us too.

And the good news is we don’t have to wait to be buried to experience Jesus as the resurrection and the life. All we have to do is surrender. To open ourselves up to God’s grace, to open our hearts to child-like trust, and to yield in faith, so that God can free us—so that God and God’s power can unbind us and let us go.

In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.