Sermon: Sunday, April 6, 2014, “Questions and Encounters: Can You Believe It?”

Questions and Encounters: Can You Believe It?

A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt

At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA

On April 6th, 2014


John 11:1-6, 17-45

           This morning I continue my Lenten sermon series, which I’m calling Questions and Encounters with Jesus, by looking at the story of the raising of Lazarus in John’s Gospel. That story is only found in John’s Gospel, by the way. There are a number of questions voiced in the passage, including at least three by Jesus, and there are several more raised by the passage. Listen with an ear to the questions this passage raises for you. And pay attention to the questions Jesus asks. We’ll begin with the first six verses, then jump to verse seventeen.


Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus,* ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazaruswas ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.


When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two milesaway, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘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.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘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?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah,the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’


 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When 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.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’


 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus 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 for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I 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.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The 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.’


 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.


           The comedian Tig Notaro, in one of her shows, has this wonderful little bit in which she takes off on receiving email updates from friends of hers about their children. This is great, Notaro says, but it annoys her how often they throw around the phrase, “Can you believe it?” Like this: “Katelyn is starting kindergarten this year. Can you believe it?” Notaro jokes, “I don’t know. I mean, what is she, about five? That sounds about right. Yeah, I can believe that. But if they were to contact me and say, ‘Katelyn has never grown any bigger since the day she was born. Never spoken a word at all in her life. She graduated from college today. Can you believe it?’ I’d say, ‘O my gosh, no. I can’t believe that. Send more photos.’ But can I believe that Katelyn is following the natural progression of life? Yeah, I can totally wrap my head around that.”


           Can you believe it? And not just can you, but do you, believe it? That’s the question Jesus asks Lazarus’ sister Martha when she comes out to meet him, wracked with grief, all too familiar with the natural progression of life and death.


           Before we go any further, we have to acknowledge that Martha comes to Jesus with a question of her own. She doesn’t really ask it, but it is implied in her statement, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” The question that lies underneath that affirmation (an affirmation her sister Mary also makes) is, “Where were you? Why, when you heard my brother—whom you love—was deathly ill—did you not come at once? Why didn’t you do something about this? Why the delay? Why, for the love of God, Jesus, did you let this happen?” Those are the kinds of questions we may ask, I think, when tragedies and disappointments occur in our lives or in the life of the world.


           Now when somebody we love dies after having lived 8 or 9 decades, we’ve come to expect that. As sad as that is, as much as we grieve those losses, we’ve come to understand that this is the natural progression of life and death. Nobody gets to live forever. Bodies wear out. We grieve those losses, but we’re not utterly surprised by them. We don’t ask the “where were you?” questions about them.


           No, we ask the “where were you?” questions when people we love die young or when they have to face an inordinate amount of pain. We ask them when human inhumanity is at its worst, as it was during the Rwandan genocide which happened twenty years ago this week. We ask them of God and they are based on an affirmation similar to Martha’s (and to Mary’s). If you had been here, my brother would not have died. If Jesus had been here, if this faith stuff were real, if God had really been present, if God really cared, if God really existed, then this or that would not have happened.”


           A couple of years ago, the annual preaching conference I attend took place in Atlanta. While there, I had the chance to reconnect with a high school classmate of mine. Lynne was a freshman when I was a senior. Another friend and I kind of looked at ourselves as her big brother and big sister in the speech and debate club. It was good to be back in touch with Lynne after more than 20 years of not seeing each other. It brought back some powerful memories.


           In January of her freshman year in high school, one morning after she’d left for school, Lynne’s dad went out for a run and dropped dead of a heart attack. They called her and her sisters out of class to tell them. One minute here, the next gone. The shockwaves started in Lynne’s family with her mom and her and her sisters,. Then they spread out to the larger community. For many of us, Lynne’s dad’s death was one of our first encounters with life’s frailty and the issues that that raises about God and God’s goodness. To this day, Lynne is not a believer—and who is to say if I had endured that sort of loss that early in my own life that I would be one. I do know that Lynne is kind, compassionate, a great mom, a very accomplished leader in her company, and an asset to society. Believer or not, she makes a huge difference in her community and in the world.


           I can’t help but wonder if one of the reasons Lynne is not a believer is the stock answers, the too-easy responses, the gross oversimplification of the message of Jesus that she no doubt received, some of it coming perhaps from a certain way of reading this passage from John. And I hope to God one of the people who gave her a too simple answer.


           In response to Martha’s unasked “where were you?” question, Jesus poses a question of his own.


           “I am the resurrection and the life,” the Gospel of John has Jesus say, “Those who believe in me even though they die will live and those who live and believe in me will never die. Do you believe this?”


           Can you believe it?


           Well, can you?


           At virtually every funeral or memorial service I have ever conducted, I have read that bold affirmation “Those who believe in me, even though they die will live, and those who live and believe in me will never die.” Sometimes it catches in my throat. Sometimes I wonder if I should say it at all, because I wonder how people hear it. Because people who live and place their trust in Jesus do die, just like everyone else. Presumably Lazarus himself, after he was raised, died again. No matter how faithful you and I are, no matter how good and kind and loving, we are, how strong we are, how receptive to God’s leadership, we will die. The question is not if, but when.


           So what to do we do with Jesus words? Do we take the words “those who live and believe in me will never die” literally? Do we hear them as an affirmation of the eternity of the soul that, as the old hymn goes, “on Jesus hath leaned for repose.”? Or do we take them to be a bold statement that death will not get the last word, no matter how we try to make sense of “those who trust in me will never die”?


           However we each answer the question of what to do with Jesus words, I think it’s worth watching how the story unfolds from there.


           Martha states that she believes that he is the Messiah. Mary comes out to greet him, and she brings the same accusation—“If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” And seeing her pain, and the pain of the other people in the community, Jesus is deeply moved. He weeps. He weeps for the pain of a grieving sister. He weeps for the pain of a community who loved Lazarus so much that they weren’t standing around saying, as they did with the blind man in last week’s gospel lesson, “Who is the sinner here?” There’s no judgment. There’s not blame. There’s just tears. Perhaps Jesus even weeps for his own pain, God’s pain at knowing that not every illness will get healed, though some do. And not every health crisis will get averted, though some are. And that while human beings can be extraordinarily kind and loving, sometimes, and we all know this, they can be cruel and unjust. And that it isn’t just illness that kills people, but genocide, warfare, and domestic violence. And maybe Jesus is weeping, too, because he knows that he himself is going to be facing human cruelty in just a few short days.


           Jesus knows one thing more. It is an important thing. He knows the truth that the Psalmist affirms. That weeping may endure for the night, but joy will come in the morning.


               Can you believe this? Can you?


           So Jesus goes to Lazarus’ tomb, and Martha tells him, “Don’t bother, it’s smelly in there. He’s been dead for four days.” Then Jesus says, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” The glory of God—glory, as I’ve said before, from a Hebrew word which means weight—w e i g h t—weight. The weighty presence of God:  Look for it, Jesus says, believe in it, Jesus says, believe in me, Jesus says, and you will see that weighty presence.


               And Lazarus comes forth.


           The point of John’s story of the raising of Lazarus is not that if you believe hard enough, deceased people will literally get out of their coffins.


           There was group in North Carolina, not far from the church Judith and I served, and somebody in their congregation passed away. They kept vigil around the body, thinking that if they just prayed hard enough, if they believed hard enough, he would physically come back to life. That’s not the point of John’s Gospel.  


           “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” doesn’t mean that every problem we have will get fixed. It doesn’t mean that we get to avoid death. It just means that death and division and sin and pain and evil really don’t have the last word. How many times can I say that?


           Did you see the New York Times Magazine? There’s a photo essay in it. {What follows is the introduction to that photo essay the NYT Magazine)


Last month, the photographer Pieter Hugo went to southern Rwanda, two decades after nearly a million people were killed during the country’s genocide, and captured a series of unlikely, almost unthinkable tableaus. In one, a woman rests her hand on the shoulder of the man who killed her father and brothers. In another, a woman poses with a casually reclining man who looted her property and whose father helped murder her husband and children. In many of these photos, there is little evident warmth between the pairs, and yet there they are, together. In each photo, the perpetrator is a Hutu who was granted pardon by the Tutsi survivor of his crime.


The people who agreed to be photographed are part of a national effort toward reconciliation and worked closely with AMI (Association Modeste et Innocent), a nonprofit organization. In AMI’s program, small groups of Hutus and Tutsis are counseled over many months, culminating in the perpetrator’s formal request for forgiveness. If forgiveness is granted by the survivor, the perpetrator and his family and friends typically bring a basket of offerings, usually food and sorghum or banana beer. The accord is sealed with song and dance.


The photographs (you can see in this New York Times essay)are a small selection of a larger body on display — outdoors, in large format — starting this month in The Hague. The series was commissioned by Creative Court, an arts organization based there, as part of “Rwanda 20 Years,” a program exploring the theme of forgiveness. The images will eventually be shown at memorials and churches in Rwanda.


               Can you believe it? Can you?


               No. Send pictures.


                                             In Jesus’ name. Amen.



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