As some prepare to celebrate All Saints Sunday and are struggling with the gospel reading, I have been asked several times to repost this sermon from 2018. I will be dipping into the parable of Lazarus again on Sunday, may the communion of saints continue to call us out from our tombs!
WOW these have been busy days around here! My head is spinning from all the stuff that we have been doing. From conversations about life’s big questions at our pub-nights, to explorations of the intersection of science and faith for our Morning Brew conversations, to exploring new images about the Nature of the Divine in our Adult Education classes, I’ve spent most of this week steeped in progressive Christian theology. I will confess that when I discovered that the story about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead is the assigned gospel text for this All Saints’ Sunday, I began to fixate upon an image of Jesus that is portrayed in the shortest sentence in the New Testament: “Jesus wept.” and I felt like weeping myself! I mean, what is a progressive preacher supposed to do with a story about raising the dead back to life on a day like All Saints Sunday? The temptation to avoid this text altogether was almost irresistible. But if a progressive approach to scripture is a way forward for Christianity, then we progressives are going to have to deal with challenging stories about Jesus.
Wrapping our 21stcentury minds around a first century story that casts Jesus as a miracle worker is not going to be easy. The Church is on life-support and simply doesn’t have time for old and tired arguments about whether or not Jesus was some sort of supernatural entity who can literally raise people from the dead. Not even the best that medical science has to offer can raise someone who has been rotting in their tomb for three days. Humans haven’t figured out how to do that yet, so I’m pretty sure that this story has to be about more than raising a rotting corpse because if Jesus isn’t fully human, then Jesus doesn’t really have anything to say to us. We are not supernatural beings. We are human beings. So, I’m not much interested in learning how to live the way a supernatural being might live. I am interested in learning how to love the way Jesus the Human One, loved.
For days I’ve been searching this text trying to find something to show me what it is the anonymous gospel-storyteller that we call John might be able to tell us about who and what Jesus was, is, and can be. But I just couldn’t seem to see the point of this story. I have never really seen the value of this story for those of us who live in the 21stcentury. So, I gave up and decided to clean up my office. There were papers strewn all over the place. I began by trying to organize my notes from this week’s events. I figured I might at least get things organized so that each event next week I could pick up I had left off. It felt good to be making progress. I had our pub-night conversation summarized and was working my way through MORNING BREW when it hit me. It was right there in the audio recording that I was summarizing. I heard myself describing an image of God from the 13thcentury mystic Meister Eckhart.
Eckhart talked about imagining the MYSTERY of the Divine as if the Divine were boiling. Think of a vast cosmic ooze that is boiling away and up bubbles a Creator, and no sooner does the Creator bubble appear than another bubble bursts forth, this one is the Spirit, and suddenly another bubble, the Christ….but for Eckhart, the Creator, Christ, and Spirit are not all there is to this cosmic bubbling, what we see and experience are just the bubbles. The reality that we often fail to imagine, is that there is so much more swirling around beneath the bubbling surface of this vast cosmic ooze. Suddenly, I felt a bit like Jed Clampet in the Beverly Hillbillies, “when up from the ground came a bubbling crude. Oil that is. Black gold. Texas tea”. I felt like I’d hit pay dirt. All these years of trying to figure out what really happened 2000 years ago, and I’d missed what was right there in front of me. Lazarus come out! Jesus wept!
How could I have missed what’s right in front of my eyes? It’s Hebrew 101. How many times and how many professors tried to drum this into me? When you read ancient literature always remember: “everything is in the name.” Start with the name and the meaning will begin to appear!
I could almost hear Marcus Borg insisting that the two important questions one must ask when trying to get to the heart of any Bible story:
- Why do you suppose they told this story?
- Why do you suppose they told this story this particular way?
All these years of struggling to understand this gospel story and getting hopelessly caught up in trying to explain how it is that Jesus might have been able to raise a dead man from the grave. Searching, for some reasonable explanation. Perhaps Lazarus wasn’t really dead. I mean 2000 years ago, if he’d slipped into some sort of state where his heart-rate and breathing slowed down to such an extent that people thought he was dead, well they might have buried him before he recovered. The ancient world is full of stories of people being mistaken for dead. There must be a perfectly good scientific explanation for this story.
Can’t find a reasonable explanation? How about we just settle for reality that we will never know exactly what happened and we will simply have to accept that Jesus was so remarkable a human being that over the years the stories that his followers told were bound to have been exaggerated? I mean, I know how to tell a good story. I know that the secret to a really good story is a kernel of spectacular truth that you weave marvelous details around in order to get to an even more spectacular truth. Remember the bubbles bubbling away. Bubble, bubble, bubble, the bubbles are not the point, what’s happening beneath the bubble, beyond the bubbles.
As Lazarus bubbled to the surface, I finally began to realize that Lazarus is not the point of this story. Then Jesus’ bubbled to the surface, and I began to wonder, maybe Jesus isn’t the point of this story either. Then it was as if the Jesus bubble burst right before my eyes and up through the cosmic ooze came a bubbling crude. Suddenly I could see power, the amazing power of resurrection, but not Lazarus’ resurrection, not Jesus’ resurrection, not even our resurrection, but resurrection nonetheless. It’s all in the name! Lazarus!
I raced to my Hebrew dictionary. It wasn’t there. No Lazarus to be found. It must be Greek, so I flipped through the pages of my Greek lexicon until there it was Lazarus, the Greek for the Hebrew Eleazar. Eleazar = break it down El means God. eazar from the verb: to help, God is my help. Ok, maybe, God sure helped Lazarus, but how does that help me?
And then it hit me! Eleazar, the son and successor to Aaron. Aaron the brother of Moses. All these years of reading and studying this story, how could I have missed it? Aaron the first high priest of the people of Israel and Eleazar is Aaron’s successor. Eleazar the supreme representative of the priesthood who held the office longer than any Jew before or since Jesus. I might have missed it, but there is no way that the people at the turn of the first century would have missed it.
Why would the anonymous gospel-storyteller that we call John tell this story and why would he tell it this way? Was he trying to tell his listeners something about the priesthood?
New Testament scholar, John Dominic Crossan reminds us that the stories in the gospels mimic the teaching style of Jesus. Jesus taught through parables. Parables are stories designed to enlighten his listeners to the truth. Dom reminds us that you don’t ask the same questions of parables as you do of history. Nobody ever worries about whether or not the story of the Good Samaritan actually happened, because it makes absolutely no difference whether or not it actually happened because the story tells us something that is true about life. The writers of the New Testament, says Crossan, imitated Jesus’ teaching style and taught their listeners the truth about Jesus using parables about Jesus; parables like the two different birth stories in Luke and Mark. These stories are not history, they are parables designed to teach their listeners that Jesus was very special; more special even than Caesar at whose birth legend has it, a star appeared in the sky. The writers of the gospel communicated the truth about Jesus through story because history hadn’t been invented yet…the concept of history would take several hundred more years to develop.
So, if we look at the story of the raising of Lazarus not as history but as parable, what truth about Jesus can we learn? Well for starters we can stop worrying whether or not it actually happened. The truth in this story doesn’t rely on our ability to believe the unbelievable. Lazarus the very name itself is the biggest clue. The priesthood. The religious authorities of the day were as good as dead. Religion lay rotting in the grave. The religion of Jesus’ people had been killed by the long years of occupation by foreign gods and there was nothing left to pray over but a rotting corpse, a corpse, which Jesus called back to life.
“Jesus said to Martha, ‘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 upward and said, ‘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 Jesus 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 cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go free.’”
Years of occupation from foreigners and their gods had left the priesthood bound and gagged and defensively hovering in the caves of the dead. Jesus wept over the state of Lazarus and called the priesthood out from the dead.
The anonymous gospel-story-teller that we call John let his story bubble up in ways that would have caught the attention of his late first century audiences. As this story bubbles up in us, can we see our own story in this parable? Can we see that Christianity is bound up held captive and lies rotting in a tomb of our own making?
Some say Christianity is dead. Others say Christianity is held captive by those to whom the gospel, the Good News that whatever God is, God is LOVE, is so foreign to them that it’s as if they are following some other god. Others say Christianity is on life support and it’s time to pull the plug. As for me, well I believe that only Jesus can bring Christianity back from the dead. I’m not talking about the Jesus whose been dressed up in foreign clothes, not the vengeful, vindictive, Jesus, or the mealy-mouthed, sweetness and light Jesus. I’m talking about the Jesus that the gospel story-tellers told their stories about. The Jesus that continues to bubble up from within a story that runs deeper than the bubbles. I’m talking about the radical Jesus, the scandalous Jesus, the Jesus who wept over the sorry state of the religion of his people. The Jesus who could not tolerate a society that kept so many people in poverty or the religious establishment who co-operated with the powers that be in order to maintain the status quo. The Jesus who reached out to those on the margins of society and called the rich and the powerful to reach out beyond our comfort zones. The Jesus who abhorred violence and walked in the pathways of peace. The Jesus who was so disgusted with the state of the priesthood that he turned the tables in the temple. The Jesus who preaches the radical gospel that God is LOVE and that loving God is about loving our neighbours and loving our enemies. This Jesus who preaches love, compassion and grace and not judgment, tyranny and hate. This Jesus has the power to call Christianity out from the depths to which we have sunk.
When the Gospel According to John was written, the Temple had been destroyed and many of the Jewish people had escaped Jerusalem and the followers of the Jesus escaped Jerusalem. Just as Jesus reached into the riches of the Jewish tradition so too did the religious authorities of who escaped to Jabneh who reached into the riches of their Jewish tradition and out of the destruction of the Temple two new religions were born: Rabbinic Judiasm and Christianity. Out of this experience we reached into the depths of the best of who we can be, the best in the Jewish tradition and the best that was developing in the Christian tradition and out of that new life was resurrected.
For us, the followers of Jesus, Jesus can bring life where there is death. This Jesus knew nothing of the church’s theologies or doctrines. Jesus knew nothing of the doctrine of the fall, or of original sin, or the Apostles’, Nicene, or Athanasian creeds, or of judgments based on these well-intentioned attempts to sort out who and what Jesus was and is. Jesus was a good Jew who understood that the Creator of all that is and ever shall be loved creation and all its creatures and this being, this Creator, this Source, this YAHWEH this great I AM, the one Jesus called his ABBA, continues to love creation and all its creatures and so this Jesus understood himself as someone who comes that we might have life and live it abundantly.
And so, on this All Saints Sunday, we should all take a good look in the mirror and see what this Jesus would see in us. Each time we look into a mirror we must remember that in everyone, Jesus saw a beautiful, beloved, child of God. Now, more than ever we need to see ourselves as beautiful, beloved, children of God, saints, sacred, holy, children of the ONE who is LOVE. We must look beyond our mirrors and see everyone as beloved children of the ONE who is LOVE. We must be able to look into the eyes of those we see as enemy, into the eyes of those we fear, into the eyes of the stranger and we need to see in those eyes a beautiful, beloved child of the MOST HOLY, a saint, sacred, holy, child of the ONE who is LOVE.
Friends, Jesus is weeping. Can we hear Jesus calling out from the dead? Can we be called from the dead? Surely, it is time to let the dead bury the dead. Let the worst of our religions die. Let those things in Christianity that have caused pain and agony in the world, die. Let us come out from the tombs we have made and unbind one another from our respective grave clothes so that we can dance and sing? So that we can dance to the life around us! So that we can rejoice in your sainthood! It’s all in the name. And the name is LOVE.