The other day, someone asked me, “Do you believe in miracles?” To which I quickly, without much thought, emphatically replied, “Of course I believe in miracles!” My questioner couldn’t have been satisfied with my answer, because he went on to insist that I couldn’t possibly believe in miracles because he had it on good authority that I didn’t believe that Jesus could raise people from the dead. After a long list of things my questioner, insisted that he had it on good authority that I didn’t believe in, my inquisitor concluded that as a progressive christian pastor, I couldn’t possibly believe in miracles. This mini-inquisition concluded when I assured my inquisitor that I do indeed believe in miracles, but perhaps not the same miracles as he believed in.
The particular miracle in question, is the miracle described in the gospel story assigned for this All Saints’ Sunday. My inquisitor was doing his best to get me to confess that Jesus of Nazareth possessed the super-natural ability to raise the dead. He seemed fixated on forcing me to recant any notion which I might have about the nature of reality. The proof of my doctrinal errors, were, in the not so humble opinion of my inquisitor to be found in the gospel story about the raising of Lazarus. “DO YOU OR DON’T YOU BELIEVE THAT JESUS RAISED LAZARUS FROM THE DEAD?” he shouted at me in all caps, as our email correspondence disintegrated into his failed attempt to have me take leave of my senses.
Rather than bore you with the details of my troll’s desire to convince me of the error of my ways. Let me instead, invite you into the story with which an ardent believer in miracles tried to resuscitate Lazarus’ corpse into a living breathing proof that miracles do happen; something despite my inquisitor’s insistence, I have absolutely no problem at all believing in. Miracles can and do happen each and every day. I believe in miracles. Just not the same miracles as those who would have me suspend reality in order to believe in them. Please, indulge me, and come with me into the very story which convinces both me and my inquisitor that miracles do indeed happen. Don’t leave your common sense behind. Bring your miraculous mind along so that together we can use our sacred imaginations to explore the realities of Jesus of Nazareth’s ongoing ability to cause miracles to happen. Enter with me into the story handed down to us by the anonymous gospel-storyteller we call John.
This anonymous gospel-storyteller weaves a miraculous tale which begins with LOVE. The LOVE which the miracle-worker Jesus shared with three siblings, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, who lived beyond Jerusalem, which was the center of Roman authority and the religious authority of the Temple. They lived on the outskirts, in the margins, in a town called, Bethany. As the story goes, Lazarus falls ill, and word is sent to Jesus to come to Bethany in the hope that Jesus will save his ailing friend. Jesus doesn’t seem too concerned for the plight of his beloved friend and goes about the business of proclaiming a new way of being in his very troubled world. When Jesus finally decided to go and see his friends, his followers do their very best to talk him out of it. Jesus fellow travelers remember all too well just how eager the people of Judea, were to stone Jesus on account of his not-so-subtle attempts to call out the religious and political establishment types for their inability to see the possibilities of living into Jesus’ dream of a new way of being.
Well, long story short, by the time Jesus approaches the town of Bethany, Lazarus is already dead. When Jesus’ beloved friend Martha rushes out to greet him on the road, she voices her disapproval of Jesus late arrival. Martha insists that if Jesus had arrived earlier, if he had only been there, Lazarus never would have died. Yet even tough Lazarus is dead, Martha is sure that if Jesus only asks, God will do whatever Jesus asks. To which Jesus responds: “Your brother will rise again! Martha assures Jesus that she has no doubt that her brother will rise again, as she puts it on the last day. What Martha wants is what we all want a here and now kind of resurrection. Not a resurrection on the last day. She wants her brother now.
Deeply moved by Martha’s tears, Jesus attempts to comfort her. Jesus harkens back to their ancestors when he says, “I AM the resurrection, and I AM the LIFE.” And we are left to decide if Jesus is referring to himself or to the GREAT I AM, the one our ancestors and Jesus’ followers knew as YAHWEH, the GREAT I AM who IS the SOURCE of all life. Eventually, Jesus, Martha, Mary, Jesus followers, and Lazarus’ mourners end up at the tomb where Jesus himself weeps for the death of his beloved Lazarus. A voice is heard saying: “See how much Jesus loved Lazarus.” While others insist, Jesus could make the blind person see, why couldn’t he save Lazarus?
Jesus then directs that the stone in front of the tomb should be taken away. Martha reminds Jesus that Lazarus has been rotting in the tomb for too long and that, in the vivid words of the King James English, “He stinketh!” Jesus insists, “If you believed you would see the glory of God.” So, they took the stone away. Jesus raised his eyes to the universe and said, “Abba, thank you for having heard me. I know that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd, that they might believe that you sent me!” Then Jesus called out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus came out of the tomb, still bound hand and foot with linen strips, his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus told the crowd, “Untie Lazarus and let Lazarus go free.”
What about you? Do you believe in miracles? Let me assure you, I do believe in miracles. I believe that the dead can live again. I’m not much interested in last day resurrections. Like Martha, I weep. I weep and I long for, a here and now kind of resurrection. The question, I think, is not, so much do you believe in miracles, but what miracles do you believe in. Do you believe? The answer cannot be yes or no. Life, resurrection, new life, will not be limited by our simplistic yeses or noes. Life, resurrection, new life, is far too miraculous to be answered with a simple yes or no kind of answer.
In my sacred imagination, I can hear the words of New Testament scholar Marcus Borg rising up in me, inspiring me to ask so much more of this sacred story. Listen perhaps Borg’s questions live also in you. Can you hear these questions pushing and prodding you deeper and deeper into the story? Why do you suppose our ancestors told this story? And. Why do you suppose our ancestors told this story this particular way? If we have the courage to pursue deeper questions, I am convinced not only will miracles of our past be revealed to us, but the reality that miracles continue to happen here and now will overwhelm us and we will once again dare to hope for new life among the dead. I confess that there is a part of me that simply wants to find a reasonable explanation for this story. My rational self wants to explain away these miracles. But I have seen far too much evidence of new life among the dead, here and now to ever settle for easy reasons not to believe. Why this story? And why tell it this way?
I learned a long time ago, that when it comes to ancient stories, myths, and truth-telling by our ancestors, we modern 21st century realists need to pay attention to the names. Our ancestors were fond of burying revelations in the names of their characters. Our Hebrew forebearers were well versed in the art of paying attention to the name, whenever they heard a story, for it is written, “Everything is in the name.” Lazarus, Lazarus, Lazarus…
Think back beyond Jesus, beyond the atrocities of Roman occupation, beyond the corruption of the Temple authorities, to the stories of our ancestors’ ancestors. If ever I believed in miracles, it was the day I remembered my own wise teachers admonishing me to pay attention to the name. I can still remember searching my Hebrew dictionary in vain to find the name Lazarus. But search as much as you like. You will not find the name Lazarus. As far as we know, our Hebrew ancestors never told stories about anyone named Lazarus. So, imagine my delight when I set my Hebrew dictionary aside, and not expecting to find anything much, I flipped through my biblical Greek dictionary only to discover the revelation of truth to be found in the name Lazarus. Lazarus is a Greek name, specifically the Greek name for the Hebrew Eleazar. Eleazar. I grabbed my Hebrew dictionary and low and behold, when we break it down, Eleazar, El means God, eazar is the verb to help. Eleazar is the Hebrew name which means “God is my help.”
Suddenly, the character of Eleazar from the Hebrew Scriptures was alive in me. Eleazar the son and successor to Aaron. You remember, Aaron, Moses’ brother. 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 has held the office of High Priest. We 21st century storytellers and listeners of stories, we can be excused for facility to connect the dots, but I assure you that our ancestors would have seen the truth right away. Surely, the anonymous gospel-storyteller that we call John, had something to say about the priesthood.
Why did he tell this story the way he told it? Well, what better way to criticize that which cannot be criticized without risking one’s life and limb. History confirms that the priesthood and indeed the Temple authorities were in cahoots with their Roman oppressors. At the time, crucifixions were a dime a dozen as the critics of the establishment hung rotting and stinking on crosses, on all the roads which all lead to Rome. Rome and her collaborators only had hint at their stinking critics in order to silence any would be rebels from criticizing the establishment. Their truth-telling was the enemy of compliance. The anonymous gospel-storyteller wisely crafts his story by pointing to all who have ears to hear, and eyes to see, that the religious authorities are rotting in tombs.
Do we have the courage to look at our own religious institutions with as much honesty as the anonymous gospel-storyteller? What is about the church which is already dead? What lies rotting in the tombs of our design? What stinketh in the halls of power in our world? There is much we can learn from the parable of Lazarus, not the least of which is our desire for resurrection here and now.
When the anonymous gospel-storyteller crafted his story, the Temple lay in ruins, Jerusalem had been destroyed, and the People of Israel had been sent into exile. Just as the followers of Jesus reached into the riches of their Hebrew ancestors’ stories, so too did the religious authorities who escaped to Jabneh. Out of the best of their wisdom literature, their stories, and the beauty of their traditions, out of the best of these two new religious were born: Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity. New life, resurrection if you will.
Today, so much of what we once took for granted has been ravaged by greed, a pandemic, and violence. We don’t have to breathe very deeply to smell the stench of what lies rotting in the tombs of our own making. If you listen closely, you will hear those who like Jesus cried, “Lazarus come out!” for they too are shouting here and now in these times. Shouting, “Come out, come away from all that is rotting!” Listen do you hear them? As you mourn what is dead, in the midst of your tears can you hear the voice of the GREAT I AM speaking in, with, through, and beyond the you, in the voices of the children, in young people and old alike, “Come out. Come out of your deathly tombs. Come out.” Unbind yourselves from the constraints of all that is rotten. Free yourselves from greed, free yourselves from disease, and from violence. Resurrection is possible. And so, do I believe in miracles. What kind of miracles do you believe in? What miracles can you imagine? What miracles are you prepared to birth into life? Come out, come out, wherever you are! Resurrection is possible here and now! THANKS be to ALL that IS HOLY!