Signs of Life

Lent 5: John 11:1-45

May we blessed with eyes to see the green shoots of life that push through dead leaves.  May we be blessed by hands that heal and tend and create and nurture.  May we be blessed with voices that call without fear ‘Come out!’ and may we respond without fear when we are the ones who are called.

. . .

We have plenty of Hollywood-created images to enliven our imaginations about what it’s like for the dead to live again.  Just think of some of the most popular dramas on television and the movies in theatres.  The Walking Dead, True Blood, Resurrection.  The lumbering brain-eating zombie has been a part of pop culture since the Living Dead movies began in the 60’s.  And then, of course there are vampires, so recently made popular by Twilight and True Blood, although I am personally a fan of the vampire meme as portrayed by Buffy – in which monsters of all sorts burst out of graves.  All that to say, we have a horror and a fascination with the dead coming to life, or the dead being not-so-dead after all.

With these kinds of horror-show images as a back-drop, I shudder with a kind of horror when I think of the reeking, shroud-covered Lazarus emerging, mummy-like from the tomb. I think maybe the first readers or witnesses of the events of the story may also have had goosebumps.

Yet as in most zombie movies, as in most novels, and as in life, the story is not only – and not even primarily – about the dead ones. In most fiction, the story is about those who live, either with or in spite of, the death. In the Lazarus story, Jesus’ encounter with Lazarus is only a few verses at the end of this very long story.  Lazarus’ name is all over, but it is not ultimately a story about him – certainly not about him alone.  It is a story about the disciples.  It is a story about Mary and Martha.  It is a story about the Judean witnesses.  It also becomes our story as we to encounter the Jesus who gives life and reveals the life that is possible here and now.

This story was a difficult one for me to read this week and to imagine preaching on.  Every week, it seems, is full of news of death, violence, unrest.  But in light of tragedy close at hand, and bodies still being dug out of the tombs of mud in which they were buried, it is disconcerting (to say the least) to proclaim a text in which Jesus calls a dead man to life.  It is the living – the survivors, the relatives and friends, the responders and the volunteers, the readers of and listeners to the news who are left with grief and doubt.

“If you had been here, he would not have died!”  Mary and Martha each in their turn accuse Jesus of not doing something to prevent the death of their brother.  I think that is the gut response of many to death: Why did God allow this? If Jesus was really with us, this terrible thing would not have happened.  When Martha makes her accusation, to Jesus, he replies to her that indeed, her brother will rise again.  She thinks that he’s offering her platitudes and cold comfort.  We have our own ways of doing this.  We say and hear  things like, ‘He’s with God in heaven now,’ ‘He’s in a better place’ etc.  What Martha hear was, “your brother will rise again in the resurrection of the last day.”  So her response is an impatient, “I know, I know – the last day.”

But Jesus clarifies.  “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 Christ, the only Begotten, the one coming into the world.”  This is the clearest articulation thus far in John of Jesus’ identity. Jesus is the One coming into the world. When God comes into the world, God does not allow things to stay as they are – the world will change! This new Messiah is not like any other king or ruler that has come before. He has turned old understanding, old ways of being on their head. In the Jesus-world power is servitude, those who have been captive to oppression can be set free. Can we perceive it? What are the signs of life, true life, that the reign of God is here.

When Jesus raises Lazarus, he demonstrates the power of God over life for real.  It’s a little taste of what will happen when he too dies.  Two weeks from now we will read the texts about Jesus rising from his own death, and in his resurrection confirming that God has power over death, confirming the ministry of radical love that Jesus enacted. When Jesus hollers in the cave, “Lazarus, come out!” he is giving the gathered mourners a foretaste of what God will do in Easter.

There is only a very small handful of resurrection stories in the Bible.  Even though it feels as if those folks lucked out/were blessed with all the ‘good miracles’ it wasn’t like Jesus or the apostles were going around raising people willy-nilly.  It’s easy to think that tragedies like we experience now – nature disasters, violence of war, massacres were not as bad or because of Jesus’ presence all ills could be healed.  Of course not!  But in the instances in which Jesus offered his healing power, he was showing the life-signs of God’s now kingdom.  In this instance, not only did Jesus offer ongoing life to his friend Lazarus, he made this an opportunity to demonstrate that God’s power indicates signs of life not just in some un-known and distant heaven or future, but here and now.

While in the pop culture meme of the dead coming to life – or at least re-animating, it is often to evil purpose, or for evil intent.  The life given to those once dead is not true life.  Think Bathilda Bagshot in Harry potter, possessed by the serpent.  Or the inferi in the same book series, “The Inferius is a corpse that has been reanimated by a Dark wizard’s spells. It is not alive, it is merely used like a puppet to do the wizard’s bidding. ”

What is God is doing and what God does through Jesus is not magic (evil or any other kind) but divine power for goodness, wholeness, reconciliation, healing and love.  Those are the signs of life in a world that doesn’t always want to recognize it, and in a world that in spite of the great love that God has for all creation, is still fraught with violence, disaster and calamity. The world has not changed in that regard at all.  What has changed with the incarnation of the Word made flesh, of God-with-us, is that now we know how to look for the signs of life and choose to follow those, invest and live-into those rather than live in the fear, despair and anger that sees only death.  I admit that as I scanned the news this week, I found a hard time doing that myself.  A hard time finding the signs of life.

And you know, I think there is a time for grief and tears.  And there is a time to choose: what next?  I think, for example of the families of 9/11 victims who have steadfastly opposed war, who claim as their slogan Martin Luther King’s quote that “wars make poor chisels to carve out peaceful tomorrows” and they gave themselves that name: 9-11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows.  They strive through advocacy, action, conversation to turn grief into actions for peace.

Similarly, families who lost children at Sandy Hook are determined to engage their communities in seeking to end gun violence. One family, the Barden’s that after the death of their son Daniel, committed themselves to transformation.  Their 13 year old son, James said, “I would like to see no other family ever have to go through this again.” They saw an opportunity to have some influence, creating an organization called Sandy Hook Promise so that they could be known as the town where tragedy turned to transformation. We’d like this to be the place where positive change, positive, meaningful, lasting change started.  They are committed to making our environments safer for children and all people.

Of course you all know that even though I cite those as examples, there’s no reason that one has to be touched personally by death, illness, violence or tragedy to choose to look for and engage with signs of life.  This year, Just Peace council has chosen to emphasize and look for signs of life in three areas: wild nature and care for God’s creation, GLBT welcome and inclusion, and first-people’s recognition and justice.  Jesus stood outside the tomb and yelled out, Lazarus, Come out!  We are similarly invited to life.  I’m sure you’ve seen Jonathan’s invitations to participate in ministry teams relate to each of these.  How can we engage in and call out life in these areas of life-giving and life-affirming ministry?

Here’s an opportunity: This Good Friday members of our community and others will worship and witness both in grief of the oppression of creation and seeking the life that still surges forward.  They’ll gather at the Duwamish river.   You are invited, to join in prayer, song, proclamation and sharing of our own stories, images and hopes for how the “children of God” can help to set creation free from the oppression it is under. You are invited to come early if possible to explore the area, which includes learn about native peoples, the history of the place, and restoration efforts.  You are invited to join in the signs of life.

When Jesus heads out on this journey to give life, his disciples remind him – in astonishment they warn him – that the people in Judea, where he wants to head, were pretty upset with him the last time he was there.  Not just upset, but ready to stone him.  But Jesus knows what he’s getting into.  When Jesus explains to his disciples that Lazarus really is dead and that he really is going to raise him to life, it is Thomas who responds.  “Let us go that we may die with him.”  I think he’s proclaiming his readiness to risk – to face the stones with Jesus for the sake of Jesus’ ministry.

In fact it is a risk to seek out the life-signs, to be a life-giver.  We didn’t hear the end of the story that begins with the disciples warning.  We heard the ending, “Many of those with them believed” but in fact the story goes on.  It goes on to tell of those who went to the Pharisees with the story.  It goes on to reveal that the Pharisees are fearful of the power that Jesus seems to hold.  Goes on to tell that  point on they begin to plot with each other how they can put Jesus to death.

This week we recognized the anniversary of the assassination of Dr King, the same man whose vision of peace is championed by the Peaceful Tomorrows families.  Dr King knew all too well that looking for and living into signs of life meant leaving without fear meant the possibility of death.  It meant risk.  And his life of non-violent love in action, challenging the powers indeed led to his death and inspired generations of both Christians and non-Christians to challenge the powers to do justice.

Someday Lazarus will die – we all will.   I can’t speak with certainty about what will happen in that day.  But I can offer the challenge and encouragement to look for the signs of life that are with us now, even though the temptation to only and always see only the tomb.  I can offer a blessing in this time of transition to seek what is living here among us, call it out and join with it.

May we blessed with eyes to see the green shoots of life that push through dead leaves.  May we be blessed by hands that heal and tend and create and nurture.  May we be blessed with voices that call without fear ‘Come out!’ and may we respond without fear when we are the ones who are called.