THE RAISING OF LAZARUS (John 11:1-45)
The Rev. Dr. Fred Vergara. Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Hicksville, New York. 04/02/2017)
The life of a Christian minister---and all of us are ministers by virtue of our baptism--- is like that of a roller coaster; one moment you are up, another moment you are down; up again, down again. Last Friday, I buried a 100 year-old church woman, Bernice Clock, who died a natural death ---and my heart was lifted. Yes, we can live that long. The following day, however, we had a funeral of an 11-year old, Shawn Handwerker, my former acolyte who died in an accident. My heart was broken because he had so much of life ahead of him. Died too soon.
As a priest, I minister to all sorts and conditions of people, and sometimes in their lowest and highest state. One moment I am down with people weeping at funerals or divorce and another moment rejoicing with people at baptism and weddings. In the afternoon, I may cry with a victim of human trafficking and in the evening I may lead a hilarious “Chicken Dance” among the immigrants.
There are times when my faith sinks down in the gutter especially when I see Christians backslide in their walk with God; and there are times when my faith rises up when someone repents and returns to the Lord. There was even a time that I thought I was able to raise the dead to life. It happened years ago when I was preaching in a large church. The attendance was great and the people were very responsive. I was reading the gospel about the raising of Lazarus and to make an emphasis, I shouted on the microphone, reading the words of Jesus, “Lazarus, come out!” From the basement of the church, down where their columbarium was located, there was a voice that said, “Yes, Father; I am coming out!” Well, that happened to be the janitor and his name was Lazarus!
Now this happens to be the gospel this morning and I don’t expect to shout it out. And I don’t expect to raise the dead down in our basement columbarium. But I hope however that this gospel will help lift up your spirits, revive your faith and give you enthusiasm to tell others of the Good News of Jesus, of Jesus who alone can truly answer our deepest needs, who alone can heal our broken hearts, who alone can truly wipe the tears from our eyes and who alone can raise the dead to life!
THE STORY OF LAZARUS This is a beautiful story about friendship, about family, about the ministry. It appears from the Bible that this is a family of orphans: two sisters, Martha and Mary and a brother named Lazarus. Jesus had many friends and he had twelve apostles and seventy other disciples. But these siblings seemed to be the best friends of Jesus. Jesus was like a brother to them. When Jesus comes to their house, Martha would be too busy preparing a meal, Mary would sit down to listen to his stories and pour perfume on his feet and wipe it with her hair---and I don’t exactly know what Lazarus would be doing. He might have been playing with his Nintendo or fidgeting with his iPhone and doing Facebook or Twitter for all I know. It appears that the House of Martha has become a resting place for Jesus in their many journeys but I do not see Lazarus joining the preaching, healing and exorcism ministries of Jesus. It is possible that Lazarus had some health issues or had some disability but whatever his state was, it seems very clear that the disciples and the people in Bethany village believe that Jesus loved Lazarus like a brother. And so when Lazarus died, everyone was wondering what would Jesus do! How would he react?
These are some of the observations I get from the gospel:
1. Jesus exhibited a non-anxious presence on the news about Lazarus’ death.
2. Jesus cared so much about Lazarus that he wept.
3. Jesus exercised his authority over death and restored the faith of the people of Bethany.
A.HOW DO YOU KEEP A “NON-ANXIOUS PRESENCE” IN TIMES OF EMERGENCY? HOW DO YOU MAINTAIN “STABILITY UNDER PRESSURE?” HOW DO YOU HAVE PEACE IN THE MIDST OF TUMULT? HOW DO YOU DEAL WITH STRESS?
It was Thursday morning when Shawn had met an accident and was brought to the hospital. On Friday morning, I received the news from Millissa, his mother that his condition was very bad. Even though we live in Queens, I wanted to rush to Stony Brook Hospital in Suffolk to pray for healing but it so happened that the day before, my car which was parked in the sides street was hit by the snow plow of the Sanitation Truck and I brought it to the body shop for repair. So I called Fr. Henry and Fr. Isaias and the three of us traveled by Long Island Train from Woodside to Massapequa Station where Christine would pick us up and drive us to the hospital. There we learned that Shawn was already brain-dead when he reached the hospital and that he had already been given last rites by the deacon but that his heart was being kept beating by the respirator so that his organs can be harvested and donated. It was a terrible situation, and I could barely understand how such a young life can end just like that. And so the goal of my ministry in that situation was how to maintain a “non-anxious presence” so that Millissa and Rob, the shocked and grief-stricken parents, would be helped to find comfort and strength.
It appeared that when Jesus heard that Lazarus was gravely ill, He did not panic. He did not rush; instead he completed his ministry and stayed around Judea for two more days. So when he finally returned to Bethany, Lazarus was already dead and he was in the tomb four days. Martha welcomed Jesus with the words, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
B. HOW DO YOU DEAL WITH GRIEF AND SORROW OVER THE DEATH OF YOUR LOVED ONE? ALL OF US HAVE EXPERIENCED LOSING SOMEONE OR LOSING SOMETHING. HOW DO EXPRESS YOUR GRIEF IN SUCH A WAY THAT IT CAN BE LIBERATING AND LIFE-GIVING?
It is amazing that the shortest verse in the Bible is also the most profound verse that explains the true humanity of Jesus. This verse is found in this gospel of John 11:35 and it says, “Jesus wept.” In this shortest verse, we see the clearest evidence that Jesus was fully God and fully human. And he has shown us the power of tears. In the Old Testament, we learned of a distant God who saw our tears and heard our cries; in the New Testament we saw a God who shed our tears and carried our sorrows---and by His stripes, we are healed.
When I was a child, my father who was a soldier, kind of prohibited me and my three other brothers from crying in public. “Boys and men don’t cry,” he said. In his military training, it seemed they considered that crying was only for the girls, so when my grandfather died, and my grandmother died, and even when my father died, I did not cry. Although I was bursting with grief inside, I tried to control my tears. My two sisters cried openly but we four brothers, were restraining ourselves from crying. So it was only when I became a seminarian and read in the Bible that Jesus wept that I discovered how healing, liberating and life-giving it was to cry. When you are grieving, when you are in pain, when you are bearing your sorrow, it is natural and human and even Christ-like to cry. If Jesus wept, then it is okay to weep.
Weeping is not only a healthy release of pain and sorrow; it is also a sign of the gift of compassion. Someone once said that in Christian ministry, “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” When Jesus wept, the Jews who had come to the village to mourn with Martha and Mary, said “See how he loved him! So he who could heal the sick, can he not also raise the dead?”
Compassion is the mark of a Christian leader. Compassion releases a spiritual power more than we can imagine. In the ordained ministry, if you do not have compassion, you better seek another profession, for you will not last long, because dealing with people in all sorts and conditions is not easy. You need compassion to endure frustrations. This was best expressed in a poem attributed to Mother Teresa that says:
People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway. If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway. If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway. If you are honest and sincere, people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway. What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway. If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway. The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway. Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway. In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.
C. FINALLY, HOW DO YOU MOVE ON AFTER A TRAGEDY? HOW DO YOU MOVE ON FROM SORROW TO JOY? FROM GRIEF TO GRACE?
Jesus said to Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha replied, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” And Jesus answered, “I am the resurrection and the life. They who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 25).
Faith in the living God is the answer to our confounding longings. One of the hymns of Easter says, “Because He lives I can face to tomorrow; Because He lives, all fear is gone. Because I know, I know He holds the future, and life is worth the living just because He lives.”
Yes, there is so much unpredictability about life. We do not know the future. But if we know Who holds the future, then don’t worry. Be happy. In this world, there will always be tribulations but be of good cheer, Jesus has overcome the world.