Sermon at the Church of the Holy Apostles, New York City, April 10, 2011
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Martha is one of my favorite characters in the Bible. With a great teacher and healer, many people are inclined to be excessively deferential, even pious in addressing him and presenting their concerns. Martha is direct, even brusque. The other story we have involving Martha and her sister Mary is in Luke. Martha’s line there is, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me.” I have known more than one woman who is that direct. In fact I would say that Martha is typical of women who are called on by circumstances or choice to get things done. Somehow cultures manage to convince themselves that the feminine way for a woman to achieve her goals is through indirection, deference or charm. It seems that Martha only finds her way in to the scripture and theological discussion when she is linked together with her more “feminine” sister, Mary.
In all likelihood, Martha was direct with everyone. But Jesus was her friend, and as such Martha was not going to hide anything or pretend with him. In the story from Luke, she was peevish with her friend, who was distracting her sister from doing her share of the duties of hospitality. And in today’s gospel from John, there is none of this, “Oh sure Jesus, I understand, you had important things to do… and how could you know?….” No. “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Devastated. Angry. Not so much any outward display of emotion, but an intensity born of the tragic situation, of losing a beloved brother, but also probably the one male relative whose presence served to shield single women from exploitation and abuse in that society. Still, the conversation is between two friends, even though there is a lot of miscommunication.
“But even now, I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” What did she think of this man, her friend? Clearly he was special, very special. God will give him anything that he asks. It seems unlikely that she thinks he’s a cheap magician—probably more of a healer, perhaps also a prophet. But whatever special gifts he might have, there are surely reasonable limits. Jesus’ response, we now know, was what he planned to do– “Your brother will rise again.” But Martha heard it as just another piece of pious comfort, like all the rest she had been hearing since Lazarus died four days before. Jesus was her friend and she didn’t want to just nod her head: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Fat lot of good that will do.
And then we have the turning point. Jesus says who he is: “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” The resurrection is not at some misty far away day, after everybody has gone through all their hardship and died anyway—the resurrection is now, life is now, in this man. Jesus is Life.
Martha responded in faith, but with only partial understanding—she believed him and said he was the Messiah yet she did not fully comprehend what it means for Jesus to be the Life. In the Gospel of John, apostles are called through a conversation with Jesus, where they have a revelation or a life changing realization. Then they are sent out to bring others. Sometimes the Church has been a bit slow in recognizing the women among these apostles. Martha has just had that transforming conversation. And, like all apostles, as soon as Martha had confessed her faith, she went to find others to tell about him, this time specifically her sister Mary.
As the story develops, Jesus asks to see where Lazarus has been laid. Of course, going to the tomb to pay respects is a customary part of mourning. But everyone was surprised when Jesus gave instructions for the tomb to be opened. Martha’s response is one of my favorite examples of her bluff, practical character: “He’s been dead four days. There will be a stench.” And it’s likely that she was right. But Jesus was talking about something different– “… if you believed, you would see the glory of God.” The Glory of God is Life. And Jesus is Life. “ … Lazarus, come out!” The one who was dead, who everybody is mourning, hears Jesus and is now alive.
And Jesus told them to unbind Lazarus’ hands and feet. Death is both real and metaphorical in this chapter of John. That is also the case in our lives. The bandages that were an essential part of reverently preparing the body for burial became bonds, tying up Lazarus’ hands and feet.
Metaphorically, many people’s ways of being pious, or deferential or correct, tie them to death, or at least fear, hopelessness, cynicism, lack of imagination. And indeed, fear of physical death, denying it, or failing to accept it is one of the biggest obstacles to abundant and joyful adult life. Reverence for Jesus involves listening to him. He’s not asking for a religiosity derived from what we think religion is supposed to be. He says, to his friend Martha, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” Jesus is life. It is real life that he invites us to: joyful, aware, compassionate, physical life.
In the Gospel of John, this story presents the culmination of Jesus’ ministry, moving throughout the land of Israel, with increasing controversy. After this we have the final drama leading to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. It is appropriate that this comes on the last regular Sunday in Lent. Jesus confronts the powers of fear, hatred and death with life. For many the raising of Lazarus was the last straw; Jesus was doing things that were outside of conventional practices, he now was going beyond the limits of even legitimate religious healers. And of course, this act was done at Bethany, a village on the very threshhold of Jerusalem.
But for those open to life, Jesus restores life to the dead, he indeed is the resurrection. He is the Life, and life is the celebration of the gifts of God. Even especially in the pain and stress of Holy Week it is this unquenchable Life that is Jesus that is what we celebrate. And this is also what our Lenten observance is about, not the denial of the flesh, but the discovery and flourishing of true life. The greatest service that you can give to someone else, is to be free and filled with life. With the true Life of Christ, you will also be truly generous and compassionate.
The hymnal and the burial office in the prayer book have an Eastern Orthodox hymn called the Kontakion. The central part of the text conveys how Christ the Life permeates every situation:
You only are immortal, the creator and maker of mankind;and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.*
*And for anyone who is keeping score, the Church of the Holy Apostles is pretty high church and does observe the ban on the “A-word” during Lent.