Benediction Online

Sunday, March 09, 2008

The Resurrection and the Life: John 11
preached by the Rev. Donna Ross, March 9, 2008

Today we hear the story of Lazarus and Martha, one of the most powerful of all the stories told by the early church.

Lazarus’ story – and Martha’s story – was learned by heart by early Christians preparing for their baptism. And as they learned these stories, they came to believe that their own lives would be transformed through baptism – just as the lives of Martha and Lazarus were changed forever through their relationship with Jesus.

Why is Lazarus’ story so powerful? Because the story reminds us: We are all afraid of death. We are afraid of our own deaths; we are afraid of the deaths of loved ones. Indeed, we are in great danger of living our whole lives bound up in the fear of death.

We are so afraid of death that we want to protect ourselves – and especially we want to protect our children, to keep them safe from eternal death. But will those few drops of water we pour on their little heads keep them from eternal death – if we never tell them what the water means, if we never tell them the stories, if we never encourage them to meet Jesus for themselves?

So we need to tell Martha’s story, too. We (especially we women) know the “Mary and Martha” story. We know that Martha has a strong personality: we know she loves her brother Lazarus; we know she sometimes picks on her sister Mary; and we know she is willing to speak up to Jesus.

But Martha’s story becomes even more powerful when we hear her declare her faith in Jesus. (We hear the story of Peter’s confession over and over again:

Simon Peter said to Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered, “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah! ... And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”

A whole church has been built up on the confession of Simon Peter! But we rarely hear – really hear – Martha’s confession:

“Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God...”)

Martha is someone who sees clearly, even under the greatest pressure life can give her. Martha is someone who will follow Jesus wherever he leads her – even into danger. Her trust in Jesus was a model for the first Christians, and it is a model for us: Martha does not let death or life stop her from doing what she believes is right.

Baptism cannot prevent death. We’re all going to die – even as Lazarus also died again. But here’s what baptism can do: It can keep us from being overwhelmed by our fear of death.

Jesus knew he was going to die – and Jesus, just like you and me, was afraid of dying. After the raising of Lazarus (so close to Jerusalem, the stronghold of the authorities), Jesus knew his every word and every action would bring him closer to his death. But the fear of death did not stop him from doing what he was called to do.

If you read the whole story of Lazarus, Martha and Mary in John’s Gospel (chapters 11-12), you will hear of Lazarus’ illness, his dying, and his coming forth alive from his tomb. You will also hear of the family meal that followed, when everyone was seated with Jesus the table. At that meal, Jesus was anointed with precious oil by Mary. When one of his disciples grumbled about the cost of the oil, Jesus replied, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.”

Jesus says more about his coming death – but he will call it his glorification. After Lazarus was released from his tomb and the authorities begin plotting to arrest Jesus (and Lazarus, too), Jesus said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:23)

At the very beginning of the story we’ve heard today, when Jesus decides to go to Lazarus after all, Thomas says, “Come, let us also go, that we may die with him.” Thomas knows that if they go to Bethany, so near to Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples will be in great danger. Thomas is right. Jesus might as well be saying, “Come die with me.”

We all die every day - in everyday defeats, in little deaths both material and spiritual. We all die through our worries about the future, and through our fears over things great and small. But in our baptisms we were given the power to defy these little deaths.

Frederick Niedner, who teaches Biblical studies at Valparaiso University, writes, “Like Lazarus, we find ourselves terribly hindered by the grave clothes that still bind us. We can’t walk the walk of the resurrected when we’re still bound by the old habits that the fear of dying has taught us so well. Thankfully, we find ourselves in a community to which Jesus says, ‘Unbind him; let her go.’”

This is why the baptizing community retells the stories of Lazarus and Martha – to help each other find the way of faith and trust that they walked with Jesus.

This is why the baptizing community calls us again and again to continuing conversion – not once in our baptism, not weekly in communion, but day by day and minute by minute – freeing ourselves from our fear of death, freeing ourselves to be fully alive.

This is why the baptizing community calls us to free ourselves from daily habits, from lifelong patterns – so we can open ourselves to issues of justice and compassion, and open ourselves to loving in spite of fearing.

What happens to the baptizing community when its members truly understand their mission?
What happens when the Christian community helps its members defy their fears and learn to trust? What happens when the baptizing community not only tells the ancient stories, but works to live them day by day?

Here’s a letter I found yesterday in the current Episcopal Life (you can read it again when you go home). It’s a letter about fear, about love, about life; it’s a letter that describes what it means to be baptized, and what it means to be a member of the baptizing community.

Sheena Lawrence writes, “I suffer from depression with psychotic features severe enough to have been granted disability. I have never been able to hold a job for more than one or two years and most for only a few months. When under even moderate stress, I become afraid of even the people who love me and are trying to help.

“Just before I found St. Gabriel’s Episcopal Church in Oakwood, Georgia, I was practically housebound for four years because I was too afraid to even try to interact with people. I was convinced the entire world was against me, and there was no one I fully trusted.

“I was accepted with open arms from the very beginning. There were people willing to love me even when I had unwashed hair and body odor – and there were people brave enough to tell me lovingly I needed to shower and wash my hair.

“My life is more stable now than it has ever been because of the love and support of my church – my family. The protection my church family provides has allowed me to use my energy to work on other areas of my life, and I am learning and maturing because of that redirected energy. I do our church website and edit the newsletter. I am in the choir... I still have problems from time to time, but I know people love me and are trying to understand.

I frequently tell people I am the most blessed person on this earth.”
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Grant, O Lord, that all who are baptized into the death of Jesus Christ your Son may live in the power of his resurrection and look for him to come again in glory; who lives and reigns now and for ever. Amen.

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