October 16, 2016
Church of Peace, UCC
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Isn’t Jesus Supposed to Be Here Right About Now?
(fourth in the series “Following Jesus through the Fourth Gospel”)
This is the day for getting into the church! We’re celebrating with Simon and his family as the body of Christ is made new by his baptism. In just a few minutes, we’ll rejoice with Rose as she becomes a member of Church of Peace. And whether or not you are a member… Whether you came in through the front door, or the Twelfth Avenue door, or the Elevette, somehow everybody here got into the church this morning.
If you consider all the things that could stop us from being here—maybe the challenge of getting a ride, the grief of sitting in the sanctuary without the one who should be sitting next to you, the need for sleep! — there is something extraordinary about the truth that we’ve all gotten into the church this morning. Thank you. Thank God.
Friends, today we’re continuing our fall series “Following Jesus Through the Fourth Gospel.” One theme that’s emerging in the Gospel of John is the way opposites spill into each other. It’s not that darkness is bad and light is good. It’s not that death is bad, leave it over here. Life is good, quick get it over here. Instead, the Fourth Gospel invites us to follow one until it leads to the other, to see how opposites are connected.
This means getting into the church may be extraordinary, but it’s only as good as our going back out. Come into this holy sanctuary, please. Then let’s go meet the neighbors in Glenhurst Court, see the holy presence of God on their front porches. Light turns into darkness, death turns into life.
In this rhythm of night giving birth to the day, of coming in and going back out, we have come to be the church, to show up and be here for each other. This is a commitment Church of Peace takes seriously. We promise to walk with Meghan, and Luke, and Simon. Soon we will make this promise to Rose, and we’ll mean it. And maybe we will succeed in not letting each other down. Or maybe the opposite will happen… And then what?
Today our Bible story is told as the set up for a miracle that is about to happen. It begins when Jesus has gone away across the Jordan. He’s hiding out as a fugitive after the religious leaders in Jerusalem tried to stone him for blasphemy. Well somehow Mary and Martha get a message to him: Our brother Lazarus, the one whom you love, is ill. Now the writer says Jesus reviewed the diagnosis and determined this kind of illness would not lead to death. And maybe that really happened, or maybe it didn’t. Either way, Jesus decided to stay where he was.
This decision is a problem.
The person telling the story would like us to know this decision was part of Jesus’ plan the whole time. So Jesus knew Lazarus would die, and that’s okay, because then Jesus can bring him back from the dead and the unbelievers will see that and believe, really?
I guess that’s one way to spin it, but I’m not ready to let Jesus off the hook. Maybe he was afraid to go back to the place where they want to stone him. Maybe he was waiting for the fullness of God’s time. Maybe there are a thousand reasons why Jesus wasn’t there for Lazarus when he died. But the thing is, he wasn’t there. For two days, he doesn’t go.
Then maybe he had a dream, or a moment of clarity, or maybe he just couldn’t stand it any longer. Because suddenly he has to go, and he already knows Martha’s going to be furious: “If you had been here, this never would have happened!” she’ll yell. Mary’s going to have a meltdown weeping, “If only you had been here…” Jesus knows what he’s walking into.
But the disciples are utterly confused, “We can’t go back to the place where the people tried to stone you!” “I am the light” he says, as though that’s supposed to help.
“Look if Lazarus is sleeping, we’ll visit him when it’s safer.”
“He’s not sleeping. He’s dead!” snaps our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
“Okay,” says Thomas. “If they try to kill you, they’ll have to kill us too. Let’s go.” Wow.
I am fairly certain you know how it feels when someone is supposed to be here, and they don’t show up. Maybe there are a thousand good reasons; exactly none of them matter. I’m also fairly certain we know how it feels to be the one who’s supposed to show up and then not make it… Maybe there are a thousand good reasons; none of them matter.
When you finally do arrive on the scene, and you’re too late, you know the first thing you’re going to hear: “Where the — were you! You were supposed to be here.”
So there are a few things to know about this accusation. For one thing, as Martha and Mary teach us, this is an excellent prayer. If you ever feel this question rise up in your being, please do not withhold this prayer from the LORD: “Oh God! Where the — were you! You were supposed to be here; I needed you in there!” This is also an excellent question for us to ask each other. “Where were you?” is what makes it possible to speak the holy words: I’m sorry. I love you. Oh dear, what happened…
The trick is sticking around long enough to hear the answer. This accusation is an excellent prayer, an excellent question to ask each other, but really kinda terrible words for ending a relationship. The trick is sticking around.
Today we are making promises to each other, to Simon and to Rose. As a church, we will be here for each other, but sometime we might flat out fail, and then what… That is the moment to listen to the outrage and not even argue with it. If we can hear our brother’s indignation, our sister’s fury, then hold it with reverence and let its truth ring in the air, what happens is this outrage doesn’t stay outrage. It turns into compassion. I have seen this happen.
I’m not saying it’s okay to let each other down. I’m saying it’s inevitable, and when we do, that is the moment to watch what the church does next. We will sit down next to the one who’s weeping, and chances are, we’ll start weeping too. The thing about crying with somebody who’s crying is that ensures the sorrow does not win. It streams down our faces, and rings in the air, then the weeping doesn’t stay weeping.
There are times when the church will let us down but follow this to its opposite, because I’m telling you, there are also times when the church shows up —in unexpected ways, in remarkable ways, with the spirit of Thomas who says, “All right, then they’ll have to kill us too. Let’s go.” So they went. Instead of getting killed, the disciples found themselves getting recruited to help pull off a resurrection, so we should take that as a warning.
When I lived in a transitional home for women in recovery, as you can imagine, arguments in our house were not uncommon. Every time, the program director, Faye, would sigh and say: “The sister you can’t stand the most is gonna end up saving your life.” Which sounds like a ridiculous prediction, except that she’s right. It happens in the church too. Sure enough, the person who gets on your last nerve in a meeting is the one who makes sure you get home safely. Sure enough, Thomas —who’s nobody’s favorite disciple, who’s most famous for showing up late and asking sensible, skeptical questions— Thomas is the one who saves the day: “Don’t worry Jesus, we will go with you!” You know we are always saving each other’s lives.
Now maybe being here for each other means more than the fervent hope that we’ll never let each other down. Maybe it means going where it’s dangerous, then listening to the anger, then sticking around until the morning breaks.
Friends, this is the day for going out to the neighborhood and getting into the church, for making promises that are too important to withhold just because we might fail. Right now there are veterans who need to talk about what they experienced in war. There are people who are afraid to talk about dying with their adult children. Who’s going to be here for them?
Right here there are immigrant families struggling to feel welcome, wondering if they made the right choice to come here. There are teenagers who feel ashamed for having a parent in jail. There are second graders who are frightened of reading out loud. And who is going to be here for them? We are.
We’ve got to be. Even when all we can do is listen to the outrage that needs to be heard, so it won’t stay outrage. Even when all we can do is weep with those who weep, until our tears turn into mercy, until the weeping that lingers for the night turns into the joy that comes in the morning.
This is the day we can show up together to listen and watch for that turning. Because I’m pretty sure a man’s about to get up from the dead. Then the world won’t be the same.
May it be so. Amen.