(Meditation, Reflection, and Proclamation on John 11:35)
From Living In-Between
Lazarus came forth. But what about the next day? Did he no longer have that lower back pain after his resurrection? He came forth to die yet again. And there was no Jesus around to raise him the second time. Mary and Martha had to go to their brother’s funeral twice, unless he was raised only to grieve at their funerals first.
What do you say at someone’s second funeral?
The heart yearns. It yearns in the gap between the gnawing ache of our experience in the world and the dream of the promise. The brokenness is sometimes all that we can see and feel.
I wish I could fix these glasses. My fourteen-year old son bought them. He spent ten of his own dollars on these cool-looking pink-lensed and tortoise-rimmed sunglasses. Then he left them on the floor of his room. A shirt got tossed on top of them. He stepped on the shirt, and the glasses, and the right arm was severed off at the hinge. It’s a clean break but the glue will not hold. They are broken and cannot be fixed. He does not have many ten-dollar bills. He really wanted these glasses. He had them about two weeks before the accident.
He brought them to me, and said, Dad, can you fix these? In his voice was disappointment, anger, frustration, yet hope that I might be able to do something. He’s seen me fix things that he thought were unfixable before.
I worked with them. It seemed that so much was at stake. More than ten dollars. More than the cheap sunglasses.
It’s been three months. I still have them on my desk, I still want to fix them. To restore them to wholeness and functionality. To see him happy to have them back on his face, looking so cool. To reverse the frustration. To redeem the ten dollars. To restore his trust and confidence in me as his dad. Why do I keep trying to fix these sunglasses? If I keep failing will he someday stop bringing me broken things to fix?
Is this why we eventually stop praying? Stop expecting?
I read Rabbi Charles A. Kroloff’s sermon, Tikun Olam. The Hebrew title means, “To Mend the World.” The assumption is that there is something broken, something dreadfully askew, with the way the world currently is. The task of God and humankind in the midst of this brokenness is reparation. The preacher insists that there is a divine-human cooperation in addressing and remedying the world’s brokenness. That reparation is the faith community’s chief mission, joining God in active restitution.
Bob Dylan wrote pointedly about the cumulative brokenness of even ordinary American experience:
Broken bodies broken bones
Broken voices on broken phones
Take a deep breath, feel like you’re chokin’
Everything is broken.
And then there is the tape that plays in my mind. I don’t know where it came from, but it mocks me:
The only way to make it in this world
is the close your eyes
to harden your heart
put your head down
and just bull forward.
Yet, we humans are constitutionally too fragile to sustain the bull charge. Too fragile for a lifetime of hardness of heart. All the pain, disappointment, and imperfect love that is our experience accumulates like plaque in the arteries. There is no statin for the cholesterol of hate, violence, resentment, unforgiveness. This is why we need our numbing agents, and why our numbing agents fail us. They only temporarily blind us to the broken world, and then there’s the morning and the new bad news of the day sitting on our doorstep. This is why the s/Spirit yearns for Tikun Olam.
In the story that John tells in the eleventh chapter of his gospel, Lazarus came forth to a second life because Jesus wanted to make a point about resurrection and himself. He let Lazarus die when he could have prevented it.
Before getting to Bethany he looks quite calculating. He stalls long enough for the sick Lazarus to die, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it. (John 11:4) From a distance it probably seemed like a good idea. Then they arrived just outside Bethany.
Lazarus had been dead four days. The town was in deep grief. Lazarus’s sisters had sent work to Jesus days before, asking him to come help their sick brother, whom they knew Jesus loved. Now Jesus saunters to the edge of town and their grief is compounded. How could he have delayed coming? They heard Jesus was there and Martha went out to see him. But Mary didn’t. Not then. Not yet. Could she not yet face him?
Martha confronted Jesus: Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. Mary then came out to him and said the same thing: Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. (John 11:21, 32) Both sisters were weeping. Their friends who had come out with them were weeping too.
All calculations aside, Jesus’s own heart was breaking.
But why? He was there as the self-professed “resurrection and the life.” He was there knowing what was about to happen. Lazarus would be home that day, raised from the dead and alive. Why should he weep? He had the trump card that would overturn all the hurt they felt. He might have just said, Don’t worry yourselves so much. Everything’s going to be all right. Just wait and see.
Lots of people say this kind of thing when we’re experiencing void and despair, but we know they don’t really know what they’re talking about. They’re usually just trying to avoid our grief and anguish as well as their own experience of brokenness because it just plain hurts too damned much.
Jesus is the one guy who could say, It’s all going to work out all right, and really mean it, really back it up. But he never does. Facing the grief that these people feel, he feels it too. And standing there in the midst of their turmoil, questions, accusations, bereavement, and crying eyes, Jesus wept.
John 11:35. I learned it as a child as the answer to a trivia question: What’s the shortest verse in the Bible? Answer: John 11:35, Jesus wept. It was one of many trivia tidbits I knew about the Bible. The longest verse is Esther 8:9; the longest chapter is Psalm 119; the shortest chapter is Psalm 117; and on and on.
I used to stare at John 11:35 amazed at its economic terseness. There it is: the shortest verse in the Bible – can you believe it?
In my childhood Bible I wrote inside the front cover, John 11:35, Jesus wept. It’s the only thing I wrote in that Bible given to me by my grandmother July 21, 1965, when I turned eight years old. John 11:35 is the only verse in that Bible that I completely circled with pencil.
It never disturbed me then. It was nothing more than a Jeopardy answer.
I didn’t know that what it meant to really lose. I didn’t know what it meant to grieve the loss of someone I loved. Someone who up to that point in my life was a major ingredient in the way that I defined my own being. Someone without whom my own self-definition would be immeasurably diminished.
No Lazarus had left this Martha back then.
Now I can’t read it without my own eyes welling up. I am fifty-eight years old now and have through the years lost so much and so many that meant so much to me. Senseless deaths and severances. A virus here takes my son. An infection there takes the woman who had become my mother in Christ. A cancer cell multiplies in my best friend’s body and sweeps him away. Misunderstanding takes a friend. Lies take another. Political correctness takes yet another. Fundamentalism? There goes a whole room. My birth mother dies. Relationships that mean the most to me become strained to the breaking point. I feel out of control to bring about the peace that I most want.
Lord, if you had been here….
Jesus wept. He wept because their hearts were broken. He wept because they wept. He wept because Lazarus was dead and it had rocked the world of everyone that knew him. He wept even though he stood there as the resurrection and the life. In his weeping, the Resurrection wept. Life wept. The Way wept. Truth wept.
Was the lesson in resurrection worth the pain of their brokenness? In the moment standing there with them before they were even at the tomb, I wonder if he wishes he had written his lesson plan for this teaching moment differently.
They arrived at the tomb. John vividly describes Jesus’s reaction upon arriving face-to-face with the cave and the stone in front of its entrance. John uses the word embrimomai to describe Jesus’s feelings, a word that was used in the ancient world for the angry snorting of horses. It’s a word that is used elsewhere in the New Testament when someone is said to sternly order someone. It’s a word that has to do with abject anger. Though every context other than John 11 suggests the semantic core of this word has to do with anger, frustration, and indignation, I could find only one translator who dared translate the John text in this way. Eugene Peterson tried to get the edge meaning of the Greek word across in his translation of The Message: Then Jesus, the anger again welling up within him, arrived at the tomb. (11:38) If a director were advising his actor how to portray what this looked like, he might say something like, When you see the closed tomb of your dear friend, shake your head vigorously side-to-side while snorting in a deep guttural tone. Remember, you are coming up against that which you have come into this world to defeat – this is your head-to-head in the cage with the last enemy.
Jesus, the self-proclaimed resurrection and life, couldn’t help but be his angriest in a graveyard. Especially in front of the grave of a close friend whom he loved. Everything that the graveyard said and stood for was a challenge to his very identity. If he was who he said he was, a grave would raise a question mark every time it was filled. Each tomb, each marker, mocked him as he walked by them. Every etched-in-stone end-date to a person’s life cried out to him as he passed, Liar!
Jesus wept. And he was angry, again. However we translate this, it seems clear that anguish and anger are fixed onto one another here and reverberate throughout the scene of Jesus with Mary, Martha, and the crowd, both before and at the tomb. And that anger and grief reach perhaps the sharpest focus in the accusatory statement that both sisters had levied against him: Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.
And do we not feel the same way, but just haven’t had the guts to say out loud that hard and accusatory truth? Lord, if you had been in the heart of Africa, twelve million people would not have been stolen from their homes and communities for the slave trade. Lord, if you had been in Nazi Germany, you could have stopped Hitler before he began. Lord, if you had been in Indonesia, your mighty and outstretched hand could have stopped the Tsunami before it began. Lord, if you had been in Glendale, California, you could have calmed Juan Alvarez’s troubled soul and prevented the tragic railroad crash that killed 11 and hurt 180 others. Lord, if you were here, 200 million people around the globe would not be going hungry tonight. Lord, if you were in the tomato and berry fields, the workers would not be exploited and robbed of a living wage. Lord, if you were in Dallas last night, a child would not have been struck with the back of his father’s drunken hand. Lord, if only you had been here….
My problem is not with Lazarus’s resurrection. My problem is with his death. My problem is that so much of my experience ends with John 11:35. I don’t get to see verse 39 nearly as often: Take away the stone. Or verse 43: Lazarus, come forth! Or verse 44: Unbind him, and let him go. The stone is still in place, there is no shout into the tomb. The binding is in place. The stench of corpses contaminates the air we try to breathe. I long for the italics, those words that evoke the future, that lean away from the past, from death and toward resurrection, but John 11:35 is not in italics. Its letters stand tall, straight, and still.
That’s why John 11:35 has become the longest verse in the Bible. Because the gap between John 11:35 and John 11:44 has become so very wide.
Good oral interpreters of scripture know how to use a pause in order to heighten the aural reception of the text. But if the reader pauses too long, what is there to keep the reader attentive, or even still present?
It took me a long time to realize that this at once very short and very long verse tells us something crucial about God’s presence in the world. And that is: we live now at that crossroads where Jesus paused for what seemed like only a brief moment outside of town and entered into the grief of two women and an entire town. That pause has become the essence of our experience of God. It’s not what we had in mind, exactly. Yet, it is an ironically hopeful location. His tears and anger are testimony, a confession of faith – faith in a God who is with us in our struggle and pain. A God who does not avoid our grief, but continues – in the presence of the Spirit – to stand with us in a world of loss most of the time as one who still weeps with us, in us, and even through us. The anger and grief we feel when we really engage our lives’ and our world’s struggles are not the feelings, emotions, and experiences that get in the way of faithful living; they are the stuff of faithful living. It is because we have hoped so much, and believed so much, and risked love so much that we grieve at the edge of town, and that we too are angry at the graveyard. To weep is really to hope. To be angry is really to believe. It is stubborn faith in face of the gospel’s embarrassment.
Jesus wept. To weep at loss is to do the work of God in the world. Weeping at loss is not just personal and private work; it is also the public work of protest against the powers of an age that is passing away. To feel what Jesus felt in the face of loss, and also in the face of things that ought not be – that is the indignation that leads to protest. As Shakespeare said at the end of King Lear, The weight of this sad time we must obey; speak what we feel, what we ought to say.
God is calling out a new corps of weeping prophets in our day to stand up to the false prophets in politics and religion who preach peace when there is no peace. The weeping, protesting prophets of God are those who give voice to their tears, anger, hope, and expectation through whatever means their mind and body chooses – dance, image, song, gesture, word, graffiti. The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls. The creative catharsis is born of moments when the artist’s soul confronts the gap between painful experience and hopeful promise and is truthful to what comes forth as an expression of the ache in between pain and hope.
We are the Jesus that stands on the edge of town now. We are his ambassadors of the resurrection and the life in our bodies and our communities. And as such, we are his weeping presence among those who suffer, lose, and grieve. We are his protesting presence in agitated anticipation of the celebration of resurrection.
We are the resurrection weeping at the edge of hurting cities today. Caught between a gnawing hunger that cramps the spirit and the alluring anticipation of release and freedom, we lean forward – our spirits italicize.
Though much of our personal experience attempts to deny or mock the promises, though our lives are at times startlingly tear-streaked, though our moral skies are darkened with the soot of hate, violence, and fallible love, streaks of light persistently pierce through the darkness and remind us that the darkness, though ominous, has not overcome the light. Though the fallible love of those in this world has failed us again and again, we have yet experienced real love through these fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, friends, children, husbands, and wives. Have they ultimately failed to love us as we most needed to be loved, as we yearned to be loved? Yes, many times, yes. Just as we have failed them. But the answer is no, also. Because pure love has gotten, and continues to get, in the mix, too. We have been held in an embrace that took us out of time and space and made us aware of something much bigger than ourselves and our losses and our failures. We have known love – love that surprised us, thrilled us, validated us as human beings; love that evoked within us awe, praise, and gratitude. We have seen in the eyes of another the look and gaze of understanding, care, and ultimate concern. Looking into those eyes that locked on us, we were granted a portal to the Divine gaze, the Divine love, the Divine promises. We need a community of nurture, where this love is allowed to breathe.
When Lazarus was sick and Mary and Martha could do nothing to help him, they did the only thing they knew to do: they sent for Jesus, and they waited. But we, as Mary and Martha today waiting on Jesus to come, wait not passively. We wait together, forming communities of active protestation against every action, every word, every law, every political and economic decision that hurts any human being. In the wake of continued human suffering, we continue to send for the deliverance that only God can bring, and in the meantime we protest the violence by our presence with those who suffer, by our tears on their behalf and ours, by our outcry to God, by our internal groaning for the more that we have been promised, in the sighing that the Spirit turns into sane and articulate prayer before God.