|Today’s scripture reading:
As anyone who’s seen my office knows, I am what you might call “organizationally-challenged”. It’s not that I don’t know how to stay organized, but when push comes to shove in my schedule, I prioritize spending time with people or working on a project deadline rather than keeping my office straightened up. I tell myself there will always be time for that later. As a consequence, each week adds another layer of notes and paperwork to the piles on my desk, like sediment on a river bottom. I have every good intention of coming back around to sort them, but the next week brings its own busy-ness and another layer of sediment covers up the previous one. It’s gotten to the point now that I have four large piles on my office desk, starting to crowd out the space I have to actually work! I’m trying yet another strategy to address it, but I’m tempted to just throw a sheet over it when people come in for meetings, to pretend that everything is just fine, “nothing to see here, move along”.
I recently realized the emotional impact of this disarray. Javen was starting on our taxes last week while I was at church, but he couldn’t find that most basic thing needed, my W-2 form. I could have sworn I took it home and put it in the file where it belonged. Since he didn’t find it there, I became an archaeologist sifting through the layers on my desk. Below yellow pages of meeting notes and to-do items, beneath blue prayer request slips and white stacks of unopened advertisements, I found it, in an envelope clearly marked, “Tax Information”. My relief at finding this essential paperwork soon drowned in a flood of self-critique. I told myself that a good pastor wouldn’t be this way, wouldn’t get so swamped in the flotsam and jetsam of ministry as to lose even the most basic things, important not just to me but to Javen also. My inner voice pointed out the failings in all those layers as I sunk into the deadly quicksand of shame, blame and hiding from myself. In the words that Saint Augustine uses for his own state of overwhelm, “I had become to myself a vast problem”.
I’m not laying this out there to elicit either sympathy or your best advice for better organizing. Rather, I name it because I suspect that we all have things of which we’re ashamed, things that we want to hide under a shroud, things that make us want to crawl into a hole and disappear. Are there situations in your life that feel just as deadly? When I put a picture of this Lazarus story on Facebook, an acquaintance mentioned that it reminded him of his alcoholism. For someone else, it might be another addiction too embarrassing to name. Perhaps it’s mental illness or physical weakness that has you hiding from yourself. Maybe it’s dysfunction at home, children who don’t fit the image of suburban perfection, or an inability to speak your truth. Where are the places of shame and binding in your life?
We don’t like going there, do we? It feels vulnerable and unnerving, maybe even deadly. We want to hide from such places, to cover them up. I think about a woman who was interviewed for Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues, talking about her “down there” as a boarded-up basement. She says, “It’s very damp, clammy. You don’t want to go down there. Trust me. You’d get sick. Suffocating. Very nauseating. The smell of the clamminess and the mildew and everything. Whew! Smells unbearable. …It’s closed up, under the house. It’s down there.”
This is the same instinct Martha shows in today’s gospel story when Jesus goes to open the tomb of her brother Lazarus. Even though she believes that transformation is possible with Jesus, Martha doesn’t want to face the very real aromas of decay. She tells him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” But Jesus doesn’t fear going into the places of death. His mission is one of throwing open doors, spreading curtains wide, lifting windows, and letting the purifying light shine in. This is the path of healing, through facing vulnerabilities and coming out the other side. Such love leads us to face the truth of death, then leads through death to life itself. As the very wise Elaine Kirkland told me in discussing this text, “We have to be willing to stink to rise again.”
This dynamic happens not just at the time of death, but throughout all of life as well. Jesus promises Martha, “Your brother will rise again”, and she replies, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” And Jesus says back, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Footnotes in a study Bible point out that some ancient copies of John’s gospel leave off the end of Jesus’ reply here. In a WorkingPreacher.org podcast, Rolf Jacobson suggests that later biblical scribes perhaps thought Jesus was being redundant since of course “resurrection” means “life”, so copiers occasionally put down only the first part: “I am the resurrection”. But that misses the point of this story, the point of Jesus’ ministry, and maybe even the point of Christian faith altogether. Yes, we believe that by some mystery beyond our knowing there is life beyond the grave, where the love of God can be known and shown most fully. But Lazarus is healed to this life, restored to himself, family and community in this life. Jesus shows the power of God to make a way where there seemed to be no way, not just in the hereafter, but in the here-and-now. We are given glimpses of life in the midst of death, even before the final curtain, and the even-more-final eternal encore.
This is the part of a sermon where I’m tempted to tell a heartwarming story that demonstrates the gospel’s hopeful rebirth. Maybe a reference to spring would be in order, witnessing the new buds of this season after deadly winter. There are places for such stories and metaphors, but I suspect that it’s a shortcut to tie everything up in ribbons and bows. Most of us are all too aware of our shameful places and stinky death, yet still hoping and groping for a life of gospel promise which is harder to see. The story of another’s resurrection may not be enough for you in your place of hurt or trial. We continue on the road of love together, through death to new life, but we don’t always have it figured out in time for Sunday morning, including your pastor.
So if you came to church this past week and found my door mostly closed, or found me less able to engage in undistracted conversation, it’s not a judgment on you by any means. It’s me trying to dig through my piles, trying to find some organizing in the chaos, trying to find the way from darkness into light. With you, I too am trying to receive the love of God that passes all understanding, love that leads through death to greater and more lasting life. Trying to understand what the UCC theologian Paul Tillich describes as accepting that we are accepted by God, despite our own feelings of inadequacy.
By divine grace, we do not have to do this by ourselves. Mary and Martha had Jesus and the whole community to help them make sense of such loss. We have one another, here in this community of mystery, wonder and hope. The church, Christ’s ever-living Body for this time and place, may likewise be called to cry out for life in places of death. As we all continue to listen for a space of grace in places of shame and death, we together manifest the voice of Jesus to those around Lazarus: “Unbind him, and let him go”. Part of our joyful calling as Christians is to stand athwart the entangling inner voices or outer critics and cry out, “Stop! Death is not the last word—not ever, and not now, in this life. So unbind him, and let him go.” Unbind her, and let her go. Unbind me, and let me go. Unbind our communities—contorted by racism, gun violence and all the rest—unbind them, and let them go. Unbind our neighborhoods, unbind our communities, unbind our country, unbind the world, unbind this whole groaning and God-blessed creation—that it and all who are within it may go free. “Jesus, unbind us, and let us go!” Amen.
Cover image by Karen Cardoza, via flikr.com.