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Living Defiance

 

John 11:17-44
Preached at University Presbyterian Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Rev. Elizabeth Michael
April 2, 2017

            Were you to line the four gospels up in a row and subject them to a game of “Which one of these things is not like the others?” John would come out the clear deviant.  John’s synoptic cousins bear a decided resemblance to one another, sharing similar stories of Jesus the teacher and healer, replete with parables and sermons and references to a coming kingdom.  John, on the other hand, is a long-form journalist.  He swaps sermons for discourses and weaves within them accounts of powerful signs, so that Jesus’ works can never be separated from his words.  Jesus the Light of the World gives sight to the blind.  Jesus the Bread of Life feeds the hungry.  Jesus the Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.  One by one, these signs of Jesus gain increasing gravitas and urgency, not only for the appointment Jesus is intent on keeping with Calvary, but also for a point of decision thrust on all who witness these words and works.  After all, as John tells us at both the beginning and the end of his gospel, Jesus’ life and the words that testify to it were given that we might believe.

I say all this to offer some context for the story of Lazarus.  The stakes are high at this point in the gospel: Jesus and his disciples have turned back to Judea with full knowledge that in doing so, they are walking toward the cross.  Jesus is poised to make his most significant claim yet—to be the Resurrection and the Life—and it’s going to take an equally significant sign to prove it.  And, as Jesus approaches Bethany, his unwavering desire that those around him might see and believe is growing still more urgent.  All of this, with the scent of death in the air.

There’s a story in my family that has long shaped my imagination around what it means to believe in God in the face of death.  My grandmother, Helen, was only five years old, and her older brother, Paul, only nine when their mother, Emma, was diagnosed with a terminal illness. The family was suddenly thrust into preparations, both emotional and logistical, for the end of Emma’s life.  Alongside all the provisions she made for her soon to be widowed husband and their children, Emma did her own hard spiritual work of relinquishment.  She seized onto a verse from 2 Timothy and made it her own: “I know the one in whom I have put my trust,” that scripture says, “and I am persuaded that He is able to keep all I have entrusted to Him.”  And making those words a mantra, Emma repeated them often to her family, seeding her own faith deep within their hearts and planting assurance deep within their beings.

When Emma died, Helen and Paul and their father Elmer gathered around her grave to commend her to God’s ongoing care, and they held hands and recited Emma’s verse together, claiming it this time for themselves: “I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am persuaded that He is able to keep all I have entrusted to Him.”  Every time they made the pilgrimage to that site together, they would hold hands and repeat that pledge again.  As Helen and Paul grew up, moved away, and began families of their own, they would still make their way back home and to the cemetery, and say again, “I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am persuaded that He is able to keep all I have entrusted to Him.”  The verse took on additional poignancy the day that Helen knew that the family was gathering for the last time, that her father’s serious illness meant his own death was looming.  Once again, “I know the one in whom I have put my trust.”

I have always marveled at that story, standing in awe of the depth of faith that would have enabled my grandmother and her family to utter such words in the face of death.   It reminds me of the faith of Jesus.  Long before my great-grandmother adopted that verse, even before the writer of 2 Timothy authored it, Jesus embodied it.  Jesus knew the one in whom he put his trust, and indeed he offered up his very life to that one for safekeeping.

And so for a long time, this was my image of the kind of faith that can withstand the worst death can offer—some pious ones standing in the face of the grave, expressions of reverence and resignation fixed on their faces.  The picture of those saints took on sepia tones as it settled comfortably into my family history.  But then my grandmother died, after 94 years of life well-lived and well-loved.  And as her family gathered around her grave, it became the task of those of us in the younger generations to take up the words of 2 Timothy for ourselves.  “I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am persuaded that He is able to keep all I have entrusted to Him.”  Feeling those words tumbling over themselves in my own mouth, as snow covered the freshly turned earth of her grave, I knew that it was neither piety nor habit that kept them so consistently upon the tongues of my ancestors in the faith; I knew as I spoke them for myself that such claims of faith come with a healthy portion of defiance.

To trust in the power of the one who names himself Resurrection and Life is to lodge our whole identity, well-being, and hope in him, yes.  But that is only half of what it means to trust.  To put our faith in God is also to defy the power of any force which would rise up in opposition to God’s power.  Even when that power seems as vivid and victorious as dirt piled on a coffin or a stone rolled in front of a tomb.

Signs of defiance are all over the story of Lazarus.  They’re all over any memorial service or funeral you’ve recently attended.  The signs of defiance are the tears: the tears that fall so freely from the eyes of Mary, of the mourners, of Jesus himself, these tears are protests against the power of death.  Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann shows us how.[1]  He says real defiance begins in grief, for grief is the surest sign that things are not right.  Brueggemann says the status quo in our world is to maintain the façade that we have everything together, to play along with the dominant culture’s insistence that everything is just fine; it is only when we allow pain to penetrate the numbness that props up this illusion that we begin to seek another way to live.  Think of the power of the tear-stained face of five-year old Omran Daqneesh, who was a victim of bombing in Aleppo, or of the gut-wrenching sobs of Alton Sterling’s son at the press conference following his father’s death, or of the tears of a sanctuary full of mourners, strangers suddenly united over a common loss.  The power of weeping is the power to erode callousness and complacency and to flood the consciousness with space for a new way of life.

Life, after all, is what Jesus has always been about.

In him was life, and that life was the light of all people.

I am the way, the truth, and the life.

I came that you might have life and have it abundantly.

I am the resurrection and the life.

Jesus wants far more for his loved ones than adequate vital signs; he wants more than the life of slavery that Egypt offers or oppression Rome offers; he wants more than the lives of frenzied consumerism, constant competition, and increased isolation that our culture foists upon us.  He wants abundant life.  And he can see the extravagant cost of such a life looming just ahead in Jerusalem.

And so he weeps.  The Lord who meets those he loves at the grave is no stoic, invulnerable figure; he is a friend who comes with compassion, who literally “suffers with” as he joins Mary and Martha in their anguish.  This is the God we know in Christ, one who draws near to us in our suffering, who weeps with we who weep, who is well-acquainted with our sorrow.  But that is not all.  The power of those tears does not cease with their solidarity; Jesus’ weeping inaugurates his own protest.

A therapist once told me that grief and anger are two sides of the same coin.  It would seem to be true for Jesus.  John says that as Jesus saw the mourners gathered, he was disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.  Well, actually, the committee of scholars that translated Greek manuscripts into the New Revised Standard Version says that.  What our limited English cannot fully capture from the Greek is that there is also a thread of anger in Jesus’ reaction.   He is stirred up, his insides are churning, his response, literally, is like the snort of a horse—indignant and agitated.

Jesus walks up to the grave, sees the cold hard stone, sees the crowd weeping, sees Martha sniffing for the stench of death in the air, sees the mourners seeming to cede territory to the power of death, and he gets mad.  Sometimes grief calls for lament, but sometimes it calls for action.  So Jesus stares into the darkness of that tomb, beholds death in all its power, and cries defiantly into the void for Lazarus to come out.  With all the power of one who was present at creation, he shouts into the darkness, “Let there be life.”  And there was.

This is the Jesus who stands beside me at my grandmother’s grave and who stands beside each of us in our places of grief and pain.  When our loved ones are dying and the world is weeping and the cross is looming, we need the Jesus of both lament and defiance.  Jesus who weeps with us in our sorrow and who shouts down the powers of death so loudly that his cries shake the very gates of hell.

Of course we are not yet to the that part of the story.  On this fifth Sunday of Lent, we are left with Jesus’ question to Martha ringing in our ears, not yet answered in full.  “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” Jesus asks.  Watch as they take the stone away; peer into the void within and behold God’s glory.  Strange glory that looks like a broken and bloodied body wrapped up in grave clothes, strange glory that bears the whole weight of sin’s might and death’s power, strange glory that draws the mournful to itself while the powerful rejoice on their all too temporary thrones.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, Augsburg Fortress: 2001.  Chapter 3: “Prophetic Criticizing and the Embrace of Pathos.”

Elizabeth Michael , Interim Associate Pastor

Email: elizabeth@upcch.org

Phone: (919).929.2102 ext. 112

Bio:

Elizabeth joined the staff in September of 2016 and counts it a tremendous privilege to learn and grow alongside the saints of University Presbyterian. A native North Carolinian, Elizabeth studied music and religion at Presbyterian College and received her M. Div. at Princeton Seminary. Her life and ministry have been shaped by work with Presbyterian churches in South Africa, a season of living in intentional community alongside the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC, and the chance to be a part of a team welcoming home citizens returning from incarceration. Her spiritual life has been consistently nourished by immersion in the community of faith, most recently at Trinity Avenue Presbyterian Church in Durham, where she served as Associate Pastor for seven years. Elizabeth has a deep love for Christ's Church, a deep hope in the gospel's reconciling work in the world, and a deep joy in the life of ministry. At UPC, Elizabeth offers support to the church's caregiving and worship ministries, among others. Outside of work, she tries to take full advantage of her library card, the local food scene, national parks, and friends who live in places fun to visit.