When I started in my first parish I visited at Laturi’s nursing home, just a short 5 minute walk from our house, and could spend a whole afternoon there with all the members we had living there. Eventually, one by one, they died, until only Tyne Carlson was left. She was a very lovely lady, proper but not ostentatious. She had raised three great kids, with her husband had died 20 years earlier. But she had many friend’s that she kept in touch with, both at Laturi’s, and elsewhere. Her son Bob had the idea to buy her a new phone when she moved there, one with the large print numbers, and speed dial buttons, the first and only one like that she ever owned.. So Bob programmed in and wrote down all her friends names on the one touch buttons. And it worked really well until all those friends had died, and she alone was left at Laturi’s. But at some point, it became our own private joke that she could still keep in touch with friends, by her speed dial phone. She could still push Inez or Marilyn, Gladys or John, Erma or Vic, and give them a ring up in heaven – a convenient one-touch connection. Just as she enjoyed life with them here, she was still connected with them by her communion of saints phone.
“Lord if you had been here my brother would not have died,” Martha told Jesus. “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” I used to think that this showed how Martha was expecting Jesus to do precisely what he was about to do, raise her brother Lazarus from the grave. But on closer look, probably not. Everything points in the other direction. Jesus himself asked as much of Martha: you know that “your brother will rise again,” don’t you? Sure, said Martha, “on the last day.” Martha’s not really expecting a miraculous sign like the raising of her brother just yet, perhaps hoping for just a speed dial connection! So Jesus tells her how he is “the resurrection and the life,” and that those who know this, even though they die, will live, and for all those who live their baptized lives in him, will never die. What do you think Martha? Well, yes Lord, “I believe you’re the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” But then she left to call her sister Mary.
Neither Martha, nor Mary, nor any of the disciples, were able yet to grasp this message Jesus brought, before his resurrection. In some ways, the gospel is preaching right over the tops of their heads, and directly to all of us who have the perspective of time, after the resurrection. We can look back and see how Jesus is talking about so much more than the resurrection on the last day. “I am the resurrection, and the life,” said Jesus. “The one who is speaking with you,” right now, is that life.
Jesus knows full well his fate, that Jerusalem kills its prophets. And right after he calls Lazarus out of the tomb, half the people believe and follow Jesus, but the other half go and report what he did to the Council, who vow to do away with him.
What does illness and death lead to? Where does it take us? And how do we react? What vows do we take? Jesus was overcome with emotion, and wept after he came to the tomb of Lazarus. But it was not the same as the weeping of Mary and the crowds standing there. The Judeans came for that ritual performance of wailing that was expected by a crowd at a wake. This was the weeping of professional mourners. It was especially important when, for example, a Jew had been killed by a Roman soldier. Then the mourners came to whip up the emotions of the crowds, and to evoke the hate they were supposed to have for their enemies.
And so Jesus’ reaction to them was anger. The Greek terminology is more like, “mad,” snorting mad and “indignant,” which was actually an equal and appropriate response to their “weeping and wailing,” that was designed to whip up the passions of everyone.
When Jesus goes to the tomb, that’s when he is overcome! But his weeping is of a totally different kind, a different word for crying is used, that expresses a deep and spontaneous sorrow. This is the only place that word is used in the NT. Jesus is moved to show how this illness leads to God’s Glory. When he asks for the stone to be taken away from the tomb, Martha, the practical one, “stumbles” over the darkness of death and dying, cautioning against the consequences of the terrible stench. But Jesus, the resurrection and the life, looks upward in a prayer, giving thanks that God always hears, and trusting that now, the power of life that knows no darkness will shine for all to see!
So, does it make any difference knowing that Jesus taught us a new and different way to react to death? A different way to weep? The most obvious example in our time is the reaction our country has had to the many senseless deaths of 9/11. The shock and horror of that day is beyond words, and the intentional pain inflicted is still hard to imagine. And yet the reaction to whip up the crowds in the rubble of the World Trade site, in those early days, by our president, has reverberated with untold additional harm. The national mourning encouraged revenge and justified an illegal war against Iraq, which needlessly ended thousands of more lives, both Iraqi and American, created 100’s of 1,000 of refugees, and continues to stoke prejudice and retaliation against Muslims here in this country and fuels an anti-Americanism abroad.
This historic stumble could have been different if our leadership had walked in the daylight that Jesus offers, and wept as Jesus wept for Lazarus. It is not easy to do, in the face of unspeakable attacks. One must be grounded in the resurrection and the life, a vow of forgiveness and trust. Believing is more than saying the words of the creed, but trusts in the promise that he is with us now, already, and forever. We can see it in the raising of Lazarus, this foreshadowing of the death and resurrection of the one who was innocent, our Messiah.
When we do, we are ready to act for freedom, and life, and love, and our weeping turns into joy. Because we know that as we walk in the light, we learn more and more to react as Jesus did. And as we journey, we learn to say with Jesus, “unbind him and let him go,” knowing that we are speaking of ourselves, and for the redemption of all.