Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 26th of Third Month, 2023
Speaker: Jade Rockwell
Scripture: John 11:1-45
The Death of Lazarus
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather, it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
Jesus the Resurrection and the Life
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house consoling her saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Jesus Raises Lazarus to Life
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
The Plot to Kill Jesus
Many of the Jews, therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did believed in him.
Rosy got down on her knees to pray. It was a “why-God” prayer, one of the diciest kinds of prayers, because we so seldom get to know “why”. But she couldn’t do anything else.
She had just got off 13 hours on a bus and hadn’t eaten, hadn’t slept, hadn’t showered. Thirteen hours on a bus from Havana to Velasco on the other side of the country, after a 3-day journey, where she came from her interview at the US embassy. Her interview at the US embassy where she was supposed to have gotten her visa, she was supposed to have gotten her visa to travel to the United States, to Kansas, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Rosy never thought that she would travel internationally, let alone at 48-years-old, as a homemaker and a Cuban person of humble means. But as the clerk of Friends women, she’d been asked to go and represent Cuba at this international gathering. It was the most exciting, most terrifying thing she could have imagined. She would leave the island in this lifetime. It should have been a straightforward process—the visa interview—but instead of issuing the visa, she’d been denied.
And now all she could do was get down on her knees and the prayer she prayed was “WHY GOD? I need you to tell me why this happened. And this time, I don’t want a spiritual answer! I need a flesh and blood person to come here, and explain to me WHY this happened to me.” Those were the words of her prayer. Days later, Rosy got a call, asking if she could host an American Friend traveling in Cuba, a single mom and three kids. She said yes to hosting, something that she had done many times before.
That family was mine. Over the next few weeks, as we became friends, Rosy told me the story of her visa denial. I tried to help. I said, surely they must have to give a reason, surely there must be an appeals process, but it was “no porque no". I couldn’t do anything except share in my friend’s disappointment, in the injustice of it. It wasn’t until much later that Rosy told me about the prayer, and that somehow, somehow, she came to see our visit as God’s answer to her prayer.
And just this—seems like a miracle to me. I was moved to be used this way in a friend’s life, but of course despite my best attempts, I was never able to do what she had asked and tell Rosy the reason why. The part of her prayer that I was able to answer was just the flesh and blood person part. God left out the rest. Yet often that is what we really need, even, maybe even especially when our mind is praying for a theological answer to our pain.
I wonder why I find it is rather rare in my everyday life to be used this way. After all, I am always my flesh and blood self.
I suppose the time pressure I always feel myself under, the private life that I often live, and preoccupation with my own problems and work keeps me from showing up the way I did on this trip, where I had hours to kill, no air conditioning and nothing to do but sit on the porch and listen to stories.
I see that in my own country, I too often fail to show up in flesh and blood.
Losing my best friend to suicide, I am pierced by this reality. Our scripture this morning comes from John 11. Friends, traditionally, have read this passage (like much of the Bible) as a spiritual pattern that we can experience inwardly. Lazarus represents the spiritually dead, who can yet be awakened. Friends have seen the heart of this passage as Jesus saying, “I am the resurrection and the life”, revealing his divinity.
Friends, traditionally, have not made a lot of distinctions about the divine—Christ is Jesus is God is Spirit, feel free to substitute your own God words here. But maybe because of where I am at in my own grief journey, I found when I read this story this time, it was not his spirit but Jesus’s humanness that moved me.
Maybe like the bereaved in Bethany, it was not the resurrected Jesus that I wanted. This time, I needed “a flesh and blood answer”.
Because I was not moved by Jesus saying “I am the resurrection and the life.” Rather I was moved by this picture of Jesus as a friend in community, as a person involved in a web of human relationships, with their own dynamics and personalities and loyalties.
I was moved in verse 32 when Mary said, “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died!”
Not only that, I was moved in verse 33 when it says he was greatly disturbed in his spirit and I was moved in verse 35 when it says that Jesus began to weep with the women. While we may think of or define being human many ways, the way we often experience our humanity is through relationship to other people, and here I see Jesus sharing in that experience, someone who knows these people as individuals and relates to them in particular ways, as a fully engaged member. When relationships are healthy, we know who we are as an individual, and we feel secure in that identity.
When relationships are broken, we may feel that our very personhood or that of others or of a perpetrator is at stake—we use terms like “dehumanization” or “inhumane” to describe this damage.
If we are disconnected from relationship and alienated from community life, we may experience disorientation and existential confusion. We may feel like we are “not a person”. Verse 33 is translated into English as “he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” but the Greek word, enembrimasato means literally to snort like a horse, it means to to roar with rage. It says he was angry! And I am moved by this. Maybe the translator put a euphemism in there because they were offended or disturbed by this depiction of Jesus, or maybe they were confused by his anger, which has no explanation in the text. Was he angry because he experienced the separation of death in a human way in that moment, the disfigurement of the corpse? A body that can’t touch a body? A friend you can’t call anymore? Whose voice you can’t hear? OR was he angry because his friends could not see, as he could, in clearness the resurrection that was coming? Was he angry the way that a friend gets angry at a friend when we are really in each other’s lives, and we see one another’s stuckness and ignorance and failure to have hope in who we are meant to be? OR was he angry like his friend Thomas who said bitterly, “Yes, Let’s go, so we can die with him.” Was he angry because he knew his own death was now inevitable because of his decision to come be with his friends, in flesh and blood? He could have sent a card: “Thoughts and prayers!”
He could have sent money for the burial. But instead he came to be with his friends. And maybe that also made him angry. We seldom get to know why, and this time is no different, but even so, as a grieving person, I treasure this depiction of Jesus who was angry. And I treasure the depiction in verse 35 when Jesus began to weep.
Although his tears are inexplicable. He has already said that Lazarus is merely sleeping, he already knows that Lazarus will rise, but when he sees Mary, he is overwhelmed by emotion. When he began to weep, and he joined with what is considered in many cultures—what was considered in his—to be women’s work.
Psalm 34 says that God is near to the brokenhearted, and Jeremiah prophesied that God would literally weep, but Jesus gives us the first image of God weeping real tears with us.
We know now that God is with us in our grief. Now, we are here, living in a flesh and blood experience of life, and in the words of St Teresa of Avila, “Christ has no body but your body.”
SO often, in this flesh and blood experience, one body showing up in solidarity means more than the most sober wisdom beautifully spoken, more than the action of faithful prayer offered up, more than a million dollars donated. “Christ has no body but your body.” And Jesus shows us, it not always enough even to show up, even at the risk of our own death, in fact our emotions—which are in fact a part of our humanity, a function of this body—there is something called mirror neurons that allow us to actually feel one another’s pain and only a human body can do that the way that we do—so Jesus shows us that our bodily emotions are needed as well. And to do that, sometimes we have to make a journey to be together. Not only do we have to do that within this Meeting, but beyond this meeting, there are a lot of people in Richmond, and the other places where we live, and beyond who are praying that dicey “why-God” prayer, but who really need a flesh and blood answer. People experiencing isolation of poverty, people in the thick of addiction, people who are pregnant and don’t know what to do. And theology will not do. Money will not do. They need a person to come and be with them. This meeting knows the importance of this.
That’s why we release ministers like Nikki Holland in Belize, because we have seen that her ministry is as much or more about her presence and accompaniment of kids in Belize than it is about an educational opportunity for them. We know this is needed and that it can take tremendous financial support to release someone from other obligations to go and BE with people who need it. We could send books. But we are sending people. This meeting knows the importance of flesh and blood which is why many here go to Friends retreats and camps, which for some of us have been life-changing, which for some of us brought us to Christian faith, and which cannot be replicated online. It is why we want to extend that opportunity to Friends in Nairobi who also want to build a retreat center to come and be together across a region.
And it is why this Meeting has chosen to support Friends in Cuba who are on a journey to come here to be with us. I know they will need gloves and scarves and boots. They will need to know how to write a check, how to navigate an airport, how to respond to a tornado warning. But more than anything, I know they will need people to accompany them in the incredible transition they are going through as refugees. People to listen, to eat with them, to share their emotions as they grieve the separation from family and face the challenges of a new and unfamiliar life. Friends, in this finite life here on earth, let us not be so busy, so insular, so preoccupied by meetings or ambitious in our philanthropic activities that we fail in our first ministry, our ministry as human beings, that only we as human beings can do. Yourself is not insignificant to this, your very self is what is needed, and come as yourself to be with others. No one can do that for you. Christ has no body but your body. If we must do less, let us do less. Let us slow down and leave a little space for our friends, and for the friends we haven’t met yet. Let us open our homes, even when they are messy and we are tired. Let us be involved enough with others to get angry, and to weep. In doing so, we experience God’s true presence, and others do as well.
New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition. Copyright © 2021 National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
This document is protected by U.S. and International copyright laws. Reproduction and distribution without permission from the author is prohibited. © 2023 Jade Rockwell. All rights reserved.