(John 11: 1-45)
The 1998 movie Patch Adams is based on the story of Hunter Adams, a doctor who used his personal experience and pain to treat mentally ill patients with the healing medicine of humor. There is this one scene where Patch visits a terminally ill man in the hospital who has a reputation among the nurses of being extremely repulsive and rude. In the scene, Patch, played by the late Robin Williams, walks into the man’s room dressed as an angel, long white robe, huge white wings reaching far above his shoulders and a tinsel halo over his head. Before the man, named Bill, can find words to say anything, Patch holds his arms out wide and proclaims, “A preview of coming attractions!” He then opens a book he’s holding and reads in a stately voice:
Death. To die. To expire. To pass on. To perish. To push up daisies. Dead as a door nail. The last breath. Paying a debt to nature. The big sleep. God’s way of saying, “Slow down.” Deceased, demised, departed and defunct.
The whole time, Bill has this look on his face like he’s about to explode. And then, in a moment, his demeanor changes, as if he suddenly gets it. And into the silence Bill speaks: To check out.
Patch responds: To blink for an exceptionally long period of time.
Bill: To find oneself without breath.
Patch: To be the incredible decaying man.
It’s like a tennis match now, back and forth….
To kick the bucket.
To become extinct.
Buy the farm.
Take the cab.
Cash in your chips.
Humor, it appears, does not always have to be slapstick funny. It can be about helping someone embrace the hard truth, and then living in light of that truth.
If there is one thing our scripture today wants to make abundantly clear, it is this: Lazarus is dead. You can almost hear Patch Adams’ angel’s soliloquy in the background. We are told Jesus gets word that his friend Lazarus has died, and then waits two days – two full days – before making the trip. We are told that by the time Jesus gets there, Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. And we are told that when Jesus instructs them to open the tomb, Martha, Lazarus’ sister, recoils in horror, reminding Jesus that the decaying body of her four-day dead brother would smell to high heaven.
At numerous points throughout these 45 verses, the writer of John goes to great lengths to make it absolutely clear that Lazarus is dead. Expired. Passed on. Perished. Kicked the bucket. Dead as a doornail. Deceased, demised, departed and defunct. Dead
And into the very heart of that undeniable and unforgiving reality, Jesus speaks three scandalous words:
Lazarus, come out!
Come out, he asked of a man dead for four days straight. Come out, he says to one who, at last check, had no working ears to hear his command, no air in his lungs or blood flowing through his veins, no working muscles or skeletal system to pull himself up and propel himself forward out of that tomb and into the light of day.
And yet, Jesus still says, Lazarus, come out!
It is easy to read these stories in the Bible and simply accept them at face value – because it’s the Bible – but can we stop for a minute and just imagine this scene? Better yet, can we refrain from jumping to what we know comes next and put ourselves in the place of one there that day, witnessing this sordid scene? Imagine what it must have been like to be Martha and Mary, family and friends, Jesus’ disciples. Or even just a curious bystander who happened along the way? What thoughts would be running through our mind when Jesus stands in front of that tomb and directs its resident to come out of it?
How about: Jesus has lost his ever-loving mind.
Or This is horrifically inappropriate!
Lazarus has been dead for four days – come on! He is not coming out.
I feel so bad for the family, they’ve already suffered so much. They don’t need this; this is unfair to them.
What is Jesus thinking?
Lazarus is not coming out. He’s dead.
Deceased, demised, departed and defunct. Dead.
We have to ask that, right? We have to go there. For if we do not – if we don’t wonder what might have been running through their minds, what might have been running through our minds if we were there – if we don’t do that, then we are out of touch with this story. If we fail to wrestle with what Jesus was demanding this four-day dead man to do, then we relegate the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead to fairy-tale status, the stuff of unicorns and magic pixie dust, where fantasy is real life and something like Jesus’ three-word directive is par for the course.
Which it is not. This is not the way things work. We rightfully make much of those who leave us, we heap ceremony and ritual on the deceased – as much for our sake as for theirs. They have traveled on, and we are still here. And we accept the fact that the threshold between the dead and living is something that cannot be crossed again.
Which is why Martha reacts in muffled shock when Jesus tells them to open her brother’s tomb. She knows that no good can come out of tombs; only the stench of death that resides within – a stench and reality that we eagerly shut off from the living world outside.
Martha knew – they all knew, that Lazarus was dead; that he had met the same fate that some 100 billion women and men have met since this world was first made.
And yet, in the midst of all this, Jesus says: Lazarus, come out!
Yes, we can imagine our reaction to this insanity had we been part of the gathering outside the tomb. But y’all, here is the bold truth of this story, and perhaps the reason that John chooses to take 45 verses of his gospel to tell it:
It really does not matter how those outside the tomb felt about what Jesus said – because Jesus was not speaking to them. He was speaking to one person and one person only – the one inside the tomb, the one he called by name; the only one whose response mattered.
And what did that person think of what Jesus said?
He thought it sounded like a pretty good idea.
Lazarus, come out!
And that is exactly what Lazarus did.
Joan Meyers-Levy, professor in the University of Minnesota’s School of Management, likes to tells the story of the time she was waiting to board a plane one day, and how she found herself thinking about the fact that she would soon be entering a thin metal tube with just a few feet of headroom above her. And as she contrasted that with the roomy, high ceilings of the airport terminal she was in at that moment, she started to wonder if ceiling heights – or lack thereof – could have any effect on how we think about things.
So later she conducted a series of tests in which she had students perform various tasks on their laptop, with some in a room with 10-foot ceilings and some in another room, identical to the first in every way, with the one variable being that the ceiling was two feet lower.
What did she find? In her own words:
With the lower ceiling heights, what seems to happen is that people subconsciously get a sense of confinement, or limitation, that affects what they do. But with higher ceilings, people get a sense of freedom from the spaciousness all around. And this allows them to literally think bigger.
A sense of freedom from the spaciousness all around.
Over the years, biblical commentators and theologians by the thousands have offered their thoughts on Lazarus. Some see this as John’s seventh and final sign that reveals Jesus as the son of God. Others say it serves as a harbinger of Jesus being called out of his own tomb. All are, of course, perfectly good interpretations.
And while calling Lazarus out of his tomb is certainly a wonderful miracle, we would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge the second command Jesus gives:
Unbind him and let him go.
Unbind him of the burial cloths that had wrapped tightly around him like a cocoon.
Unbind him and let him go.
A command spoken not to Lazarus, but to the witnesses standing there, the community who knew him and loved him, a community that includes the likes of you and me.
Unbind him and let him go.
That Greek word for unbind is luo. It means “to loosen, unfasten, untie, set free.” It’s the same word used in the gospel of Matthew when Jesus tells his disciples to “untie” the colt for their grand entry into Jerusalem; to let loose that colt so, unrestrained, it could serve God’s purpose in a new way.
Unbind him, community of faith, and let him go.
Do you see? This miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead is certainly about the power of Jesus to resurrect life. But Jesus gives two commands here. And the second is a whole different kind of miracle. It is the miracle of Jesus as Unbinder – or, more accurately, Jesus and the faith community unbinding together. It is the miracle of letting loose of each of us, untying the constraints and setting us free; a sense of freedom from the spaciousness all around.
It is the miracle of Jesus calling us out of the tombs we so willingly shut ourselves in – tombs of our pain and suffering and fear, tombs that confine and restrict. Calling us out of them and then calling the loving community that surrounds us to unbind us and set us free. Free to embrace the pain and suffering and fear rather than allowing it to hold us back.
One biblical commentator puts it this way:
Resurrected women, men and children today require caring communities willing to nurture and strengthen them until they are able to remove the graveclothes of self-doubt, social isolation, marginalization, and oppression; to tear away the wrappings of fear, anxiety, loss , and grief; so that unbound women, men and children might become creative agents in the world.
Let me ask you this, Trinity Presbyterian: what binds you? What restrains and restricts you, what keeps you entombed, what holds you inside those low-ceiling places in your life where you cannot be your full self, that self that Jesus calls you to be? In what ways does your community of faith help you let go of those things, come out of the tomb as Jesus invites you to?
And in what ways should this community of faith serve as unbinding agents in our world, carefully and lovingly removing the burial cloths of others, rolling away their tombstones; so that no one be constricted or confined, no one be bound by pain and suffering and fear any longer, so that all people – all people – can finally be truly free? What would that look like? What can we do to make that happen?
It was Jesus, after all, who in another place and time told us: Come to me, all of you who are weary, carrying heavy burdens, wearing your burial cloths, shut up in your tombs. Come to me, and I will give you rest.
Come to me. Come out! Be unbound, be set free. And live.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.