Monday, November 5, 2018

Unbind him!

Preached at Ascension on November 4, 2018 (All Saints Sunday). The text is John 11:32-44, the raising of Lazarus.

When I speak of the family I grew up in, I often tell people about my father, who died from ALS when I was in the 1st grade. He was well-known and admired in the community where I grew up. And as a child so often sees a parent who has died, he was a hero to me.

Now, I rarely share this part of my story, mainly because it’s hard to tell. A few years after my father died, my mother remarried. She married a man named Jim. He lived a tragic life. As a kid, he spent a lot of time in an orphanage. When he was in his twenties, a man hired Jim to drive a truck for him, and the man had no intention of paying him. Jim came across the guy at a grocery store, and he was so angry that he punched him, and the man died. As a result, Jim spent the next 20 years in prison. (laws were different back then)

As a child, I was afraid of Jim, and as a teenager, I grew to despise him. I don’t want to get into the details, but let me summarize by saying that he was inappropriate with me on many levels, and I was traumatized and damaged in ways I couldn’t begin to face until much later in my life.

I was a seminarian on my intern year in Michigan, when I got a phone call telling me that Jim was in the hospital dying. He had a hole in his heart and wasn’t expected to last much longer. It was nearly a six-hour drive to get home, so I figured Jim would be long gone before I got to him.

Well, he wasn’t. When I arrived, I found my exhausted family gathered in the hospital waiting room. They all had spent time with Jim, and for some reason, he was holding on and couldn’t let go.

Now it was my turn to see him. I went into Jim’s hospital room, sat beside his bed and spoke to him. Shortly after that, I returned to the waiting room to tell the rest of the family that he was gone. They had been with him for hours and he couldn’t let go. I spent about two minutes with him and, just like that, he died. “What did you say to him?” they asked.

Jesus hears that Lazarus is on his last leg and he takes his time going to see him. By the time he gets there, it’s too late. Lazarus is already in the tomb, the mourners are wailing, and Martha and Mary are wondering if Jesus might not have been able to save their brother had he come right away. Jesus joins them in their grief.

And then he offers a word of hope. “Lazarus will rise again.”

Jesus makes his way to the tomb. “Roll the stone away,” he says.

“That’s not such a good idea, Jesus,” they say. “He’s been dead for three days already, and by now the body really stinks.” But they do as he asks. They roll the stone away.

Jesus, standing at the entrance to the tomb, commands, “Lazarus, come out!” Lazarus stumbles to his feet and slowly emerges from the tomb. He’s wrapped up in strips of cloth, like a mummy.

The new life for Lazarus can’t begin yet. There’s one more thing that needs to be done. And it isn’t Jesus who will do it. Instead, he calls upon the community to finish it for him. “Unbind him, and let him go.”

There are deep truths in this story for all of us. When we cry out from the depths, God hears. When Jesus seems slow in coming, he is coming nonetheless. And if we lament that it’s too late, Jesus shows that it’s never too late. After we’ve become convinced that all is lost, when we’re ready to concede to death, and we’re seeking only to contain the damage or bury it, Jesus shows us that there’s no loss, no death, no tragedy, no power that can place a person, a situation, or a world beyond God's reach of infinite love and abundant life.

This is a story about the power of Jesus. And then, at the very end, it becomes a story about the power of Jesus working in us. Jesus literally tells the community gathered, “Destroy what holds him down. Free him.” It’s the work of Jesus to bring life. And it’s the work of the community to unbind people from the trappings of death.

My family wanted to know what I said to my stepfather Jim when I sat beside his hospital bed. I told him, “I forgive you.” And then I said, “We all love you.” It was all I could do to say either of things because on a very human level, I didn’t really feel them. But in the me that belongs to Jesus, in the saint me, I did forgive him, I did love him. These were words that he needed to hear from me, words to unbind him. After I told him that I forgave him and we all loved him, he took his last breath, and he was free.

When we’re all tangled up in burial clothes, when we bear the coverings of death binding us like bands of cloth wrapped around a mummy, new life, resurrection life, comes to us through community.

God calls us to resurrected life, not just at the moment of our death, but more importantly, while we continue our journey on this earth. We can never experience the new life Jesus calls us to be a part of without being freed from all that binds us to the old life. Perhaps you’re someone who lives with regret or shame. There are things you wish you could change or erase. Maybe you struggle to love or be loved. Or you cling to resentment. Or sorrow follows you wherever you go. You’re in bondage to sin and cannot free yourself.

Death is the ultimate unbinding for us. We’re released from all the sin and sorrow and struggle of this life and we’re finally truly free. All the saints who surround us today know that in a way that we can only imagine. I’m thankful that they surround us and cheer us on as we make our way through this life.

Because while we’re on our life’s journey, we don’t have to long for death as the only way to be free. Thanks be to God, we can bring life and freedom to one another through words like: You are forgiven. You are loved. There is no greater gift we can offer one another than that.

There is nothing you have ever done that God can’t forgive. Because you have always been and will always be loved by God. You are forgiven. You are loved. We need to hear that from one another. We need to experience that with one another. That’s what happens in community when we respond to Jesus’ command, “Unbind him and let him go.”

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