When Mary says to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, our brother would not have died,” I wonder what she means. Sometimes I think she’s speaking to him out of broken faith. Faith, as I mean it, is trust. So, she might be asking, what about that trust? What good did it do me? But then I read again and I don’t think it’s that Mary doesn’t trust Jesus. She does. It’s just that she does not yet know that he didn’t have to be there to prevent her brother from dying. But that seems worse to me, an even greater breach of trust. Jesus, as a matter of fact, receives messengers from Mary and waits until Lazarus is, as the munchkin coroner might aver, really most sincerely dead. And only then he goes to Bethany. If it is nothing for him to keep a man from dying, and yet he does not do it, why should Mary trust Jesus? On the off chance that he might do something he could do at any moment? That sounds like caprice, which in children is to be met with firmness, but in powerful adults, is to be feared. “Oh Lord, if you had been here, our brother would not have died.” Mary, if you only knew. If you only knew that Jesus told the messengers that his illness would not lead to death, and then told his disciples that they were going to Bethany to wake him up. This last, of course, after the disciples told Jesus he couldn’t go there because he would get killed. “Well, if he’s fallen asleep, we don’t really need to go and get stoned,” the disciples say. “When I said he’s fallen asleep I meant that he’s dead,” Jesus says. “Well, let’s all go so we can die with him,” Thomas says. And that brings us to Mary—Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.
But there’s so much death leading up to this story. It’s a shame we don’t get it in the reading. Death circumscribes our lives. It is the basic fact of our existence—we can do anything in this life except not die. Die we must. We live often as if death were an anomaly, a surprise, something that happens to other people. That’s what gets us through our jobs and our days. It keeps us from brooding on all the wasted time, all the time we spent on things that seem important but aren’t, the times when we convinced ourselves it was better to work than to worship, to work instead of spending time with our families. Or sometimes we live too closely to death and build up whatever wall we can to stave it off. We try whatever medicine; whatever promise comes our way. Or we seek death out, oblivion, through whatever substances and experiences erase the pain of life. But what if—what if our lives weren’t circumscribed by death? Lazarus’s neighbors asked, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Keeping us from death is not what Jesus came to do. Jesus came to give us life and give us life in death.
What kind of life do you want to live? Remember the question you got asked a lot: what do you want to be when you grow up? How many of you ever said, “I want to be a saint?” Maybe that means you want to smell bad, make no money, and act just a little too good. We think that saints are superheroes. They are the moral elite—at least, that seems to be the popular way of thinking. But to be a saint means to be holy. Santo is the Spanish word for holy, and it comes from the same Latin root saint does. We dying people do not make ourselves holy. Every saint, even St. Francis, knows that he or she is a sinner. We are like Martha and Mary, unable to see that the love of God lies beyond death with a power death can never overcome. If holiness is the bright light of life, then our brief and glorious flash in this universe of flying rocks and empty space, then our brief moment of song and vision cannot reach holiness. The law of death holds sway over us. We who are circumscribed by death cannot make ourselves holy. It is the one who says to us, “Be unbound, be free,” that makes us holy. That’s sainthood—freedom from the power of sin and death, given to us by a man we love, whose word calls into existence things that do not exist. What kind of life do you want to live? Why not live the life that Jesus has offered to us, the life which has become untethered to death? Or rather, life that has overcome death in the cross.
Jesus weeps in our story. It reminds me of that famous poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins called “Spring and Fall”: “Márgarét, áre you gríeving /Over Goldengrove unleaving? …/And yet you wíll weep and know why…/It ís the blight man was born for, /It is Margaret you mourn for.” He weeps, possibly, for his own death, and the pain of it, and its necessity. Perhaps he sees and He weeps, too, for knowing the separation death has made between Lazarus and those that loved him. He weeps even though he knows he has the power to call Lazarus forth again—indeed, that’s the whole reason he is in Bethany, to show the power of God by calling up Lazarus. And yet the presence of death weighs on all of them. The shadow of the cross lies all over this story—but that also means the glow of the resurrection comes soon. When we feel only the cross, only death all around, we should heed Jesus’ words to believe: the cross means new life. Watch for it—it’s coming.
When Jesus prays to the Father, and says, “I thank you Father for having heard me,” I’ve often wondered what he means. He hasn’t said anything to God yet. But I think he must be talking about the tears. The Father heard him weeping. He hears Jesus weeping still. He weeps for us, for our deaths, for our sins. He weeps at the separation between us and God and the chasm of death that separates us, and he calls us forth again to life. Even as our tears move Jesus, so the tears of Jesus move his Father, and our father, and he breaks down the boundary of death.
“Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” God’s glory is not there for everyone to see. Death is much more obvious. The coming ecological disaster that we call climate change, the voter suppression across our country, the fever of racism and anti-Semitism, the relentless commodifying of human beings by social media and the entertainment industry, these are ever present and before our minds. The glory of God must be believed to be seen. But when the love of God pierces the wall of death, and the light of the resurrection floods our dark lives, we see that glory. Believe in the glory of God, because it has come to us. We have seen it in the lives of the saints—we will see it again. Amen.
The Reverend John Zachary Flack