Fifth Sunday in Lent
April 2, 2017
If you had been here, my brother would not have died. (John 11:21, 32)
This past week five of us from St. Aidan’s attended a Citywide meeting of Faith in Action Bay Area, the group affiliated with the national PICO network that is organizing faith communities to respond to injustice, particularly around the crises of housing and immigration in the Bay Area. From the moment we entered the meeting, we were invited to accompany one another in very concrete ways. We all set up headsets for simultaneous interpretation because the meeting would be in both Spanish and English. We met in small groups partway through the meeting to get a better sense of who was in the room. We heard about upcoming trainings to be part of Accompaniment Teams (described briefly here) who bring what we might call a ministry of presence to individuals and families facing deportation. At the conclusion of the meeting a family shared a story about the difference such accompaniment had made in their lives. The father had been picked up early one morning by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) who asserted that he did not have a proper work permit. He was now detained in Texas and would soon be deported. The mother now faced raising her family without her husband. Faith in Action connected the family to an immigration lawyer who worked to contest the deportation as well as to people who would accompany them, listening, consoling, just being present. When the last efforts to prevent the deportation fell short, the team raised money to fly the family to Texas and say goodbye to the father in person. At the facility, he sat behind glass as the family cried. The eight-year-old daughter desperately wanted to hug him, but the warden told her he had to remain behind the barrier. “Why can I not touch him?” she sobbed. After this goodbye they flew home, knowing they would carry on their lives from then on in different countries. Then the next morning the Faith in Action leader got a phone call from the lawyer. Out of nowhere, the father had been released. Who had signed the paperwork? The warden. The one to whom the daughter had cried. Humanity had broken through, had flexed this system for a brief moment before it snapped back into place. As the family concluded their story, the organizer repeated, “If they hadn’t been there, their father would have been deported. If they hadn’t been there, their father would have been deported.”
As I took in this story and this phrase, my mind immediately jumped to one of the key lines from this morning’s gospel passage: “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It’s a line repeated twice in our story, first my Martha (11:21) and then by her sister Mary (11:32). When their brother Lazarus fell ill, they sent a message to Jesus that read, simply, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” This message reminds us that this was not a random family in whose tragedy Jesus was being asked to intervene. This brother and this family was well known and beloved to Jesus. And through their relationship with him, their knowledge of his person and power, the love shared between Jesus and this family, his ability to prevent this man from dying was not a wild or disconnected supposition. It was something they believed and knew. “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world,” Martha replied without fanfare when Jesus declared “I am the resurrection and the life” two miles out from the tomb (11:25-27). As soon as they had glimpsed the dire direction of their brother's illness, Martha and Mary had wanted Jesus to accompany them. In fact, they wanted Jesus to prevent their brother’s death, not to arrive in time to encounter the stench of a tomb four days sealed. These words, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died” point not only to the sisters’ longing for Jesus’ accompaniment. They also point to the infuriating sequence of his actions. If only he had been there sooner.
The timing of Jesus’ own actions, carefully detailed by John, fully justify Mary and Martha’s anguished reaction. If Jesus had been there sooner then their brother would not have died. John makes it clear from the beginning of the story: “when Jesus heard it,” that is, heard that “the one he loved was ill,” he responded, “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.” The text then continues, “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” (11:3-6). The startling implication is that Jesus could have dropped everything, could have left two days earlier, and Lazarus would not have, died. But the purpose behind Jesus’ presence in this story is not the prevention of death. It is to reveal the glory of God (11:4) in the emergence of life from out of death. It is to show that death cannot ultimately contain life. It is to proclaim and to embody the phrase “I am resurrection and I am life.”
Now, I think it safe to say, from Martha and Mary’s perspective on this side of the tomb, their if you had been here…, this was not the glory they were looking for. They didn’t want their brother to have to rise again so much as never to fall in the first place. And if we, hearing this story and placing ourselves in their shoes, feel frustration at Jesus in this moment, if we imagine untold situations in our own lives or those we love where if only someone had been present something else might not have happened, we can begin to imagine their anguish. This Jesus of John’s gospel who chooses glory from the other side of the grave rather than this one might well push back against some of our deepest desires. This kind of glory does not prevent us from facing what we most fear. It’s a different kind of glory, this presence that meets us on the road two miles out from an entombed and smelling body. This accompaniment, this glory, this human being who is also God, walks with us right into the mess of life and of death. This pattern becomes all the more clear in Jesus’ response the second time he hears our key phrase, “Lord, if you had been hear my brother would not have died.” He is greatly disturbed. He sees Mary’s weeping and that of the community who had accompanied the sisters to the tomb. He then asks where they had laid Lazarus. When they respond to him, “Lord, come and see,” Jesus himself begins to weep (11:33-35). I think it significant that Jesus’ own emotion comes out in this moment. Present in the midst of loss, invited to see himself where his beloved friend is buried, Jesus’ accompaniment becomes one of shared emotion as well as of physical presence. And now this response, observed by the community gathered around Mary and Martha, occasions another version of our key phrase: had he been there sooner, “could not have Jesus prevented” this death in the first place (11:37)?
But, again, prevention of pain and death is not Jesus’ way in this gospel. Uplift in glory, resurrection and life emerging from out of the depths of death, is. This way rattles and moans amid bones lying in waste in the desert, as the prophet Ezekiel envisions in our first reading, drawing them together, knitting them anew against all odds into unimagined life. This way challenges us to encounter those bones, to be present in their midst, to cry out and prophesy to them, to call them out and up from their wasteland in the name of the God who created them, who in Christ declares “I am resurrection and I am life.” The good news that we proclaim as Christians is that because of Jesus’ life and ministry, because of his death and resurrection, this glory can show itself in the very least life giving of contexts, in places utterly saturated by decay and death. This glory can reveal itself in the presence of community, when and as we accompany one another into the pit, to the very mouth of the tomb, right up to the glass partition of the detention center. Sometimes that glory will unfold in the aversion of tragedy, as in the dad whose deportation was unexpectedly diverted. Yet even there the outcome is not the avoidance of pain – for pain and trauma were certainly experienced, and one could well have said to Jesus, if you had been here, my father would not have been detained. Glory became manifest in presence, in community determined to convey its care and love, its passion for justice, its humanity, to a family in pain. Glory became manifest in the vulnerable witness this family bore to the people of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a system that all too easily mechanizes and degrades the lives in its trust. Glory became manifest in the revelation that courage and hope can emerge out of fear, that resurrection life rises from the very midst of death.
If you had been here….If they had not been there... These stories offer a deeper invitation to presence and accompaniment, seeing in them signs of the paschal mystery itself, of life and hope emerging out of death and fear. They remind us that in lending our presence beyond ourselves, expanding the borders of community, the ministry of accompaniment can reveal newness of life when we find ourselves up against the limits of our own capacities. These stories urge us to embody more surely and more vulnerably our call as members of Christ’s body, a body that speaks both of and beyond itself when it declares Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.