Homily of 18th March 2018
Ezekiel 37:12-14, Romans 8:8-11, John 11:1-45
“Lazarus is dead,” Jesus tells the disciples.
It’s not hard to imagine the questions that might be running through the minds of the disciples and the hearts of Mary and Martha. Why? How could this happen? What’s next for me? Is this an ending or a beginning? Could it be both? How do I move forward? How do I make sense of what has happened? What will life be like now? Why didn’t it work out the way I wanted? What could or should I have done differently? Is there life after this? Why didn’t God do something? Every one of you could add to this list. We all have our questions, thousands of them.
What questions did you ask when the Lazarus of your life died? What questions are you asking today?
Every time life sets before me these kind of questions, I am reminded, once again, that I live with more questions than answers, and the answers I do have no longer seem to carry the weight and authority they once did. Our lives are filled with unanswered questions.
My experience is that the unanswered questions of life tend to leave us disappointed; disappointed in life itself, in ourselves, in another, or sometimes in God. Disappointment is wrapped up in and bound by our unmet expectations. That’s where Mary and Martha are in today’s gospel. They are disappointed. “Lord, if you have been here, my brother would not have died,” they both say separately to Jesus. Even the crowd that follows Mary is disappointed. “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” they ask.
I know that disappointment and I’ll bet you do too. We want answers, explanations, and understanding. But maybe there aren’t any; at least, not the kind most of us want. Maybe life itself is an unanswered question and maybe that’s how we are to live it.
Jesus does not offer answers or explanations to Mary and Maratha, or to us. Instead, he uses our disappointment as “an agency for transformation” (David Whyte, Consolations, p.63). Jesus seems to know that disappointment is inescapable, necessary, and even a faithful response to life’s circumstances. He neither criticizes nor ridicules Martha and Mary for their disappointment. Instead, he uses it as an opening and entry point into their lives.
There’s something honest, heartfelt, and real about Mary and Martha’s words of disappointment to Jesus. They are offering and making themselves available to him. They rethink what they know about life, death, and resurrection. They risk smelling the stench of death.
To attempt to insulate ourselves from disappointment and demand once and for all kind of answers to life’s questions is to close ourselves to the vulnerabilities that make possible real life, love, intimacy, and relationships with God or with another. It limits what we are willing to risk giving or receiving. It leaves the stone in place over Lazarus’ tomb
While we might want to escape our disappointments, life wants to use them. Life will not waste our disappointments, and Jesus always stands in the middle of life. Disappointment calls into question our assumptions about life, ourselves, each other, and God.
Disappointment asks us to reassess ourselves and our inner world and to ask, “What may be the hidden grace or gift in this disappointment?” rather than wallow in the feeling of disappointment. It is the first step in freeing us from misguided assumptions. It breaks old patterns of seeing and relating that have become hardened and less than life sustaining. It opens our eyes to a deeper way of seeing. Jesus uses our disappointment in the unanswered questions of life to invite us to a “larger foundational reality” than what we create for ourselves and project onto the world.
Isn’t that what he’s doing with Mary and Martha? “I am the resurrection and life.” “Take away the stone.” “Did I not tell you that you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” “Lazarus come out.” “Unbind him and let him go.”
The great question before us (and Mary and Martha) is whether we experience our disappointment as an opportunity for seeing and engaging our lives and world in new, different, and life-giving ways “or whether we experience it only as a wound that makes us retreat from further participation” (Whyte, p. 64-65). It’s a question we answer every day. It’s a question Jesus answered throughout his life.
Don’t think that Jesus did not know disappointment. He surely did. He knew disappointment in the death of Lazarus, the crucifixion, Peter’s drawn sword and violence, Judas’ betrayal, the disciples sleeping in the garden, the way his Father’s house had been turned into a den of robbers, his disciples arguing about who was the greatest, the disciples’ misunderstanding of who he is, the world’s refusal to receive him, and in a myriad of other ways.
Every disappointment held before him, as it does for us, the choice between engaging or retreating from the world and our lives. He refused to be stopped by his disappointments. Instead, he used them as entry points into our lives. They became points of identification with us.
It is not the dark place we often think it is. It’s an opening into the light, a path that opens to new life, a clearer way of seeing, a truer sense of ourselves, and a deeper experience of Christ. It becomes the place of our unbinding and being let go.