Church is the place where you get to tell the truth.
That may seem like a strange thing to say; of course, we’re supposed to tell the truth – that’s what the Ninth Commandment is getting at: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. Our word is to be trustworthy and true – particularly in our dealings with others; the community can function in a healthy way only if we are being honest and just with one another.
But there is another kind of truth-telling, as well – it is the truth about what life is really like, what it means to be human, how things are with your soul.
Many mornings we wake up, knowing that we are not particularly happy to meet whatever the day has in store for us, but we put our game face on and head out to work or school or whatever our responsibilities are. We do the best we can at our job, or with our kids, or maybe with elderly relatives, or as a volunteer, but some days there is just no winning. And so we grit our teeth and hope we get through in one piece. Or maybe we are struggling with an illness, a personal sorrow or worry, something that seems shameful and difficult to share.
We’ve all had experiences where we’ve tried to tell another person what is going on with us, only to have it fall on deaf ears because the other person can’t take in what it is we are saying – it is too painful or too overwhelming or there seems to be no easy thing to say in response, and so the person you are talking to comes back with a platitude or an attempt at an instant solution. What that says (in effect) is: “This is too painful or difficult for me and I don’t want to listen anymore.” And so we get the message very quickly that the way to deal with sorrow and pain and grief is to pave over it, wall it off and pretend that we are just fine.
Of course there are times and situations when we need to do just that, but eventually we need to be able to tell the truth to someone else about how we are, about what life is really like – even if that truth is told to just one other person. Church and the Christian community should be one of the best places to tell the truth about ourselves.
Far more than the secular world we have a clear-eyed view of human nature (both good and bad), of the reality of sin, and of the power of forgiveness. We also know about the fragility of life, and we can talk about death in a straight-forward way – with room to hear each other’s particular fears and sorrows.
Church is a good place to tell the truth about what life is really like because every time we gather for worship we remember that we are limited, fallible people in need of God’s forgiveness and help. And even more importantly, we affirm that God is able and willing to forgive us, redeem us and embrace us with new life, a chance at a new start. How do we know that this is so? In part we know it because of this morning’s Gospel reading.
Jesus’ good friend Lazarus has died, and Jesus goes to the village of Bethany where Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha live.
Each sister in turn says to Jesus when he arrives: If you had been here, my brother would not have died. Martha says it in an accusatory way; Mary seems more resigned – anger and sorrow are both an important response to death. As the drama of this family continues to unfold, Jesus begins to weep – for their pain, for his own loss, for Lazarus’s death, maybe even for the necessity of death itself.
This is a very long passage – all 45 verses of it – and it has lots of themes and details that we can’t really examine this morning, but we hear in this Gospel how strongly Jesus is in touch with the messiness and reality of human life. When he tells the bystanders to remove the stone from Lazarus’ tomb, Martha says to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”
Jesus knows all about the stench in Lazarus’s tomb, and he knows about the stink and mess in our lives, and he is not put off by them.
He knows about the weight of the stone, about the dark of the tomb, about the tightness of the grave-wrappings and about the finality of death. And yet, Jesus still calls forth his friend Lazarus and restores him to life. There is nothing about illness or sin or pain or death or grief that Jesus does not know - and even so, Jesus still calls us into life. He calls us into life so that we might share God’s life with him, both now and at the end of our earthly days.
And this is truth, as well – that there is more to life than that which is bounded by death, that Jesus has lived and died and risen to new life for our sake and calls us to come forth out of whatever binds us and imprisons us. Jesus has been in that tomb, and he knows what it is like, and he stands at the entrance, calling us to come out into the light and into new life, to leave the grave clothes behind us, and to be embraced by real, true Life, a life that will never die.
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus, you lived your humanity to the full, and there is nothing about us that you do not know and understand and hold within the circle of your care. Help us to hear your voice calling us, like Lazarus, to leave behind the weight of sorrow and burden and grief and sin, and to put our trust in you – full of goodness and light and truth and life. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
Fifth Sunday of Lent
April 10, 2011