Lent 5 – Year A

Within the great drama of “The Raising of Lazarus” there is a wonderful subplot: the transformation of Lazarus s sister Martha from a ninny fussing in the kitchen to a liberated woman who goes after what she wants. Here’s how the Gospel tells it: Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days when Jesus finally arrived in Bethany. “When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home” ( 11:20). Quite a reversal of the roles here very different from our encounter with these same sisters in Luke’s Gospel where it is Mary who challenges the cultural expectation — choosing to sit at Jesus’ feet instead of pulling her weight in the kitchen.

But now, in the story of Lazarus, it is Martha who leaves the mourning women to go and confront Jesus. She meets him as he walks into town, and upbraids him for taking his sweet ol time:  If you had been here, my brother would not have died (11:21). What courage! What chutzpah! She expresses complaint and confidence in the same breath. Jesus tells Martha that Lazarus will rise again, but she understands it as any Jew would  as a promise that her brother will be resurrected on the last day when the Messiah returns. But this is not what Jesus means. Of course, Jesus can miraculously resuscitate Lazarus. But he offers more,  I am the resurrection and the life (vs. 26). I have power over death and can give you new life right now. Resuscitation restores ordinary life; resurrection establishes eternal life. And then, in response to Jesus question:  Do you believe? we have Martha s wonderful testimony of faith,  Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the One who is coming into the world (11:27). Jesus challenges and transforms Martha s traditional understanding of life and death.

But as we know, the story does not end there. At Lazarus s tomb, Jesus orders the stone to be taken away. Martha tries to stop him, reminding him of how putrid the four-day-old corpse will smell. I prefer the King James version of this verse: “Jesus said, ‘Take ye away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of him that was dead, saith unto him, ‘Lord, by this time he stinketh.’ Martha s dilemma at the tomb is the dilemma of all believers: Can we not let go of the limits that we place on what is possible with God? Jesus reminds Martha of what he said earlier,  Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?

I began this sermon with the words,  within every great drama there is a wonderful subplot. Oh so true. Let me tell you, as far as I’m concerned, last Sunday was a day of great drama at St. James’s–great and transcendent musical drama, that is. I know that many of you feel the same way. There was the sublime organ recital by Paul Jacobs in the evening. Our Fiske organ is a marvelous instrument–the musical equivalent of a Formula One race car, if that isn’t too vulgar a comparison–and young Mr. Jacobs made himself an extension of it, drawing on every ounce of its power and color to make music you could almost see. He didn’t seem to be playing the music of Bach so much as channeling Bach himself.

And then there was the offertory anthem sung by the parish choir at the 11:15 service. Anyone who was there can testify to this. Many of you who were there did testify to this in the greeting line after the service. You told me what my two eyes had already told me–that the godliness of that music reduced you to tears, that it transported you at the same time that it stilled you. One parishioner pointed out that our normally efficient deacons and acolytes, who tend to begin their eucharistic tasks while the last chord of the offertory is still echoing, looked as if they didn’t know how to proceed. They were, as Brother John Ogle later confessed to me, simply stunned. One parishioner told me that listening to Julie Campbell hit the impossibly high notes of that refrain time and time again, quote, “The spirit of God was so heavily upon me that I couldn’t breathe.” It’s true. The music took the profound supplications of the 51st psalm– Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness, that the bones which you have broken may rejoice–and articulated them in a way that exceeded the limits of language. It was a moment suspended in time that reminded me of why we have music in church, and why we sing God’s praises. I will never forget it.

That said, these great dramas of last Sunday also had a delicious subplot, which I absolutely must tell you about: William Francoise was anxious to get his birthday blessing from me. His mother, Janet Peyton, mistakenly brought him to the 11:15 service, where we do not offer birthday and anniversary blessings at the alter rail during worship. So after the service, William, not one to be ignored, came through the receiving line tugging at my robes. He wanted his blessing; and by God he was going to get it. William had just turned seven and was confident that it was going to be a good year. Did I mention that he is a persistent little fellow? The entire family then followed me up to the altar and we prayed over William. I asked God to pour his blessings upon William; that his seventh birthday would be his best yet; that God would answer his prayers (within reason!) and that God would protect and watch over him.

What I didn t know was that a month earlier William had asked his parents for only two things for his birthday. The first was a time machine. When making this wish, he said  I know it hasn t been invented yet, but that s what I really want! When asked if he wanted anything that had been invented, his second wish was for four tickets for his family to go to Disney World. His parents, Janet and Chris, gently told him to wish more along the lines of Toys R Us.

Back to last Sunday. After church, Janet and Chris took Sophie and William to the CAA Men s Basketball Tournament at the coliseum, where it was Faith & Family Day. As part of this special program, Radio Disney, together with the CAA and other sponsors, was giving away a trip for four to Disney World. William, of course, registered to win. Half-time came and the commissioner of the league drew the winning ticket at half court:  And the winner is a 7-year-old boy named William Francoise! Needless to say, the Francoise-Peytons were apoplectic! William ran down to the court and shook hands with the Commissioner and waved to the crowds in ecstasy. He told the Commissioner that he had just had his birthday and this was exactly what he had prayed for!

Let me tell you, William believes in miracles. And like Martha, he felt empowered to go out and ask for what he wanted. Janet and Chris, his parents, in their rational, intellectual way, tried to explain to him that time machines and tickets to Disney World just don’t happen on birthdays–they are out of the realm of possibility. But William would not be deterred. Most children do not look at the world with limitations. Their naiveté works to their advantage. Their world is full of possibility, of wonder, of abundance. They are not practical! And we shouldn t be either. There are times when I feel that we pray for what is appropriate, for what is modest, for what we think God might think is within the realm of possibility for us. This is wrong. While our prayers may be more serious than a small child s would be, that s all the more reason to ask God for what we really need. As I say, there are no puny prayers with Jesus. If you need a miracle, pray for one. When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, this gift of life, led, paradoxically, to the decision of the Sanhedrin Court to kill him. Knowing that this very act would lead to his death, Jesus did it anyway. The dilemma at the tomb is the dilemma of all believers: Can we not let go of the limits that we place on what is possible with God? Remember Jesus words to Martha:  Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?

As for William, he’s still waiting for his time machine, but it s only been a week.

Let us pray: Lord, be our redeemer, our healer, our path to salvation. Thank you for your presence in our lives. We surrender to you all that we are, all that we think, all that we feel and all that we have. In this moment, yours is the power to heal and make us whole. You have the power to work miracles. Dear Lord, lift us up and heal us. Cast out of us our sins, our demons, the darkness. On this day we ask for a new life; to be reborn in spirit and mind. And may the glorious light of the Lord of Creation find a restful home inside our souls. Amen.

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