Lord, come and see (177)

[Ruth 1:1-18; John 11:32-44]

We’ve just heard two biblical stories. We heard the story of Naomi, from the book of Ruth, and the story of Lazarus, from the gospel according to John. Let’s think, for a moment, about the wider context of these stories. There is one part of this that is easy to overlook. It’s this: if we believe that scripture is in some deep way inspired by God (not mechanically, but in a deeper way) then part of the context of our hearing any scripture is a Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer whose very being is relationship. One of the unique and wonderful things Christians believe is that God doesn’t just have relationships, God is a relationship. Part of what it means to know God is to be brought into this divine relationship.  

The baptism of Jesus is one example. In that one story, we have a voice identifying Jesus as God’s son and we have the divine Spirit descending on him. It’s the triune life in action. There are hints of this is our reading from John 11 as well. Jesus says that through his life we see the glory of God. What we notice in scripture, then, is that these three expressions of divinity are in relationship. They serve each other, they overflow into each other. This relationship is part of the supporting structure of what we heard just a bit ago. This is fundamental, below the basement, below the parking deck kind of context. The Christian faith teaches that everything that exists, exists in and is sustained by the divine relationship. Nothing, not even God, can be reduced to the solitary, to the individual, to being without relationship.

Another part of the context of our hearing these two biblical stories is the stuff going on in our lives. Our lives are inescapably shaped by relationships, aren’t they? What makes life the most fulfilling? What makes life most painful? We can answer both questions by saying, “our relationships.”

For some reason I think of PhD students here. These people are hyper-focused on studying stuff, yet it’s still the relationships that make or break their experience. Watch any episode of Big Bang Theory if you need a 20 minute illustration. Or the Hebrew film The Footnote. That’s story is about a father and son who are both scholars of Judaism. The son is far more successful than his father, but still owes his success to his father. The father lives his whole life without getting the recognition he (thinks he) deserves. Who is to blame? Without even speaking about it, the two are locked in a family-destroying competition. If you’ve ever worked in a family business, you know this is not as foreign as it sounds.

This might be us.

 Lord, come and see.

Or have you heard the story about the fellow who worked for the water authority? A couple of years ago The Guardian revealed that a Spanish civil servant hadn’t shown up to work for at least six years, maybe as many as twelve. The problem was that the man had been paid the whole time to manage part of the city’s water infrastructure. Nobody noticed that he was always on the payroll but never in his office. Or nobody noticed until the deputy mayor was told to present the man with a medal for his length of service.

When asked what he had done for the municipal water system lately, the employee couldn’t say. It turns out he had been using his time to read Dutch philosophy. He was asked why he did not come to work. The fellow said that he didn’t come to work because he was afraid. He said he had been bullied by other employees because he came from a family of socialists. He didn’t report it because he was worried that he might lose his job. He had a family to support.

It wasn’t the work that bothered this municipal employee, it was the relationships. In the end he had to give back the equivalent to one year’s salary. Relationships motivate us to work and strive; relationships motivate us to stay home and hide.

This might be us.

Lord, come and see.

So as we listened to the reading of these two biblical stories today, the divine relationship of eternal mutuality stood behind the text and our own relationships in front of it. These two stories hang, thine as gauze, in between.

What do we see when we look at these stories? First, from the book of Ruth, we see a woman and her husband making the logical decision to move and put down roots in a more prosperous area. The woman is named Naomi and we can well imagine her joy when her daughters married and moved out the house (or the tent) to begin families of their own. These relationships would have brought security and contentment. This was how it was supposed to go. This was what they had hoped for.

We know that sense of hope. I’m sure we do. It’s the sense that we’ve found the right people, friends, a spouse maybe, or even children. We can place ourselves on the script.

This might be us.

Lord, come and see.

And then for Naomi there is devastation. Her husband dies; her sons die. A land that was welcoming, prosperous, full of life becomes a place haunted by what might have been. Naomi’s life lurches wildly off script.

This might be us.

Lord, come and see.

How do you describe the feeling of losing those you love, losing them to death or to something else? There is the raw grief. Sometimes it’s like the torn edge of a paper, a rip so long and so ragged you feel about to dissolve. And then there is the older sense of loss. We often describe it as a permanent hole in our lives. It’s a gap, an openness, where something should be. Like a stair case with a permanent step missing or a patch of blackness in the night sky where there should be a constellation. The gaps are never filled.

This might be us.

Lord, come and see.

In our gospel reading tragedy visits even the friends of Jesus. Who would think that? Friends of Jesus, visited by sickness, disagreement and death. John’s gospel says that Jesus loved the siblings. Lazarus had fallen ill, so Mary and Martha sent a message to Jesus saying “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” Even the one whom Jesus loves suffers. And yet Jesus would not come. He stayed on two more days and took his time getting to the home of his friends. When he finally arrived, Lazarus had already been entombed four days. The sisters greet Jesus saying, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Jesus does not say if they were right or if they were not. Maybe the presence of Jesus is not a restraining order against death. Either way, there are notes of resentment that creep into this gospel story. Jesus could heal the sick. Why had he not come? Why had even this new gospel script not come off as it should? Why was the love of God’s own ambassador not enough to keep the web of relationships intact?

How do you describe what it feels like to have relationships wilt instead of bloomed? You think of what might have been. It’s a dream accompanied by a sigh or by tears and not the hopeful jump of your pulse. What does it feel like when blame is handed out and conflict bubbles to the surface? You feel it in your body. You forget to breathe deeply. You feel knots form in your shoulders. You feel your body being powered by the anger of past hurt.

This might be us.

Lord, come and see.

Martha, Mary and their friends weep. It is loud and anxious, flying with welder’s sparks. Jesus doesn’t not miss it. He is deeply moved. “Where have you laid him?” he asks. The women respond, “Lord, come and see.”

They go to the cave. The women point it out to Jesus. But what Jesus sees is only the covering. The grave’s entrance is blocked by a stone. The stone is a response to the death. It is not the thing itself. Jesus wants to really see it. He wants to look at death and brokenness unmediated by signs or euphemisms. And so the stone is taken back. And Jesus stands in the full, foul stench of death. He stands in the depravity. He stands in the loss. He stands in the rupture.

And he looks up, the one eternally sent to the one who eternally sends. And Jesus asks the sender, the source of all things to do what the whole triune God already wants to do, which is to bring life! Jesus asks out loud so that those standing around would be drawn into the relationship that grounds all relationships. And then Jesus cries, “Lazarus, come out!” It is a cry that cuts through the rock and cuts through the cables that pull us apart. It is a cry that comes from the very being of God.

And then there is the man. Lazarus steps out of the earth and is restored to his friends and restored to his family. The beloved to those who love. Yes, it is a miracle. It is a miracle we all need.

This is us!

Lord, come and see.

 

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