Unbinding the Trappings of Death
(John 11:32-44, Hebrews 12:1-2)
Sermon date 11/01/2015
The passage from Hebrews is such a wonderful one for All Saints Day. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” I think it’s easy to hear the word “witness” and think of what it means to be a witness in the legal sense. Witnesses “tell” what they observed – and that is the full extent of their responsibility – in court, anyway!
So, when we hear that we are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses” we might think of those watching us to see where and how we mess things up – those who are judging us. We hear enough “Christian” proclamation about judgment to think of witnesses in this way – they are ready (and maybe willing) to call us to account.
But, maybe there’s a different way to hear these words about witnesses – and the hint is right in the words that follow. “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us!” “Let us run the race.” What if we picture witnesses as those who line the race course to cheer on the participants? What if we picture witnesses as those who wait at the finish line to welcome, congratulate and celebrate with each and every one of those who “finish the race”?
They are witnesses – but not of our failures. They are witnesses to what God has accomplished – for they have completed the race set before them. So, we are surrounded by those who love us and want to encourage us to persevere in God’s ways.
In honor of Halloween, (Hallowed Eve before All Saints Day), I considered several Halloween-ish sermon titles: Unwrapping Mummies or Living as the Undead. I have to admit that the Lazarus story conjures up some of those mummy (or zombie, according to my daughter) images.
I’m not a huge horror movie fan. But maybe those horror movies have something to tell us about this story of Lazarus. Jesus went to the tomb of someone he loved. He went with the man’s sisters, Mary and Martha, and many others who were there to console the mourning sisters and to see what Jesus would do. There’s a stark realism here. Jesus said, “Take away the stone,” and Martha responded, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days!”
“Already there is a stench!” Even the stone couldn’t mask the smell of death! There was no denying that Lazarus had died. Yet, Jesus prayed and then cried, “Lazarus, come out!” And the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Can we picture zombies or mummies? He came out of the tomb wearing the grave cloths. He had received the gift of new life – yet, he was still bound by the trappings of death. So, Jesus had another command for the bystanders. “Unbind him and let him go!”
They were witnesses – witnesses to what God was doing in and through Jesus – witnesses to the good news of life conquering death.
When I started in ministry, the Presbyterian Church had a new liturgy for marriage ceremonies. I call it the hippie service (and I actually love many, many parts of it!) It reflected a growing consciousness of women’s issues, so a very traditional piece was left out. “Who gives this woman to be married?” That was left out because it reflected a history that was and is detrimental to women. It reflected the tradition of, to put it crassly, selling a woman to her husband. She was transferred like property. So, no such question existed in that “hippie” ceremony. (And the Presbyterians weren’t alone.) But, I can’t tell you how many young women rebelled against the lack of that question. “I want my father to give me away,” was a sentiment that I heard over and over again. They had seen that element of the service in movies and TV shows – and a wedding ceremony without it seemed incomplete.
Well, when the Presbyterians (and other denominations) rewrote the marriage ceremony again, in the 1980s, they picked up that lost element – but changed it. First, both sets of parents were asked a question: “Do you give your blessing to [these two] and promise to do everything in your power to uphold them in their marriage?” That is a powerful question. The couple may have made the decision to get married, but this acknowledged that married life didn’t take place in a vacuum. Some parents choose to be disruptive in their children’s relationships. This question challenged both sets to think about how they might be proactive rather than destructive. Then, the ceremony goes on to ask a question of all who had gathered. “Will all of you witnessing these vows do everything in your power to uphold [this couple] in their marriage?”
I think it’s a great question. Witnesses are called to be encouraging – like the witnesses at a race. They are invited to be participants in the success of a couple’s commitment. They were asked to be something more than spectators.
Those who were at the tomb with Jesus, Martha, and Mary were more than spectators. Jesus commanded them, first, to take away the stone. Then, after he called Lazarus out of the tomb, they were told to “unbind him and let him go!” The cloud of witnesses is not just a “heavenly host”; the cloud of witnesses includes all of us who have in any way seen, experienced, and heard of God’s redeeming presence. And, as the cloud of witnesses, we are not to be passive. We, like those at the tomb, have work to do so that what God has done, is doing, and will do, can be seen by the world.
Jesus called Lazarus from death to life. But, the witnesses were charged with unwrapping the trappings of death so that he could know, fully, the magnitude of that gift of life. The witnesses could not be passive bystanders. They had to participate in making God’s work visible.
I wonder what is was like, to be charged with “unbinding Lazarus”? Were they afraid of this new life – something unexpected, something truly inexplicable? Did they wonder what they would find when they removed the bindings and let him go? And what did Lazarus feel? Of course, we know little about his death. We don’t know if it was unexpected. Was Lazarus able to emerge from the tomb with joy? Or did he find the idea of life-restored somewhat frightening?
New life, God’s redemption, shakes the familiar. It emerges from the tombs we create. We are, perhaps, more comfortable with the trappings of death than we are with the signs of God’s transforming presence. I have been thinking about congregations that cling to the past and hope that if they just repeat what they’ve always done, somehow they will find new life. They forget that new life is already bestowed upon us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The hard work is rolling away the stones from the tombs of familiarity and unbinding the trappings of death that prevent us from participating fully in God’s realm in our very midst.
It’s hard work, it’s challenging work to take away the stones. We smell death and despair and it would seem crazy to trust that where we see death, God could be bringing forth life. And it’s hard work to be involved in removing the trappings of death – to unbind and set free. We can do that only when we’ve been willing to open up our carefully shut tombs.
Maybe, it’s hard for parents of couples getting married to set aside their notions of who the perfect mate for their child would be and of what the perfect marriage would look like. Those ideals can become tombs that entrap both the parents and the couple. I’ve sat with couples planning to get married and feared for their future as they talked about one set of parents interfering and objecting at every point. But that modern ceremony asks the parents to be the witnesses that participate in letting something new emerge. The parents, themselves, may need to let the grave cloths be removed so that they can embrace a new relationship blessed in God’s presence.
Jesus didn’t ask the bystanders to “raise Lazarus.” That work belonged to God through Jesus alone. He did ask them to help prepare the way by taking away the stone and to bear witness to the resurrection by “unbinding” the grave cloths and letting Lazarus go forth. Maybe, like the crowd at a race, they had to encourage him to go forth, to live – and to believe in this gift of new life.
Today, we remember that this journey is never a solitary one. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who are cheering us on, encouraging us to discard whatever grave cloths still cling to us and to emerge from our own tombs. On All Saints Day we remember that there are witnesses who have already finished the journey, who know the fullness of God’s realm – and who stand by, encouraging us to continue the race.
But, we do not wait to be witnesses. Even as we need to break forth from our own tombs, to shed the trappings of death that offer false comfort, Jesus invites us to witness, to cheer, to encourage, to remove the grave trappings from people and situations that deny God’s grace, God’s mercy, and God’s justice. Our vision may be limited. Maybe we’re standing along the course – or even numbered among those who race toward the finish line. But, if we listen, maybe we will hear the voices of the saints, standing at the finish line, who encourage us and all that, ultimately, the tombs of this world will be conquered. Amen.