Rev. Adrianne Meier
November 7, 2021
Saint Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church, Bloomington, Indiana
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John 11:32-44 NRSV, emended
When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Judeans who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Judeans said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When Jesus had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
We want to be set free. It is our regular plea to God. We pray, set me free from infirmity, from this pain that never leaves my wrist, my hip, my gut, my heart. Set me free from this anxiety that swirls, this depression that descends, clouds, distorts; this melancholy that suffocates. Set us free from pandemics, from systemic racism, from the patriarchy, from homophobia and transphobia. We have been bound up by sin—our own, and the brokenness that harms us all. We are bound by our own mortality, and by the evil that stalks life on earth. We plead for freedom, our ears thrill to hear Jesus’s powerful words: Unbind them. But can we let go?
You’ve got, I know, a problem in your life right now. It isn’t a big problem; it is a nagging problem. It is a small something you encounter almost every day and it is killing you. And there is a solution, and you know there is a solution, but that solution will almost certainly involve (1) more work on your part and (2) for you to let go of something. The only way to deal with those dishes that endlessly pile in the sink is to let you spouse handle them, even though she always loads the dishwasher wrong. The only way to solve that problem with your colleague is to have that difficult conversation that you are so afraid to have. The only way to make your aging parent safer is to find a new place for them to live. This problem is killing you, and the new life you long for is only accessible when you let something else go. It is a painful truth.
And it is true for society, too. The only way to unbind those who are impoverished will be to let go of power, to let go of any ideas of worthiness, of any “bootstraps” mentality that assigns the poor their lot by the false idea that they earned it. The only way to unbind us from racism will be to let go of valorizing stories from our past that hide our most grievous sins. The only way to unbind those who are transgender or non-binary is to let go of the idea that “made in the God’s image” means following society’s definitions of gender. The only way to unbind the natural world from our polluting dominion will be to let go of the idea God gave it to us for our abuse, to let go of the idea that God’s resurrection won’t extend to animals, plants, water, and air. Ultimately, the only path to equity, the only path to peace will be for us to let go of the endless quest for power.
Years ago, I heard Valparaiso professor emeritus Fred Neidner speak to a room of new pastors. It was one of the most moving talks I’ve ever attended, and I wrote him for a copy of his remarks, which I treasure. I’ve probably told you about this before, bear with me. Maybe it was the time in my life: I had buried my first child, was contemplating trying again, and my call was disintegrating before my eyes. I spent the conference largely in tears. I think Fred was supposed to lead a Bible Study on Acts for some unknown reason. I think this was the year we were all going to grow our churches three-fold, so why not hear about the greatest period of growth the church ever saw, save the year Constantine legalized Christianity? But Fred didn’t lead us through Acts. Instead, he told us that this work—being a Christian—is hard. He told us that life is hard and, at times, cruel. In fact, it is so hard it will probably kill us all. In fact, he said, “the church is just a bunch of crucified people, making plans.” Ain’t it the truth? We say that we were baptized into death, because only when we have died and been buried with Christ can we also rise with him. We say this community is a community of broken people who die every day to sin. We’re just a bunch of crucified people making plans. We’re dying. We’re dead. We bound up in grave clothes. We stink. We’re Lazarus.
And that’s the thing. This little tête-à-tête at the tomb is just about the last waypoint for Jesus before he enters Jerusalem. He’s about a week out from death himself. Neidner says, “Jesus could have said, ‘Heads up! I’m coming in!’” But he doesn’t. He calls Lazarus out of the tomb. Jesus says to Lazarus, essentially, at least in Neidner’s reckoning, “Come out of there, friend! Anyone can die of cancer, or pneumonia, or humiliation, or garden-variety mortification. Let’s go up to Jerusalem and do it RIGHT! Let’s give our lives away!” Unbind him. And let go.
It is no small call, to let go of our own lives; to give ourselves away. Often the letting go is forced upon us. We let go of our job when we’re laid off. We let go of our child when they go off to college. We let go of our beloveds when they die. But we trust that that letting go means new life. That a pink slip is also a promise of a new opportunity. We trust that the person who returns from that first semester will be an amazing adult. That the when we let go of our beloveds, we trust we will join them in the resurrection yet to come.
It is no small call to go from death of one kind to death of another. Then again, it isn’t really only death to death, but life to life. Letting go is what it is to be mortal, what it is live in this world, as Mary Oliver titles a beautiful poem I often return to this time of year:
Look, the trees are turning their own bodies into pillars of light, are giving off the rich fragrance of cinnamon and fulfillment, the long tapers of cattails are bursting and floating away over the blue shoulders of the ponds, and every pond, no matter what its name is, is nameless now. Every year everything I have ever learned in my lifetime leads back to this: the fires and the black river of loss whose other side is salvation, whose meaning none of us will ever know. To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.
Beloved, let us let go today. We’re hanging onto so much, so sure that it will set us free, but it won’t. The only path to freedom, to change is to let go of the things that will not save us, to let go of our very selves. Because it isn’t until we let go of the only thing that was ever ours to give away will we know what it is to live in the fullness of God’s love. And the only thing that was ever truly ours to let go of, the only thing God saved for us, the only piece God unbound in the cross, is ourselves. Let us let go. Let us give ourselves away.