Pastor Adrianne Meier
7 May 2023 — Fifth Sunday in the Season of Easter
Saint Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church, Bloomington, Indiana
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
On the bulletin board in my office is a sticker—still on its slick backing paper. It features a spiky green monster with yellow a black striped arms and a pretty nasty underbite. It is the “Whatif” monster. He’s from a picture book where he is personification of Johnathan James’s doubts: what if you fall? What if people laugh at you? What if no one likes your art? What if no one likes you? Eventually, though, Johnathan James gets fed up and asks some new what if questions: what if the Whatif monster is wrong? What if it all works out? What if I follow my dream?
The What If monster. We all know that monster. I’m pretty sure I’m well acquainted with its mother, Imposter Syndrome. This monster got me thinking about another monster, the “If Only” monster, a nightmare of regret and finger-pointing. If only. If only you’d done this instead of that. If only you’d made a different decision from the start. If only you had been here. If only. We can get so tied up in our If Onlys that we languish there, endless blame, constant regret, but in the face of If Only, God acts.
Today’s story begins with the first appearance, in John’s gospel, of Martha and her sister Mary. And before we dive too far in…a planned digression: This story about Martha and Mary has found its way in the news recently. The oldest known papyri of John’s gospel has been fully digitized and loaded to the internet. And this section, the story of the raising of Lazarus, appears to show corrections—letters carefully changed, little iota—an I—becomes a theta, pronouns pointedly changed from singular to plural. Before the corrections, the story seems to be about Mary Magdalene and her brother Lazarus, but an editor has introduced other early Christians, Mary and Martha, into the story. The early patristic letters, such as the letters of Tertullian, back this reading—one woman, Mary Magdalene. Diana Butler Bass gives a wonderful explanation of this on her blog, the Cottage, you can google it—the blog post is called “Mary the Tower.” I think this is significant because it fortifies a theory about Mary Magdalene being “the apostle to the apostles,” and her voice being systematically silenced by the patriarchs in the 2nd and 3rd century after Christ. But, for our purpose today, whether it is Mary who twice confesses, “If only you had been here, my brother would not have died,” and “I know that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world,” or if those confessions are shared by two faithful women who go on to fund the early church and slay some dragons, I am not sure that those new findings change this part of the story for us today.
We might ask, first, though, how these words are meant. Is Martha angry? Or is this “if only” a heartsick confession, a regret that, had things worked out differently, well, they would have worked out differently? Anyone who has every grieved knows that spiral. I felt so ignored by my doctor when my first pregnancy ended so abruptly and so tragically. I blamed her and, quite honestly, cursed her name. If only she had done this or that or just, I don’t know, listened to me. I have learned that there is little that saves us from regret. In the end, little could have changed the trajectory for me. We will always wonder if things might have gone differently, would they have, well, gone differently? Could we have prevented tragedy, or at least prevented this unbelievable sadness? I have come to believe that the most common regret is all the most preventable. It is the failure to act. “If only you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
It is possible, though, that Martha is angry. She had sent word. She had told Jesus things were going south. It isn’t regret—or at least not only regret—but accusation, “If only you had been here, Jesus.”
Ooo, we love these kinds of if onlys. The if onlys that imply someone else ought to be feeling some regret. We love to lob them at one another, especially the poor: If only they had a job. If only they were more reliable. If only they’d refused that narcotic prescription. If only—there are millions of these. Today, in the narthex, we’re writing to congress about the farm bill. And while the bulk of Bread of the World’s lobby efforts center on benefits for people living in poverty, they are also lobbying for better farming practices and subsidies to encourage farmers of color. I think about how often “If only” gets thrown at farmers, without regard for the policies that continue to change the farming or the history that makes rural living difficult for farmers of color.
“If only” in all these situations hides the blame that says the hungry are responsible for their hunger. The farmers are responsible for greater cost required for more sustainable agricultural practices and for the government policies that disincentivize them. People of color are responsible for being driven out of farming by centuries of racist practices that made owning land and keeping its profits impossible.
John’s gospel has these beautiful vignettes of Jesus encountering people who are suffering and, perhaps more importantly, challenging all the pat answers offered to explain their suffering. If only they had been more faithful. Nope. If only they had been more righteous. Wrong again. If only their parents, if only their community had been unstained by sin. Hard pass. Jesus refuses again and again (and even today) to condescend to our if onlys, our explanations of suffering and our faux-laments of regret. We love the what if that keeps us from acting and the if only that keeps us from needing to shoulder responsibility. We say, “If only?” God says, “Watch this.” The onlookers point out that the one who had made the blind to see could sure have healed Lazarus, if only. Jesus says, “Watch this.” And raises Lazarus from the grave.
Beloved, today, you can hear those if onlys that our society rubs in the faces of the poor, the rural, the farmer, the person of color. You can hear them, you can witness them, and then, watch this.
I love this little saying from Dag Hammarskjöld’s journal, published under the title Markings. He writes, “You wake from dreams of doom and—for a moment—you know: beyond all the noise and the gestures, the only real thing, love’s calm unwavering flame in the half-light of an early dawn.” All the doom and regret, all the if onlys. And Love says, “Watch this.” And, you see, in that moment, Love changes the if onlys into confessions, the accusing regrets into statement of faith. In the face of all the if onlys of this world is belief that when Love gets her hands on this world, it is forever changed, it is whole, healed, alive.