Date: April 6, 2014
Bible Text: Ezekiel 37:1-14 and John 11:1-45 | Reverend Dr. Katie Snipes Lancaster
“Jesus began to weep.” (John 11:35)
One of the more embarrassing moments of my life came sophomore year of high school when, mid-song during an orchestra concert, I dropped my bow.
This wasn’t just any old orchestra concert with parents and friends in the audience. I play the violin and we were in the middle of the state orchestra final competition. The stakes were high. We were playing Adagio for Strings, a song of sweeping crescendo and decrescendo that grows wider and wider and more intense towards some swelling chords, only to drop suddenly into silence.
The whole orchestra had a big fat whole rest and the whole room was silent. That was the moment, of course, that I dropped my bow; mid-song, mid-concert, mid-silence.
It is not the bow-dropping, however, that I want to highlight, but instead, the power of crescendo. No song, in my experience, epitomizes or defines a crescendo like Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings played well.
The orchestra begins in silence. All music, really, begins with silence, but Adagio for Strings begins with a pregnant moment, a silent approach as we hear a faint sound as the violins hint at a delicate b flat. Two beats later, the lower strings enter, creating what one musician, Johanna Keller, describes as this uneasy, shifting suspension as the melody begins a stepwise motion, like the hesitant climbing of stairs.[i]
I played Adagio for Strings once in high school and then later in college when, thankfully, I managed not to drop my bow. I’ve heard it in film and on organ here in this sanctuary. John Bryant even managed to sneak it into our worship service today. You may have recognized the melody coming from the organ right after the choir anthem.
Adagio for Strings has become our nation’s unofficial song of mourning, having been played at the state funerals for both FDR and JFK as well as at numerous 9/11 memorials. It is even parodied in South Park, the Simpsons and the Stephen Colbert Report.
Those opening notes, with the gradual crescendo and decrescendo of stringed instruments, tug at our heartstrings. Johanna Keller went on to write that if any music can come close to conveying the effect of a sigh, or courage in the face of tragedy, or hope, or abiding love, it is this.
Our lives as Christians, as people of faith, and as humans, too, are like this: gradual crescendos and decrescendos, a weaving of courage in the face of tragedy, of hope, of abiding love. And today, I would describe our scripture texts as part of our last Lenten interweaving of tragedy and hope as we crescendo towards the cross.
What I mean by that is this: today’s story of Lazarus being raised from the dead, set alongside Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones being raised to life puts us into the mode of resurrection. In the mode of resurrection, we stand in the tension between the reality of death and the hope of God who breathes new life into us.
Today’s stories are not resurrection to its fullest; Christ’s resurrection is the one we seek. But these stories echo that story. They are mini-resurrections on the path towards Easter. They are part of the crescendo towards the cross, a crescendo that builds anticipation and grows towards God.
Our crescendo will meet its peak next Sunday, Palm Sunday, when we find ourselves at a parade. Our songs will be at fortissimo, following Jesus’ grand arrival in Jerusalem. Our children will lead us in celebration, waving palms and singing songs of Hosanna, praising God with full hearts.
Then, almost as abruptly as the silence in the middle of Adagio for Strings, we will decrescendo again, away from hope and into the sorrow of Holy Week.
We will turn to the minor key of Jesus’ last days, his sacrifice, his suffering, his death and his move to the tomb before we are able to begin that final and sudden grand crescendo away from the tomb and into the promises of new life with God.
That is the poetry of the story of Lazarus. Lazarus is that penultimate sign of God’s presence in Jesus Christ, the last signpost on the road to resurrection.
Jesus’ disciples, of course, make it clear that it is foolish to take a trip to visit a dead man; they council against it. Going there will risk the whole team. Jesus’ life was already threatened there once. Last time, they wanted to stone him. And, in fact, if you read the rest of chapter 11 – after Jesus goes to see Lazarus in Judea against the council of his disciples – you will find that only 8 verses later, the powers-that-be plot to kill Jesus.
It wasn’t wise to travel to Judea, especially because Jesus knows that he does not have to be physically present with someone in order to heal them. In the Gospel of Luke, for example, Jesus brought Jarius’ daughter back to life without visiting her. Jesus’ miracles can sweep ahead of him, because God is at work. But Jesus goes to Judea, not for Lazarus, but for Mary and Martha and those that he would meet there.
Listen to the beauty of this story: once Jesus arrives in Judea and finds Mary and Martha mourning their brother Lazarus, he does not immediately get up and go to the tomb to raise Lazarus. First, Jesus sits and weeps with them.
Jesus knew he would raise Lazarus. He has had confidence since the beginning of chapter 11 that Lazarus’ illness would not lead to death, but that God would be glorified. To that end, instead of quickly attending to his work of healing and then heading to a place that is safer for him and his disciples, Jesus stops with those who mourn. He stops and weeps with them.
This is not a side of Jesus that we see all the time. In fact, in the Gospel of Luke when Jesus is raising Jarius’ daughter, Jesus doesn’t weep at all. Instead, Jesus tells everyone else not to cry. “Do not cry,” he tells them, “your daughter lives.”
Here, though, in the Gospel of John, we see Jesus not just as the one who has the power to raise the dead, but as the one who stands alongside us when we weep, and who weeps with us. Christ is the one who experiences the sorrows of the world, not just in the ancient near east, not just in the first century, not just in Judea or Nazareth or Jerusalem, but from the beginning. In the Gospel of John (if you remember back to our text from Christmas Eve) we meet Jesus as the one in the beginning, the word. “And the word was with God and the word was God.”[ii]
The Gospel of John portrays Jesus as one who stands with God and with us, singing our human song of lament, while simultaneously dwelling in the power of God to bring new life.
Our faith tradition holds that lament belongs to us. We can, with confidence, speak our mind to God about the reality of the world – the injustice and suffering, death and loss that hurt us to the core.
In working with our confirmation class this year, I found that this – the inescapable existence of injustice and suffering and death – is the very thing that bubbles to the surface for them when they dig deeper into our Christian faith. It is the thing that is the hardest to understand about our faith and our God. “Why such suffering?” they ask again and again in their statements of faith. And I don’t blame them. In fact, I stand with them. It is the core question for all of us.
I stand with them in hope, because we are not alone in our questioning and our journey to understand. Douglas John Hall, a theologian who makes it his life work to consider this question of God and human suffering, reminds us that “our biblical faith does not flinch or cloak in pretty phrases its assumption that being human means suffering.” In fact, “one of the foremost characteristics of the faith of Israel in particular is the forthright nature of its language of lament.”[iii]
We even have a whole book in our bible called Lamentations, a book full of laments. And today, in the gospel of John, we meet Christ, who weeps when we weep, who mourns when we mourn, who is with us when we confront sorrow and loss and illness and death and burial. Jesus weeps with us.
In our lament, we stand in the tension between the reality of suffering and the hope we have for something different. Like the confirmands who, even in their 14 short years, have seen the pain and sorrow and struggles of the world, we all long for something different.
The story of Ezekiel’s vision, God breathing life into a valley of dry bones, reminds us that in every generation God gives life and restores life. Death will not have the last word, even when all the signs of hope are gone.
Hope is what restores us, and yet, somehow, hope is also what leaves us dissatisfied. We are dissatisfied with ‘what is.’ Martha and Mary were dissatisfied, saying “Jesus if you had been here, Lazarus would not have died.” We are dissatisfied when mom is diagnosed with breast cancer or our teenagers struggle in school. We are dissatisfied when poverty rates skyrocket or tragedy undoes a whole community. We are dissatisfied.
As Christians, we stand in what theologians call the “already and not yet” of God’s promises. God’s promises already unfold among us, and simultaneously God’s promises have not yet come. We have not yet arrived in the true vision of God’s new creation.
Douglas John Hall makes holy our discontent and hallows our dissatisfaction. Douglas John Hall would say that as Christians, we can confidently name and claim our ongoing dissatisfaction with the way the world is.[iv] Some may call it holy discontent.
I would like to suggest that this holy discontent, our ongoing dissatisfaction with the pain of the world is often the very reason we gather at church in the first place. We gather at church because we need to sing to God our songs of lament. We gather at church because we need to hear the stories of God’s promises. We gather at church so that we can notice the way that God’s new life is already present in our lives, like those finally-emerging spring buds blooming in our gardens that tell the story of God’s promises.
Even if God’s kingdom has not yet fully come, we gather at church to pray those powerful words from the Lord’s Prayer, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” We gather at church because we want to participate in that “already, not yet” kingdom of God. We want to make a difference. We want to be a balm, a holy Neosporin so to speak, in a hurting world.
And in our dissatisfaction with the way the world is, we act. We participate in events that make a difference. That, I think, is why we host outreach benefits and do hands-on mission work. That, I think, is why we have a rummage sale, recycling our gear, building community, and raising money for causes we believe in. That, I think, is why we have a Stephen Ministry that cares for one another in grief and struggle. That, I think, is why we travel with young people on mission trips, seeking transformation in the world and in our own lives.
For me, too, my dissatisfaction at the pain of the world is why I play so much Grog. Grog, if you didn’t already know, is an incredible youth ministry game, which involves running around the church, with elements of both tag and “hide and seek.”
We play it almost every Wednesday at Kenilworth Union Church with our Middle School and Junior High youth groups, in part because it builds community, and in part because, for whatever reason, it brings 10-13 year olds so much joy. I would love for you to witness that joy.
Grog, in my opinion, is the balm, the holy Neosporin, the deep healing for stressed and over programmed and anxious middle school youth in the midst of a hurting world.
In the “already and not yet” of God’s presence among us, we gather. We gather in holy discontent, dissatisfied with the pain of the world, praying our laments, and allowing our hands and feet to echo God’s grand vision for justice and peace in the world.
And this is the good news: not only that Jesus laments with us, but that Jesus dwells with us in holy discontent. Jesus is not satisfied with the way of the world.
Jesus comes into the world for that very reason, and Jesus faces the cross for that same reason. God comes, in the fullness of time, into the world in Jesus Christ, to heal us, to comfort us, to unsettle us, and to save us.
Our final hymn is another chance for us to name God’s presence with us. Our organist John Bryant tells me that this rendition of “A Mighty Fortress” is likely the most difficult song in our hymnal. He was even asked to play it on the spot for a job interview once, because of its difficulty.
The hymn will feel familiar and yet uncomfortably syncopated. I hope that the tension between the familiar tune and the difficult setting can echo our holy discontent. In our singing of this challenging hymn, live in that holy discontent, allowing the already familiar tune to stand alongside our not yet perfect singing, echoing God’s presence with us and God’s promises to us.
And, may the refrain of the song “the Lord of hosts is with us” lift you up, and wrap you in the promise that Jesus weeps with us, that God goes behind us and before us and walks with us all the days of our lives. Amen.
[i] Keller, Johanna. An Adagio for Strings and for the Ages. New York Times. March 5, 2010.
[ii] John 1:1
[iii] Hall, Douglas John. God and Human Suffering. 1986. p 32.
[iv] Hall, Douglas John. The Cross in our Context. 2003. p 216.