Meditation on John 11:32-44
All Saints Sunday
Pastor Karen Crawford
The Presbyterian Church
Oct. 31, 2021
Link to live-streamed service with the message and candle lighting: https://fb.watch/8_xNikrCCo/
The phone rang yesterday—and it was a rare and wonderful surprise for Jim and me. His nephew was calling on Facetime so that his mother, Jim’s big sister Mary, could see and talk with her one and only sibling on her birthday.
Mary was born on Halloween! She is 10 years older than Jim. Today she is 87.
She is a former longtime church preschool director and kindergarten teacher in the public schools. She decided she would be a teacher when she was a little girl growing up in the Bronx. After she graduated high school in 1952, she went away to New Paltz State Teacher’s College. She graduated from college in 1956 and two years later, married a boy she had met in high school—Chuck Amann, an engineer.
One of Mary’s first teaching jobs was in a one-room schoolhouse in Fishkill, NY. Later, Chuck and Mary moved to New Rochelle and then to Pelham Manor to a home not 5 miles from where she had grown up. They had two boys–Scott and Kenny, and after Scott married Shelagh, two grandchildren came along: Molly and Jack.
When I met Mary around 2005, she had retired, but was still teaching every day, working as an elementary substitute. We had great conversations—Mary and me—with our early childhood backgrounds. She had strong opinions about what’s good for young children’s development. She loved it that I had three boys. She tried to spoil them whenever we visited.
Chuck passed away on Feb. 25, 2017. Mary has never been the same. We don’t know the actual diagnosis, but she has some form of dementia. She lives with a full-time nurse/companion. She no longer remembers or recognizes her children or grandchildren. She calls her oldest son, Scott, by her husband’s name.
When Jim called her about a year ago, saying, “Hi Mary! This is your brother, Jim.” Mary replied, “I don’t have a brother.” Jim was so sad after that!
On the call yesterday, Mary was having a good day. She was about to eat birthday cake with her son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren. And though she struggled to find words and engage in conversation, she listened as Scott and Jim took a walk down memory lane, remembering the apartment on Corsa Avenue in the Bronx where Jim and Mary lived as children with their Irish-immigrant Presbyterian parents.
For a moment, there was a lifting of her confusion—and a look of joy. Could it be recognition? Had we seen a glimpse of the Mary we all knew and loved and for whom we still long?
Then I had this thought. “If only the Lord would heal her.” I decided, right then, that I would pray for her healing—something I haven’t done in a long time. I think I had just given up hope that Mary would ever get better.
But this is the same Lord who called forth Lazarus from the tomb. “Unbind him,” Jesus commands the crowd. “Unbind him and let him go!”
Jesus has delayed his response to Mary and Martha’s message about the illness of their brother, Lazarus, in our gospel reading in John 11. Jesus tells the disciples that the illness is for “God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” He waits a couple of days before going to Bethany. Martha runs to meet him on the edge of town, saying, “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 will engage in a theologian discussion with Martha that leads up to his declaration, “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?”
“Yes, Lord,” Martha says, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
Martha runs home and tells Mary, “The teacher is calling for you.” She goes to meet Jesus—and this is where today’s passage begins. The one who will gratefully anoint his feet with perfume and wipe them with her hair kneels at his feet, crying and saying what Martha said. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Seeing her tears, Jesus is “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” This phrase “greatly disturbed” will be repeated. Scholars wonder if this is grief mixed with anger, perhaps at the lack of faith shown by Mary and Martha and the Jewish community. Or, it could be anger at death itself!
Jesus asks to be taken to Lazarus and begins to weep before praying aloud, revealing more about our compassionate God. Here are just some of the things we can learn from this text:
- God shares in our grief and losses. This is not an unemotional God who doesn’t care about our pain and suffering. God is not “aloof in the heavens,” says theologian Gilberto Ruiz. “God is emotionally invested in our well-being.”
- God always hears our prayers and wants us to know that he hears our prayers. Sometimes we assume that if we have prayed for someone’s healing and they aren’t healed, that God must not be listening. God always listens—but God may have other plans!
- And the purpose of miracles is to bring glory to God and lead others to believe in God’s Son.
At the end of the passage, when the dead man comes out, his hands and feet still bound with strips of cloth, I hear an invitation that I don’t want you to miss. The Lord is asking us to participate in his healing ministry, setting people free from the burdens they carry so that they may become something altogether new.
Jesus could have removed the graveclothes himself. He didn’t! Instead, he compels the crowd into action with, “Unbind him and let him go!” The Greek word translated “unbind” can also be translated “release.” So we can say that Lazarus is “released from the constraints of death.” (Gilberto Ruiz).
The raising of Lazarus is ultimately a sign story—and not just to the group of family and friends at Bethany but to all of us about “what the glory and presence of God in the world really means,” says one theologian, Theodore Wardlaw. “The point is that—through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord—the world is finally not a place where we need to revisit endlessly the losses in our lives that make us weep…We are forever being given the opportunity to step out of sorrows that would otherwise bind us, and to be embraced by what the story points to:.. life-giving resurrection joy.”
This story is not for people who have never wept or lost, Wardlaw says. It is “for those who, like Lazarus, are being called by Jesus to get back up again—to honor and thank God for what has been… (and) step into a life that still begs to be lived and that invites them forward into a hope filled future.”
Here on All Saints’ Sunday, we remember and give thanks for the lives of Christ’s followers in every time and place— and read scripture filled with the promise of things to come—when on earth, it really is like it is in heaven.
My sister-in-law, Mary, is one of those saints of the church who has touched many lives as a teacher of young children, a friend to many, a mother, grandmother, sister, wife, and faithful disciple of Jesus Christ.
I had forgotten how she had encouraged and supported me throughout seminary, even though she and Chuck didn’t think women should be pastors. Then, when I accepted my first call to ministry to the congregation in Minnesota, Chuck and Mary made an exception to their rule about female pastors. They were happy and proud—but sad that we lived so far away. Every time we talked to Mary, she invited us to come and stay with them.
Friends, who are the saints that touched your life? Who encouraged you and nurtured your faith? Parents or grandparents? Another family member? A Sunday school teacher, youth leader, or other church member? A friend or neighbor who invited you to church?
When I look around this sanctuary, I see a room full of saints! So many of you serve the Church quietly, behind the scenes. You have shaped the faith of many others and helped to grow the Kingdom. In your own personal life, you take time to talk to people and listen to their problems. You pray for the sick. You share what you have with people in need.
We are all ministers and saints, people of God redeemed by the Son and called to participate in Christ’s healing ministry. Jesus could have removed the grave clothes himself when he called a dead man out of the tomb. But he didn’t.
Instead, he cried out to the crowd an invitation to serve, “Unbind him and let him go!”
Let us pray.
Loving God, we thank you for forgiving us for all our sins and offering us new lives in Jesus Christ. Thank you for all the saints who have gone before us and who continue to cheer us on the race of faith from the Great Cloud of Witnesses. Empower us to minister to people who are carrying heavy burdens, Lord, and help them to trust in you. Lead us to build up the faith and hope in our community and world. And Lord, stir us to let go of our own burdens that we are carrying so that we may experience the fullness of your resurrection joy! We cry out to you now, “Unbind us and let us go to love and serve in your Son’s precious name.” Amen.