Have you ever been around something that stinks? A smell that makes your head swim and your eyes water and there is a bit of gag reflex occurring?
Early one summer in my childhood, my sister’s room stank like that. Her room was at the end of the hall, so it took us a while to notice. It crept down to my room and then to my parent’s room and soon it was hitting you as the top of the stairs.
My sister Mary smelled it. She smelled of it. She claimed to have no uneaten food, no dead hamsters, no load of long-forgotten dirty laundry. My mother insisted on a top to bottom, every inch search. And there is was. In the second drawer of my sister’s dresser. Tucked in the back, in a little piece of cloth. Mary had found a perfect little blue robin’s egg, on the ground, nowhere near a nest. She brought it home, thinking she could keep it. That was a couple months before and she had forgotten it.
Mary and Martha have not forgotten their brother Lazarus.
They know exactly where the body of Lazarus is and how long it has been there. And they know he stinks. “Lord,” Martha says to Jesus, “our brother has been dead four days. He reeks.”
This is what Martha says after Jesus has come to the diminished family. After he told her that her brother will rise again. After she explained, like many a grieving loved one, “I believe there will be a resurrection. But that’s someday. I wanted him alive today.” Martha tells Jesus about the stink from Lazarus after Jesus told her that he is the resurrection. After Mary and Martha both accuse or affirm that Jesus could have done something while Lazarus was still alive. Martha reminds Jesus that Lazarus is dead and begun to rot, after Jesus stands outside the tomb and points to the rock behind which Lazarus lays and says, “Move the stone away!”
Jesus tells her to roll away the stone, to open the tomb of her brother. And Mary says, “Jesus, Lord, my brother is dead. He has been dead. He has been dead so long he stinks of rotten death. It’s too late now. There is nothing you can do. He is not going to come out of that tomb.”
Perhaps Martha never heard that the first sign of Jesus took place at a wedding in Cana, when Jesus’ mother said, “Do whatever Jesus tells you to do.”
This seventh sign of Jesus in the gospel of John points to many things we need to see. We are meant to see that God that people who have been consigned to the grave and declared dead can, at the call of Jesus, rise up and walk. We are meant to see that Jesus assigns tasks to the people of God. Jesus says to those who are gathered, “Roll away the stone. Unbind him.”
We are to have no doubt that Jesus could have done that on his own. Jesus could have split the stone in two. He could have shoved that rock away himself. Instead, he commands us to participate in resurrection. He offers the invitation to be part of calling out what is dead and stinks and bringing it back to life.
We are meant to see that we are infinitely connected one to another. Our attitudes and our actions are life and death to others. When we do whatever Jesus tells us – no matter how hopeless the cause looks to us – we participate in bringing possibility to life.
The power unleashed by doing what Jesus tells us to do, even the time for intervention seems long past, was brought alive for me one rotten, stinking day in graduate school.
I had lived through two years of trauma and everyone – including me – wanted to put all that ugliness in the past and for me to get on with my life. The lingering after-effects hampered my ability to perform at my best, in ways that at the time I could not comprehend. The incapacities and my confusion turned into a toxic tomb of shame. I was wrapped so tightly in the stink of my self- doubt that I was unable to communicate how difficult I found it to complete my coursework. I was filled with a deathly dread that I had fallen irretrievably behind in my favorite class – Exegesis of Paul’s letters to the Romans.
If I remember correctly it was about 4 o’clock in the afternoon when I admitted to my friend Maria that I had a 20-page paper due for the class. At nine the next morning. And I had not begun to write it.
Maria said, rather brusquely, “You can get it done, Charlotte.” And before I knew what was happening, my books – we still used books – appeared around me, paper was supplied to me and I began to write. Maria’s three roommates were dispatched and delegated. I was supplied food and drink through the afternoon, the evening and into the night, with and just enough company to keep me awake and typing. Dawn arrived and Maria and the roommates began proofreading.
At 8:45, one of the roommates tapped 21 pages of the exegesis of Romans 5:1-5 into order and tore over to campus to deliver my salvation.
I looked at Maria and said “Thank you. I didn’t think I could do that.” Maria looked at me and said, “I didn’t think you could either.” “Why did you tell me that I could?” I gasped. She said simply, “Because I thought it was what you needed to hear.”
Something said to Maria, “Roll away the stone. Roll away the stone that has entombed your friend, Charlotte.” In truth, she thought the cause was dead and gone. She thought the whole enterprise reeked. She couldn’t believe that what had been buried in the dark for a full semester could rise up and walk. Yet, she heard the Spirit of a God who calls light of darkness, say “Roll” and she shoved at the stone that was sealing up my own expectations of myself. And then she called others to come and help unbind me from my grave clothes.
Make no mistake it was the Spirit of God that brought my spirit back to life. Maria didn’t have to know how it would happen. Maria didn’t even have to believe it would happen.
She just had to carry out the task assigned to her. It was God who moved in to call out, “Put the stink of the past behind you and arise.”
Now, a seminary paper is a small thing. But all around us are people who have been all but forgotten because we cannot believe that Jesus has the power to bring forth life out of death. God does not intend that anyone be lost or forgotten. God does not intend for anyone to live in the darkness of death or be consigned to the stink of decay. And we – the people of God – are assigned are part in resurrection.
Why do we leave people in places of darkness and death, when God speaks a word of life?
Why do we listen to our Savior’s command and say, “If you had been here earlier, maybe something could have been done?” Why do we say to the God who invites us to participate in opening possibility, “It’s been too long. It’s too late. It’s too complicated. It will never work.”?
We are listening to the ways of the world, instead of the voice of God. Like Martha, the sister of a man four days dead, the world has taught us what to expect from the world. She has seen what happens to corpses. What is dead is dead. The enzymes work, the gasses emerge. Decomposition occurs. It’s messy. it stinks and there you are. There’s no going back. What’s done cannot be undone.
As long as Martha stands with the logic of the world and resists the life-giving word of Jesus she might as well be in the grave with Lazarus. Her life is bound up behind that stone with her brother. She is wound round with grief and resentment, fear and refusal. Martha has begun to stink.
God speaks a word of possibility and purpose to us. If we hold fast to the world’s logic, we may stand our ground only to find we are standing behind a tombstone. We want to tell God what can be done and what is possible, instead of attending to the invitation of the Lord to participate in new life. We have begun to stink.
What happens when we let the world’s logic define what is possible instead of doing whatever God tells us?
For one thing, we stand weeping outside the tomb of 17 killed in a Florida high school on Ash Wednesday. We weep at the graves of 25 killed in a church in November. We weep for 58 killed in Las Vegas in October. We try to forget the more than 21,000 people who die by self-inflicted gunshots each year in the United States, 85% of them men. Indiana has recorded the second highest rate of black victims do to homicide, almost all do to gun violence and we try to ignore the stench of that statistic.
We know what the world tells us. There is no solution. There will always be mental illness. There are entrenched patterns of violence. People will always find a way to murder or suicide. It is sad, but we must balance our freedoms. The lobby is too large. The politicians are ineffective. The public is too resistant. The second amendment is absolute. It’s our freedom. It’s our right. We need to make ourselves safe. You can’t legislate your way to safety.
And Jesus weeps. Jesus walks with those who stagger under the burden of loss they carry to the graves of children and heroes, fathers and mother, teachers and coaches, police officers and young black men. The grief of God, at the loss of life, for the mourning families, for the trauma endured mirrors and magnifies our own.
Jesus walks weeping to the tomb that already stinks with our conviction that everything is set in stone. We believe this tragedy is so old that nothing can be done. Jesus sees this tomb of death. He knows that God does not intend for any person to be lost or forgotten or gunned down. Jesus knows God can bring life to what is dead. And he assigns tasks to the people of God.
He says to us, “Roll away that stone. Unbind them. Take off those grave clothes”.
Now, what you hear God say may be different than what God says to me or someone else. One of may be assigned the task of writing their legislators and another to give money to the cause of safer guns laws. Another may be called to volunteer with youth or to man a suicide hotline. You may be called upon the get closer to the neighbors you don’t know and speak to the stranger you were afraid to know. You may be called to turn in your gun or take one away from someone else.
The tears of Jesus and the call to participate in new possibility are not limited to this cause. Jesus weeps for global wars. Jesus weeps in hospital and hospice rooms where people die before there time. He weeps in classrooms where children are shunned and in teachers’ lounges where educators stagger under intolerable burdens. He weeps with those who are bound in the stink of poverty and dependency.
That does not mean the people of God can forget where those who lie dead because of gun violence have been laid.
This rot is intolerable to our savior. God knows we must unbind this mess and let God bring about a new possibility
We don’t know how God will do it. We may not be entirely sure God will do it in our lifetime. Yet, we know that Jesus can. We know what Jesus commands. “Roll away that stone. Unbind and set them free.
Jesus is the resurrection and the life and nothing he calls forth can stay dead. Do you believe it?
Then get out of the tomb and live.