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How All This Ends

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

April 2, 2017
John 11:11-44

A Reading from the Gospel of John

John 11:11-44

After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for 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.’

When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 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 Jews 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 Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he 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 for 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 upwards 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 he 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.’

It is the fifth Sunday of Lent and if you are still observing your Lenten discipline I salute you. We are so close to the end. We are counting down the days.  This season that begins with rubbing ash on your forehead to remind you of death, this season of lament and darkness and painful expectation, its days are drawing short. Its time is at hand. But this year the fifth Sunday of Lent occupies a special place in my heart because it takes place on what I believe is the best weekend of the calendar year, which is namely the weekend of the NCAA basketball championship and Opening Day of Major League Baseball. The two events always come side-by-side, and I am by no means a huge sports fan but I have a heart that swells for baseball, especially on Opening Day, on which all things are possible, even, in the more refrigerated parts of the country, spring itself. Opening Day, which is kind of today and really tomorrow, Opening Day is infinite potential, when the games finally matter but not that much and everybody is just so relieved to be back on the field. Opening Day is perfect.

But let me set baseball aside, because the NCAA tournament is perfect, too. But the perfection of the tournament is totally different than with Opening Day; the games here matter tremendously, the pace is relentless, the intensity is infinite. The beauty of the tournament is that the last five minutes of any game can be magical and nail-biting even if you don’t know anything about the teams that are playing because the tension is palpable and because the clock is counting down. In its own way the tournament is very much a Lenten discipline, because time is always of the essence. Because if you have the ball and you’re down 5 points with 45 seconds left to go the clock is as much your enemy as are the players on the other end of the court. Because a shot that goes in with a split second remaining is infinitely more valuable than the same shot taken ten minutes prior. Because basketball is game about time, moving forward relentlessly and always, because the very nature of the thing is about how we perform and what we can do and who we can be in the time that remains. It is Lenten to its very core, here as the days come to an end.

Of course it is possible to just be down by so many points that the game is over, even before it’s over. The vast majority of NCAA tournament games are well worth watching but it’s not infrequent that you’ll find some 1 seed in the first round just absolutely bulldozing the opposition and they’re up twenty-five with five minutes left and everybody knows the game is over. Sports statistical guru Bill James actually once figured out an equation for when a college basketball game is over before it’s over, and it is just as complicated as you might imagine. By his math, you take the size of the lead, and subtract three, and then add a half-point if the leading team has the ball or subtract a half-point if they don’t, and then square the result, and if the number you get is larger than the number of seconds left in the game, then the lead is safe and the game is over. But I can’t do that kind of math and watch the ball at the same time. Even so, at some point, you just kind of know when the game is over. The coach starts putting in the freshmen. The crowds start to go home. The announcers start talking about anything else they can think of. Sometimes the gig is up even before the clock strikes zero.

And so, as our Lenten clock winds down, the lectionary guides us to the story of Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus, for whom it is already too late. John’s Gospel is not in the usual business of stuffing itself with dates and times but there is an unmistakable countdown running through this text: Jesus has heard that Lazarus is ill, his friend Lazarus, his good friend Lazarus. But even so Jesus takes his time making the trip, two extra days he spends lolly-gagging around, a whole other lectionary reading’s worth of arguing with the disciples about how urgent this whole thing is supposed to be and why they’re not rushing to the bedside with all due speed and sure enough, by time he arrives his friend Lazarus is already dead. He’s been dead, dead and in the tomb for four days. Because just as it is in Lent, and just as it can be in basketball, the enemy in this story is time. And time has won the day.

None of this is lost on Martha. It’s not lost on Martha that Jesus had better things to do with this time than to drop everything and come heal her brother. It’s not lost on Martha that but for Jesus’s own self-importance her family would still be very much intact, “If you had been here,” she says plainly, “my brother would not have died.” But it is too late. The enemy has won. The clock has wound down. There are no points in John’s Gospel for showing up after the buzzer. Even as Jesus makes these vague insinuations about resurrection, Mary and Martha have run the numbers and they know it’s already over. But they go to the tomb anyway, Jesus and Mary and Martha. And he asks them to pull away the stone, and it’s almost insulting. “Lord, there is already a stench. Because he has been dead four days.” If you had been here earlier. If you had been on time. If you had not let the clock wind down. But the game is over, even if you don’t know it yet.

The church I served in Virginia worshiped in this old creaky building, sanctuary from 1831, with various additions built over time, and the building had all the personality of a place held together by duct tape and the grace of God. One of the problems we occasionally had was that the basement underneath the sanctuary had a kind of unfortunate smell. There was a kind of rotten smell, kind of a wet smell, a very unpleasant smell that would at times waft its way up into the sanctuary and make worship as uninviting as it could possibly me. And we did everything we possibly could to deal with it, short of building an entirely new sanctuary. We had that basement treated for everything you could imagine. It was an old dug basement open to the dirt in places and eventually the most effective solution was simply to cover the dirt with this tarpaulin cloth so that even if the smell was there it wouldn’t get to us, but some days it did anyway. Some days after it rained I would come to church and I would stand in the hallway outside the sanctuary door and I would say a small prayer before opening it because there might be that stench inside and nobody wanted the church to smell like that. It’s just not hospitable.

But of course the real problem with the smell was that it felt like a metaphor. It’s an old church not getting any younger, and the problem with that smell was that it smelled a little bit like death. Like I’m in the hallway standing on one side of the stone and Lazarus is there on the other side in the sanctuary and the joke’s on me because “Lord, there’s already a stench. He’s been dead four days,” because we’ve run the numbers and this game is already over. Because it’s hard to be the church in the 21st century and we all know it because we’ve all run the numbers. Because we can calculate worship attendance vs. what it used to be and we can calculate church budgets vs. what they used to be and we can add half a point here and take half a point away there and square the difference and subtract and figure out that this thing is already over because we’ve run the numbers. Because this is our Lenten clock, winding down, and we don’t know when this all ends and we don’t know how this all ends but we know it ends and we suspect maybe it’s already over. Lord, if you had only been here. Our brother. Our sister. Our church would not have died. Our time would not have run out.

But Jesus is not here to fight for time. In this Gospel, Jesus is here to fight against death itself. They open the door of the grave. Jesus immediately prays with thanksgiving to God, apparently with lungs full of fresh clean air. And then he calls into the darkness, “Lazarus, Come Out!” And John says that “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.’” There’s so much anxiety pouring through this story, so much fear, so much grief. Mary and Martha have lost their brother; the disciples are losing their friend, of course they’re afraid, of course they’re anxious, of course they want to do whatever they can in the time that remains. It’s the most human thing, to slow down and hear the clock tick as your heart beats in those moments when the world seems most vulnerable. But Jesus is not ruled by the clock. He is here for a different enemy altogether. He is here for death itself, symbolized in these bands of cloth attending to Lazarus’s body — and he’s here for all the fear, and all the anxiety, and all the grief that goes with it. He’s here to compel Lazarus from his grave and in so doing to compel us from ours. He’s here to remind each of us as we wonder about the smell on the other side of that door: We are going to be okay.

We are going to be okay. Even as Jesus turns to Jerusalem. Immediately following our scripture lesson from this morning the High Priests begin the plot to arrest and kill Jesus, and from here John’s story takes a chilling and almost inevitable turn. From this moment onward it is clear that Jesus can’t do anything else but run out the clock, that Lent will move at its deliberate speed, that Good Friday will come in its due time, that he will die on the appointed day, at the appointed hour. John has run the numbers and he knows how this all ends. But he also knows that Jesus who called Lazarus out of the tomb will not himself be contained by the slow tick-ticking of the clock. He knows that death is no match for the glory and power of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Which means that the Gospel for these disciples following Jesus into the most pressing hour is the same Gospel for the first Christians who held these stories sacred even in trying times is the same Gospel for we who gather here in our own uncertain hour is this Gospel: we are going to be okay. It sounds trite. It sounds uninformed. It sounds willfully ignorant of the affairs of the world. It is in fact none of those things. It is the old joke about why the country church is always next door to the cemetery — to keep an eye on its competition. It is the Savior of the world staring into the dark tomb and compelling Lazarus to rise up. It is the hope we have in a time beyond this time and in a day beyond these days. It is the bedrock promise of the Gospel. We are going to be okay.

Even here. It’s no secret that this congregation has been through a rocky season. Almost two years ago you said farewell to a deeply beloved Senior Pastor and the time in-between has been complicated on its best days. You’ve had to make decisions that you didn’t want to make and you’ve had to say farewells that you never wanted to say and I know there have been anxious days. Days when you ran the numbers and it came up a little short. Days when you wondered whether the math just wasn’t going to add up anymore. Even now I know there are anxious days, days when it seems most vulnerable, days when you can hear the clock tick and your heart beat. I know what it’s like to stand outside the sanctuary door and wonder about the smell on the other side. But I tell you this. I promise you this. We are going to be okay. You and me, together, we are going to be okay. Not necessarily in ways we can measure. Not necessarily in ways we can count. It won’t necessarily look like what we might imagine it to look like. But we are going to be okay, because the church of Jesus Christ will always be okay, because it is the church of one who called Lazarus from beyond the grave. Because it is the church of God who raised Jesus from death to new life. We are going to be okay, because God who has triumphed over death itself also loves you.

We are going to be okay, and I know we are, because today is Opening Day, and baseball is coming back. Now, the last thing that the world needs is another take on the sacred rhythms of the game, but the reason we have so many of them is that there is a sacred rhythm to the game. It is not the minutes and the seconds slowly ticking down. It is not a game played against the clock, but almost in defiance of it, when whole innings go by in the flash of a moment or instead one at-bat stretches into an afternoon. There are never three seconds left in a baseball game, the clock never expires and the buzzer never sounds, there’s no overtime, there’s no sudden death, you can never be four days too late. Baseball trades in infinite possibility. Baseball trades in abundance. Baseball trades in the slow Sabbath of a summer evening, hot dog in one hand, cold beverage in the other, as the game pushes back against the relentless pace of inevitability. And of course eventually there will be talk of playoffs. Of teams being mathematically eliminated. Of sudden exists and seasons over. Eventually sometime in late October or early November somebody will hit a slow ground ball to the shortstop and the throw will go to first base and that will be the end, we will crown one champion and twenty-nine also-rans. Eventually even baseball comes back to the grave. But not today. Today is Opening Day. Today there is baseball to be played. And we are going to be okay.