If Only

Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
October 28, 2018
All Saints’ Sunday

John 11: 32-44 (CEB)
When Mary arrived where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”
33When Jesus saw her crying and the Jews who had come with her crying also, he was deeply disturbed and troubled. 34He asked, “Where have you laid him?”
They replied, “Lord, come and see.”
35Jesus began to cry. 36The Jews said, “See how much he loved him!” 37But some of them said, “He healed the eyes of the man born blind. Couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying?”
38Jesus was deeply disturbed again when he came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone covered the entrance. 39Jesus said, “Remove the stone.”
Martha, the sister of the dead man, said, “Lord, the smell will be awful! He’s been dead four days.”
40Jesus replied, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory?” 41So they removed the stone. Jesus looked up and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me. 42I know you always hear me. I say this for the benefit of the crowd standing here so that they will believe that you sent me.” 43Having said this, Jesus shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied, and his face covered with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.”

Exactly two weeks ago, I was on my way down the stairs in our house, headed to the garage and back to church for youth group. I was reading my Facebook news feed when I came across this message: “I still can’t grasp that Kellianne Tomlinson is gone….” I couldn’t go any further. I sat down right there on the steps. Owen said, “Mommy, why you stop?” I felt like I had been punched in the gut. Kellianne was in the youth group I led for the three years I was in seminary. She was a truly remarkable person. She was sincere, kind, humble, and compassionate. She was soft-spoken, but highly respected by her peers. She had an amazing laugh. She was simply beautiful in every way.

As I sat there on the stairs trying to get my bearings, I quickly began searching Facebook and the internet, trying to find out what had happened to Kellianne. She had turned 27 on July 8, and died on July 25. She had Type I diabetes—a detail I had forgotten about her, she had always handled it with such poise as a teenager. And you all know that diabetes can cause a lot of other problems. Kellianne had kidney failure, for two years she had been suffering from seizures and undergone multiple surgeries, one of which was to put in a permanent feeding tube. I still can’t believe it; 27 years old. But you all know the feeling, don’t you? You have received the news of someone gone far too early or unexpectedly. And then you begin to think, “If only….” If only Kellianne didn’t have diabetes. If only there was a kidney donor. If only the disease hadn’t progressed so quickly and been so total.

When was the last time you said, “If only…” If only he hadn’t stepped out in front of that car…If only she had worked a bit harder and not failed the exam…If only a different politician had been elected last time round…If only we hadn’t decided to go on vacation that very week…And whatever it is, we then start thinking to ourselves, “If only the clock could be turned back.” That, of course, is a wistful dream. It’s a kind of nostalgia, not for the past as it was, but for the present that could have been, if only the past had just been a little different.

This is precisely what is on the minds of Lazarus’ family. All that and more is here in Martha’s “if only” to Jesus as he prepares to go to the tomb of his friend. “’Lord,’ Martha said to Jesus, ‘if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’” She knows that if Jesus had been there he would have cured Lazarus. And she probably knows, too, that it had taken Jesus at least two days longer to get there than she had hoped. Lazarus has already been dead for a few days, but perhaps…he might just have made it…if only…

Rather than following Martha into the “if onlys” of what might have been, though, Jesus instead considers what can be. But first, along with those around him, Jesus grieves. It’s like he’s stunned himself. He too is sad that his friend is gone, and in that moment, he’s not ready to respond to Martha; he is deeply disturbed and troubled. The reality needs to sink in, and so they go to the tomb where Lazarus has been buried. There, Jesus cries, weeps for the loss of his friend. In fact, he cries so intensely that those around him remark at how he must’ve loved Lazarus.

We here at Wesley Memorial have laid to rest too many dear souls this year. We have stood at gravesides over and over again; sometimes mourning the loss of someone gone far too early, sometimes commenting, “if only,” but always grieving. We have shed a lot of tears together over the last twelve months. But don’t you know—don’t you know—that every single time, Christ stood right there with us; sad, crying over the death of one he loved deeply. I think understanding that reality, believing that truth is key to understanding what happens next in this story of Lazarus.

Despite the prior wave of emotion, Jesus stepped before the tomb that held Lazarus and said unwaveringly, “Remove the stone.” Martha protests, this time concerned about the smell of a decomposing body, but Jesus responds, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory?” Jesus is challenging Martha. He’s urging her to change her “if only…” for an “if Jesus…” If Jesus is who she is coming to believe he is…If Jesus is the Messiah, the one who was promised by the prophets, the one who was come into the world…If Jesus is God’s own son, the one in whom the living God is strangely and newly present…If he is resurrection-in-person, life-come-to-life…

Can you see the difference? Can you feel the pain and doubt lifted? As Martha floated through those difficult days that follow the death of a loved one, she grabbed hold of the only thing she could think of, the possibility of what might have been. She was stuck in the past. All she could think about was, “If only…” It’s easy to linger in that place, to stay there with Martha, letting our frustration and anger stew, pleading with Jesus. But lingering on the “if only” doesn’t remove the hurt or the pain or the grief. Wondering what might have been doesn’t change what is already done. Even though it’s a hard thing to acknowledge, we know that truth deep down inside us, and knowing that truth helps us see life in a different way.

After Jesus promises the people there that those with faith will see God’s glory, the stone is rolled away. Jesus prays to the Father and then shouts into the tomb, “Lazarus! Come out!” And in one of the most unexpected, unbelievable moments in all the gospels, the once dead man walks out of the tomb, still wrapped in his grave clothes. Then, as if it was the most normal thing in all the world, Jesus turns to the people and says, “Untie him and let him go.” This is the last key to this passage; the fact that Christ calls his disciples to participate in the work of bringing new life, the work of unbinding people and letting them go free.

What if, instead of getting caught up thinking “if only,” what if we got caught up in the work of Jesus? What if, instead of considering what might have been, we become a part of something completely new and even better? That is the challenge of this passage. Christ’s gentle pull (of Martha and of us) out of the pain, the difficulty, the misery of death, and into the possibilities of new life.

“All of us aspire to lives that matter. We want to be significant, to make a difference, to create a legacy. Yet overshadowing every human aspiration and achievement is the dark cloud of death….” And here, as Christ raises Lazarus from the dead, as Christ shows his power to overcome even the “dark cloud of death,” he calls his disciples to participate in his work and live lives that matter. That’s why today, in our observance of All Saints’ Sunday, we can celebrate, even in the midst of death. Because we were witness to these people who lived lives in service to the Lord, doing the work of the Kingdom, unbinding their neighbors; they are Saints.

Kellianne was a saint—in her own quiet, gentle way she loved and encouraged her fellow youth at Wesley United Methodist Church and in her school and the wider community, even the kids that annoyed everyone else. She really, truly, was a remarkable person, so much so that I can’t adequately convey it. And I wish you all could have heard, and some of you did, the stories shared at the Theater Center following Thomas’ funeral. The number of young people who stood and talked of how Thomas and helped them and encouraged them when they were uncertain and afraid. One of those young women now helps to lead the music at East Ridge United Methodist Church. Unbound. Freed from the burden of “if only….” This is life in Christ. Indeed today, we remember many who are gone now, but we need not linger there because they have gone on to something new—through the power of Christ, they have overcome even death. We need to grieve, but we can also celebrate, and then we need to get to work; following in the footsteps of these saints, following Christ’s direction, moving away from our “if onlys” to “if Jesus.”

The key to it all, now as then, is faith. We have to believe in Jesus, we have to trust that he really is God’s Messiah, the one coming into the world, into our world, into our pain and sorrow and death. When Jesus arrived at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, the Bible tells us that he wept. He cried along with Martha and Mary, and all who had been mourning Lazarus’ death for days. Grieving is normal, it’s needed, but even grief can direct us to new life.

A little girl was late coming home from school one day. Her mother paced the floor until she finally arrived—15 minutes late. “How many times have I told you—You are to come directly home from school! I was worried sick! Don’t you ever make me worry like that again!”

“No mommy,” said the little girl, “You don’t understand.”

“What don’t I understand?” asked the mother.

“Well, today was show and tell and Jamie brought a China Doll her grandmother gave her…”

“I don’t care how nice a doll Jamie had,” the mother interrupted, “You don’t stay to play. You come straight home!”

“No, no mommy. You don’t understand.”

“Understand what?” the mother asked.

“When we were walking home some boys were mean to us. Jamie dropped the doll and it broke on the sidewalk…And I stayed to help Jamie…”

“Oh, honey,” the mother said, “That is so sweet that you stayed behind to help Jamie fix her doll—but you still need to come straight home…”

“No, no, no mommy! It was broken so bad we couldn’t fix it! I stayed to help Jamie cry.”

Christ meets us in our pain and grief. Christ struggles with the mess and the chaos of our lives. Christ even cries with us. But he doesn’t leave us there, just as he didn’t leave Martha wondering “if only…” on the road, or Lazarus dead in the tomb. And when we have faith enough to go with Martha and encounter Jesus with all that burdens us, he will help us move to a new place. He will show us resurrection and life, hope, and grace, and love. “If only…” we will go to him. If Jesus…

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