The Stench of Miracle

[audio]It’s not all up to you…

I’ve told part of this story before. My first job out of seminary was working in a church in the Chicago suburbs. We had a great idea to regenerate our Kindergarten program: to center the whole year’s curriculum around the theme of animal stories. We would build an ark for Noah, paint a tree on the wall for the Garden of Eden, and – the item we were most proud of – replace those little plastic Sunday School chairs by building sheep for the children to sit on. We were thrilled! As the weeks of the summer ticked by, we worked to transform the room. And the Saturday night before kick-off Sunday, we busted out the plan for the sheep chairs. Three hours later, we had finished…wait for it…one.

We decided to let that go for the week, assuming that once people saw the new room they would be elated and line up to volunteer to make more sheep. Unfortunately, they didn’t. Because we forgot one key ingredient: we didn’t ask anybody if they wanted this change. Now, there’s a time for leadership, and perhaps that’s a topic for another day. But as the Afghan proverb says, if you’re leading and no one is following, then you’re just taking a walk.

The teachers didn’t like the chairs – they were impractical. Most of the kids and parents liked the program just the way it was. We assumed that, because we had studied this issue, we could just “do it ourselves” and then others would catch the vision and carry it forward. We forgot the simple step of including them in the vision to begin with, of asking them to help carry the load. We tried to go it alone.

During the course of Lent, we’ve been looking at this concept of “Packing Light”, of imagining what it would be like to live more simply in a world that demands more and more complexity. And I’m convinced that part and parcel of simplicity is embracing the reality that we cannot do it all. We cannot pick up every ball that someone else drops. We can’t always juggle all that we’ve been handed. And we cannot meet everyone’s expectations, least of all our own.

There’s something of this at work in our New Testament lesson from John this morning. At first glance, Jesus comes off as a cocky showman. He’s across the Jordan when word reaches him that Lazarus is at death’s door. Rather than do the “right” thing and rush to his bedside, Jesus decides to wait a few days, as if to be sure that Lazarus is really dead so that he can pull off another fantastic miracle. By the time he gets to Bethany on the Mount of Olives, Lazarus has been dead and buried four days – ancient Jewish custom believed that the soul lingered near the body for three days, so even that period has passed. But when the tomb is rolled back, rather than the stench of death emerging, it is Lazarus himself, still wrapped in the burial cloths, responding to Jesus’ shout of “Lazarus, come out!”

There is more in this text than we have time to unpack this morning, but there are several points worth noting. First of all, if Lazarus had been dead four days by the time Jesus arrives, then that means that he was dead by the time the message had reached Jesus in the first place: a day’s travel from Jerusalem to the River Jordan, two days staying put, and then a day’s journey back. Even if Jesus had left at the moment the message arrived, he would have been too late.

Secondly, Jesus makes the decision to go toward Jerusalem knowing full well the risk it entails. And sure enough, no sooner does Lazarus rise from the dead than the crowds are warning the priests and Pharisees, who in turn begin plotting not only Jesus’ death, but that of Lazarus as well. Palm Sunday arrives soon after, beginning that fateful last week of Jesus’ life.

Thirdly, and most to our point today, is that Jesus doesn’t do this healing alone. There is prayer, bringing God the parent into the picture. Then there are the folks who roll away the burial stone. Lazarus himself is involved in the miracle, taking those first steps on his own after revivification. And Jesus’ parting salvo is to the bystanders: “Unbind him and let him go.”

Surely Jesus could have done all this without any help. John’s gospel takes Jesus’ divinity for granted, so why the invocation? And if the point of the story is to convey that Jesus has the power to grant life out of death, why would he not also have the power to roll away stones, levitate dead men, and unwrap strips of cloth? There was no need for anyone else to lend him a hand; and yet, Jesus manages to make this miracle a community act, not a solo performance. Why?

I am reminded of a youth mission trip I took when working at that same church outside of Chicago. Every summer, the youth group took a trip to take on some kind of work project. That first year, we headed down to the Texas/Mexico border, to a town called Reynosa. We were working in one of the coloñas, the slums populated by the poorest of the poor, people who had traveled from the interior of Mexico hoping to find work in one of the American-owned maquiladoras or factories that cluster along the border. However, unable to meet even the basic requirements of an eighth grade education, they found themselves living by the city dump, scavenging through the trash of others to find a means of survival. The stench was unbelievable, but after a while, you simply got used to it.

Our work was two-fold: first, to build 8’ x 8’ wood shacks for families to live in. They were part of a self-improvement program, not unlike Habitat for Humanity, and were working with a local church to find a more permanent way out of their desperate poverty. The second part of our work was simple relationship building. We worked side-by-side with the family, getting to know them and sharing ourselves and our faith with them.

The trip was intense – more so, probably, because we spent all day in the poverty of Reynosa and all evening back in the air-conditioned comfort of McAllen, Texas. Every night our little group would gather to process the day. One evening, as I was asking everyone to sum up their day in one word, Steve, then a freshman in high school, offered up, “scared.”

We decided it might be helpful to unpack that a little bit, and Steve shared some of his experience. During our lunch break, some of the youth from our church and others decided to visit with other families in the town to get to know them a little bit and pray with and for them. Steve went, but grew anxious because of it. “What if I’m the only Christian they ever meet? And what if I don’t convince them to become a Christian? Worse, what if something I say or do convinces them to do the exact opposite?” Steve was only fourteen, but was already carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Are we any different? To paraphrase Augustine, do we pray as if everything depends on God and then act as if everything depends on us? When we are given a task, whether it is at work, or at church or at home, how do we react? Are we willing to share the responsibility? Or do we take it on alone? And why is that? Is it because it’s ours to do, because we’ve got some kind of over-developed sense of duty, to meet other people’s expectations of us? Or is it more our over-developed sense of self, that the world would simply stop spinning if we took a day off? Can we share the load with each other? Can we invite God into the picture as though we actually mean it?

Back on the U.S. side of the border, once Steve had unloaded his burden of guilt on the group, we took turns reassuring him. We reminded him that God is much bigger than any one of us, and that God can’t be contained by any one of us and our own limitations. And part of that work of reassurance was deflating his ego: you’re not that amazing after all. We like you, but not enough to make you our savior. If you could do it all, if the whole world depended on you, then we wouldn’t need Jesus.

Friends, Jesus could have done it alone there in Bethany. He had no need to delegate any part of the miracle to the gathered crowds. And yet, he did. He shared the load. He made others partners in the work. And if it’s good enough for Jesus, isn’t it just possible that it’s good enough for us?

So how is it that we can simplify? Or to put it another way, what will it take for us to realize what we really need to do and what it is that others can do with and for us? Do we even have a prayer?