Lent 5 April 10, 2011


The Rt. Rev. Arthur E. Walmsley

Jesus wept.  —  John 11:35

Begin with the shortest verse in the Bible: two words — Jesus wept.  They appear at the heart of the story in John’s Gospel when Jesus responds to his close friends and followers, Martha and Mary, whose brother Lazarus is gravely ill.  Jesus and the disciples hurry to Bethany, a village just two miles east of Jerusalem, and on their arrival discover that Lazarus has died.  That is a very human story, is it not?  We can probably imagine being there.   A month ago I had a telephone call — a longtime friend had suffered a stroke on the way to an appointment, his car crashed into a tree, and he was dead.  Would I come and preach at his burial service.

I can envision the scene in Bethany, not unlike the one in the Connecticut town where a couple of days later I met with my friend Tom’s family in their home.  We sat for an hour trading stories about him — stories of love, joy, fondness, humor, and appreciation.  As the evangelist John tells the story, Mary and Martha are doing much the same, talking about their brother with those who have come from the city to share condolences.  We have a hint of their discussion: Is there life after death?  What will it be like?  Martha speaks up: There will be a resurrection on the last day.  Such conversations, indeed all that happens at funerals, are liminal occasions, in the precise meaning of the Latin word lumen, threshold, between this world and another, the world of God’s life, God’s presence, which is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching about faith.  Jesus answers the sisters with a bold assertion, I am resurrection, and I am life.  Mary is confused and overcome; she runs off to the tomb, and breaks down in grief.  Are you surprised that in the midst of telling this story of Lazarus’s death and his revival, St. John’s next words are not about what Jesus then says and what action he takes, but simply, “Jesus wept.”

Well, there you have it.  In the midst of one of the most painful of human circumstances, the mystery of life and our helplessness in the face of suffering and death, this Jesus, the one we equate with God, the one who will himself a few days later die on the cross, this Jesus sits with his friends in their sorrow.  The rest of the passage is about resurrection, new life for Lazarus, new life for us.  The grounds of that hope lie in the very nature of God’s love: God in God’s own self, suffers on our behalf, weeps with us, is there for us in the worst of times as well as in the best of them.  Whatever happens next to Lazarus in the account — we know of course that he will die eventually — something very important has changed, how the actors in the story are transformed, as we the readers are also meant to. 

The Gospel of John in which this episode appears was written about the year 100 of the Christian era, about seventy years after the events in the story had taken place.  In  the meantime, the city of Jerusalem had been almost totally destroyed in retaliation for an uprising by the Jewish people against the Roman legions which began in the year 66.  The Temple which Jesus and his disciples visited had been burned to the ground.  As many as a million citizens of Palestine had been slaughtered in a suppression as ruthless as any which have happened in our time.  We single out the death of Jesus on the cross as the heart of our faith.  But what do we make of the fact that literally tens of thousands of the Jewish people were put to death during this upheaval, and their crosses filled the countryside around the city?  How might that color the way we understand the story itself?  God suffering in the midst of human suffering.     

As the first century of our era proceeded, the Church too would soon be regarded with suspicion by Rome; it began, after all, as little more than a sect within the religion of the troublesome Jews.  By the year 60, the first generation of apostles such as Peter, James of Jerusalem, and Paul had been put to death.  Emperors such as Nero purged the budding church by feeding Christians to the lions for their failure to salute the Emperor.  And the followers of Jesus had come to be increasingly unwelcome at worship in synagogues.  Much of the conflict recorded in John’s Gospel arose from the fact that loyal Jews had rejected the claims made about Jesus, and church membership was increasingly being drawn from the Gentile community.  By the time that John penned his Gospel, the account of the death of Lazarus would be framed less about how his family and friends, including Jesus, grieved his loss, and more to announce the Church’s emerging teaching about resurrection.   Yet the turning point in the account is the simple declaration, Jesus wept.  John’s agenda to refute the claims of both Jews and Romans cannot override the simple truth that God suffers when people suffer.        

In fact, if you study seriously the history of the faith of both Jews and Christians over the past two thousand years, the times of greatest human upheaval and suffering are often those when the compassion of God and the passion of Jesus’s death and resurrection are most on the line, sometimes for good or, too often, for ill.  Add to the tangled history of Jewish-Christian relations the arrival on the scene six centuries later the new emerging movement of those who follow Mohammed, and the story becomes a tangled tale of three faiths which have the same roots in a common ancestor, Abraham, the same belief in a God of love and justice, and a bloody history in which some of the worst atrocities are committed in the name of the one God.  We Christians affirm the one God in the Nicene Creed, We believe in one God. . .  Jews do so in the Shema: Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Eḥad – Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.  Muslims do so in the Shahada: Shahada Lā ‘ilāha ‘illā Allāh, “There is no god except AllahAll declare that there is one God.  “But what does ‘one’ mean?” asks a contemporary scholar, James Carroll.[i]  As each religious community uses the word, in history it more often than not has meant to its followers conflict, not peace.   Is there a clash of civilizations, with Islam the enemy, as some would have it?  Is there no way to peace in Palestine/Israel, with Jews locked in apparent conflict with their Christian and Muslim Arab citizens?  Are the citizen uprisings in various countries in the Middle East signs of a promise of peaceful change, or does the unresolved violence in others –Libya, Syria, and Bahrain and Yemen — add to the instability of the region and the possible spread of military intervention on the part of our country at a time when we are trying to bring an end to our long engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Across the globe a billion people are as hungry, human and deserving as the Israelites were when they fled Egypt, 2500 years ago.

And how do we apply faith to the struggles going on in our own country, which threaten to unravel programs which serve the poor, the hungry, the young and the elderly, programs put in place over generations?  Those questions are not as remote to us as the shape of global peace.  “In 2010, corporate profits grew at their fastest rate since 1950, and we set records in the number of Americans on food stamps. The richest 400 Americans have more wealth than half of all American households combined, the effective tax rate on the nation’s richest  people has fallen by about half in the last 20 years, and General Electric paid zero dollars in U. S. taxes on profits of more than $14 billion.  Meanwhile, roughly 45 million Americans spend third of their posttax income on food — and still run out monthly  — and one in four kids goes to bed hungry at least part of the time.[ii]   The Congress narrowly avoided a shut-down of the government two nights ago, and the New Hampshire Senate has gone back to the drawing board to revisit cuts which would wipe out programs which serve the neediest in our state.  We can and we must as a society face this struggle.

I confess to you that in the last months I have trying hard to understand what is happening in our country and in the world.  It appears to be one of those times in which the well-being, the meaning, even the future of the world as we have known it are at stake.  I put forward at our breakfast last Sunday, and more recently to Father John and through him the congregation by way of our parish website a proposal that we enter deeply into a time of prayer, fasting, and sharing during Holy Week which begins next Sunday.  We do not have easy answers about great and domestic problems, but we do have the practice of centuries. 

Through the centuries one of the practices of Christians during Lent and in times of great stress in society has been to fast, that is, to simplify the intake of food, always accompanying such self-denial with prayer and acts of giving to others.  In the weeks since Lent began in 2001,there have been serious events which are deeply disturbing.  Surely Holy Weekthis is a season for Christians to go the second mile in our prayers and our witness.  We can make the seven days beginning Palm Sunday an intentional time to do what Christians have often done when confronted by trouble:  we can fast, and pray, and act with the intention of seeking God’s will not just for us but for our church, our nation, and the world.   Our objective is not to organize a campaign to beat opponents in a political duel, but to invite to the table of good will those who will seek real solutions to our human yearning for the good society.  Specifically we can do the following:

  • We will remember in prayer the various causes to which we as a community of Christians give our money and our time, and especially those who are served by them — the food pantry, prisoners and their families, the chronically ill, those in dangerous places, such as the military, and persons known to us affected by the recession, the unemployed and the homeless.   And we will continue to pray for peace in the global trouble spots, and seek ways to serve the people of such trouble spots as Haiti, Japan, and the Middle East.
  • We will hold a service at the Church each night during the week; some of us will be able to sign up so that as a community we may offer a seamless pattern of intercession all week.
  • Each of our households will be encouraged to follow a simple form of prayer at a family meal together (using resources which will be made available next Sunday).
  • We will examine our regular diet as a sign of solidarity with those who suffer, especially the hungry and neglected.

Does this kind of prayer and witness make any difference?   Is it worth doing?  A wise Christian[iii] put the matter this way that “in praying for others we learn really and truly to love them.  As we approach God on their behalf we carry the thought of them into the very being of eternal Love, and as we go into the being of him who is eternal love, so we learn to love whatever we take with us there.”  I believe that is part of the risk of being a Christian, in this time and always.


[i] James Carroll, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, How the Ancient City Ignited our Modern World, Boston, 2011, p. 61

[ii] I have quoted from a column by the  mmm Mark Bittman titled “Why We’re Fasting”, published in the NYTimes on March 29

[iii] Father Richard Meux Benson, founder of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, quoted in “The Practice of Intercession”, The Rule of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, p. 51

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