March 26, 2023
Fifth Sunday in Lent, Pastor Lois Pallmeyer
Dear Friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you. Amen
(We apologize that due to techincal issues, there are no video or audio recordings of today’s liturgy.)
I missed the Northern Lights on Thursday evening. I saw the beautiful the crescent moon smiling near Venus earlier in the evening, and I even remembered that people were saying the northern lights might be visible later. But I live in Eagan, and I figured we would have to look through too much urban light pollution to see anything at all.
Yet I woke up on Thursday to a string of radio descriptions, and stunningly beautiful pictures showing that indeed, people throughout the Twin Cities, not ever far from our house, had been able to glimpse breath-taking scenes of the aurora. The photos and videos were fantastic. It’s as if the light and rainbowed goodness of heaven reached through the night to shine ethereal light onto the earth. One parent said that their daughter thought it looked like, “our ancestors are dancing in the sky[i].”
Physicists describe solar gas eruptions colliding with magnetic fields at the poles, ionizing particles which interact with nitrogen and oxygen in the atmosphere. It’s easier for me to imagine our ancestors dancing through the night.
Maybe it’s Martha and Mary and Lazarus, twirling around in resurrection joy, remembering their delight as the brother’s burial cloths dropped from his newly raised body. Maybe it’s Thomas, who having once recognized Jesus’ imminent death, and predicted that he could face persecution or death himself, now spins in the joy of resurrection. Maybe it’s the man who was born with blindness whom we met last week, with his parents, and the neighbors who knew him, who still dance in the amazing joy that he could see. I like to think it’s even the Pharisees, and the Romans, and all of the crabby people who have learned that God’s love claims them along with all the others after all, and now delight in the abundance of miraculous grace.
We don’t get to witness too much of the dance in today’s reading. Most of the drama transpires in this lesson before the miracle occurs. Instead, we watch the layers of lament unfolding before the dance begins, leaving us with questions of timing and presence and sorrow.
Most of us can hear our voice echoing the despair in the sisters, who both say, “Jesus, if you had been here earlier, our brother would not have died.” We understand their complaint. Why doesn’t God show up in time to miraculously change the outcome for us?
Why doesn’t God interfere when illness takes our loved ones? Why doesn’t God rescue children from cancer wards, or pedestrians from drunk drivers, or teenagers from the ravages of suicidal ideation? If only Jesus could show up earlier and stop the pain.
In fact, Jesus seems to make it worse in this story by deliberately waiting to respond to their plea for help. He waits two more days before setting out to their village. Lazarus is dead for four days by the time he arrives, so perhaps the death couldn’t have been avoided. But there’s still this lingering sense of postponement that seems so unnecessary; by the time Jesus arrives to Bethany, the stench of grief has become inescapable.
Jesus senses it himself. His own grief is apparent as he begins to weep. Many have speculated as to why Jesus, who must have guessed that he could reverse the course of Lazarus’s death would have been overcome by his own sadness. Was he grieving his friend himself, remembering the joy his friendship had brought him over the years? “Look how much he loved him!”
Was he sympathizing with the pain that Martha and Mary felt, crying in reaction to their sorrow? Does he cry in recognition that his delay seems to have increased their pain? Is he overcome by the stone in front of the cave, as he considers his own fate?
Or is his grief over the world’s stubborn obliviousness to all that God can do? Is he disturbed that we remain so clouded by violence, death, and despair, that after all this time, we still refuse to experience the life God has come to bring us?
From the beginning, Jesus has been reminding his friends that God’s love flows into the whole creation, dazzling us with signs of hope, consolation, and purpose, but we can be so wrapped up in our own misery, that we ignore the grace surrounding us.
The stench of the grave is obvious in our lives. Crabby people still seem to wield too much power. We continue to hear reports of abuse and fraud. The rich get richer while those without still suffer. So many young people are struggling; so many older folks are facing isolation or rejection. The loss of loved ones. The fear of death.
Are we so wrapped up in the despair and depression of the gloom that we miss the glimpses of love and goodness God is pouring into the world?
Martha makes the bold assertion that Jesus is the Messiah, the one coming to save us. She trusts that Lazarus will live in the life to come. But Jesus urges her to look more immediately at the life God offers her here: I am resurrection and the life. Not just the life to come, but life here and now, Living Water, Bread of life, the Light of the world that shines already, abundant life, with meaning and purpose now.
Jesus isn’t here to only offer Martha or Lazarus or any of us a ticket into heavenly light after we die. He comes to show the whole goodness and breadth of God’s love breaking into our lives now: a glimpse of heavenly light and goodness, dancing into our broken hearts and painful stories, even today. Jesus is LIFE for us – so that we can live in heavenly goodness now.
Friday night, regretting that I had missed the show on Thursday, we drove out to a deserted area north of the city, to see if the aurora display would return. If you squinted, the skies sort of seemed streaked with a few promising clouds, but no Northern Lights came out. I didn’t see any ancestors dancing. The world is still masked in Lent for a few more weeks, I guess.
But God’s love and power never waits for Easter dawn to begin sharing goodness with the world. Though we may not always be able to see it, the love and goodness of God is alive within our stories.
Jesus still shows up along the way, sharing the grief of our lives. He shows up in those who cry with us in our sorrow. He shows up in surprising displays of comfort and compassion, surprising us with grace in the midst of pain. He shows up in the casseroles or pots of soup at our door, and in simple meals of bread and wine. He shows up in the embrace of a sympathetic friend or the compassion of an act of kindness.
And in a few more weeks he’ll show up to prove that the power of death, the power of empire, the power of separation and despair and all the crabbiness of the world will never get the last word. No graveclothes are strong enough to hold us in grief. God’s love seeps into every dark night with the power of abundant life.
Jesus, the light of the world, the living water, the Good Shepherd, calls us each by name, not only at the resurrection, but even now.
Mary, Martha, Lazarus, I love you, Come out! Thomas, Janelle, Sonya, Scott, Raja, Bradley, Julie, Jill, Tim, Katie, Kyrstin, none of you is bound by death or by grief, or of the power of despair.
Unwrap everything that holds back your neighbor, or yourself, and be let free to know life, and know it abundantly.
The ancestors are shining in the life they want us to share now. Let’s get up and dance with them. Thanks be to God.
[i] Ingrid C. A. Rasmussen, Facebook, March 24, 2023.