The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
Transcribed from the audio.
In the name of the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
On this fifth Sunday in Lent, we’re coming to the end of our Lenten journey. We, like Jesus, must turn our faces to Jerusalem. Next Sunday when we gather, we will remember Jesus’ triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem with palms on Palm Sunday. The following week we will gather together for remembering the Last Supper, Calvary and the cross, his crucifixion, and then, two weeks from today, to come together for the glorious resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
But it’s very important that we not get ahead of ourselves in this story because today, in the gospel reading you just heard, we reach a critical juncture in that journey: the story of Mary and Martha and Lazarus and their dear friend Jesus. It is important that we reflect on this story and what it has to say, today, for you and me. It’s such an important story that Jesuit writer James Martin in his book Jesus: a Pilgrimage, dedicates an entire chapter to the gospel story you just heard. It might have sounded like a gospel lesson that was almost a chapter in length, but it’s really critical. He makes the point that this showed Jesus’ humanity and divinity in full panorama. Jesus loved his friends deeply. He wept. Jesus also raised his friend from the dead.
Raymond Brown, New Testament scholar, says that the Gospel of John is divided into two main sections. Chapters 1 through 12 are known as the “Book of Signs.” It chronicles Jesus’ public ministry and the signs that he did along the way or miracles if you want. And, of course, the last sign of Jesus is the one you just heard, the raising of Lazarus, and certainly, many would say, his most spectacular. Chapters 13 through 21 are known as the “Book of Glory” and that is where we encounter Jesus as he turns his face to Jerusalem; gathers for what would be the Last Supper; gives the final discourse or instructions to his disciples on the things that he wants them to remember: the eternal things for the time when he would no longer be physically present. And then on to Calvary, the cross, the crucifixion and his resurrection.
When Martin was writing about this encounter in Bethany, he said that it had been a seminal story in his own spiritual journey; that there was a time when he was on retreat and was actually feeling pretty good about himself and his ministry and how that was going. He shared that with his spiritual director who encouraged him to spend the rest of his time on retreat praying and reflecting on this story. As he did, he had one of those spiritual awakenings, an aha moment, if you will, and he realized that there were things in his life that needed to die, things that he needed to leave in the tomb with Lazarus. Things that were necessary to die in order for him to fully live, to take on new life. He spoke about his need to be liked, his penchant for focusing on negative things, his desire to be in control. I’m sure none of you can relate to any of that and I won’t ask for a show of hands—you know who you are.
In this journey in Lent we’re called for self-reflection. I invite you to consider this morning, what in your life needs to die? What do you need to leave behind in the tomb of Lazarus so that you, too, may experience what Jesus and God intend for each one of us: new life in Christ, full, whole, beloved. Martin goes on to talk about when he gets to the Holy Land for a pilgrimage, something he’s dreamed about for years, he has the opportunity to go to what is known as the traditional site of the tomb of Lazarus. I, too, years ago, had the privilege of going there.
Over the course of the centuries, it’s changed a little bit and in the 16th century the Franciscans carved a different entrance into the tomb. But that’s been a place that’s been venerated from the 300s. Eusebius talks about this space as being where that would’ve happened. And today, you encounter a stone entrance that you have to kind of bend down to get in and there are 24 steps, narrow steps, damp walls, dimly lit the whole way down. And when you get to the bottom of those stairs, to enter the tomb you literally have to get on your hands and knees to crawl in, to get into that sacred and holy space.
Martin talks about being in there, being by himself and praying to God to help him leave those things behind, to let die the things in his life that needed to die so that he could as he came out of the tomb take on new life. He speaks about the need to be vulnerable, to see those things, to have the courage to not only see them, but to let them go.
During this season of Lent I have been spending a lot of time in prayer and reading about the whole issue of vulnerability and it has taken me to the work of Dr. Brené Brown who is a research professor in Houston, Texas—happens to be an Episcopalian. She has spent her professional life researching vulnerability, shame, what makes a whole hearted life, what is courage about. She dispels the myth that vulnerability is weakness. Instead, she says that it is the key to living a full, whole, life-giving life. It’s counterintuitive, but everything in her research and everything in her life shows it to be true. Don’t we live in a culture where we take on the notion or are told that we are not enough? I’m not thin enough. I’m not smart enough. I’m not good enough. I am not worthy enough. I am not rich enough. I am not: fill-in the blank.
Jesus tells us that we are not only enough, but we are beloved. How do we counter those other messages? How do we climb out of that tomb of being bound by the things that are life depleting? In 2010 Brené Brown did a TED Talk in Houston, Texas. There were 500 people in attendance and she spoke very powerfully about her research on vulnerability and then she was vulnerable. She talked about how she’d spent her entire life researching, predicting and controlling, and everything she’d learned was that was all wrong; that it was critical to be vulnerable.
After she did her talk, she hid in her house for three days because she had bared herself in front of 500 people. And then she learned that the TED Talk folks were putting it up on YouTube and so then she was really terrified and told a friend, “What if 600 people watch it, what if 700 people watch it? My life’s over.” Well, lo, and behold, within about a year or so, 4 million people had watched it. And as she said, she didn’t have a contingency plan for 4 million people watching this talk. Today, almost 30 million people have watched that talk which tells me that there are people besides Jan Cope, James Martin and Brené Brown who have issues with vulnerability.
In the season of Lent, part of what has come back to me which I know to be true, is that one of my greatest struggles and perhaps this is true of some of you, is the need to please, to try and meet everyone’s expectations and it’s exhausting and we know it’s also not achievable. But our gospel message tells us and Jesus tells us, I am enough, flawed but beloved.
At this juncture in Bethany, I invite you to reflect. What in your life needs to die in order for you to experience new life? Take it to the tomb with Lazarus where you will meet Jesus who will help you with the things that you need to leave there and to let go. May you hear Jesus call to you: “Lazarus come out; Jan, come out; James, come out; Brené, come out.” Come out into the light, new life, renewed, restored and ready to go. Amen.