Jesus, Lazarus and Al


A sermon preached on February 20th, 2011 based upon John 11:1 – 44, and on the occasion of the death of our friend, Al Booth. 

Our Gospel lesson this morning tells the story of a family’s grief, and a Savior who weeps.  We hear of a family in Bethany consisting of a brother Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha.   About four years ago, Al Booth preached from this pulpit on the occasion of the baptism of Bob and Joanne Vance’s youngest daughter.  Al based his sermon on Mary and Martha, comparing them to his own mother and aunt.  Al recognized his family in the family of Lazarus’ – families   with a great deal of love for one another; where guests were often welcomed into the home, and great pleasure was found in sitting down together around a good home-cooked meal. 

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill.

“Now a certain man was ill” — to the point of dying.   All human beings are alike in some very basic ways – including the fact that one day we will die. But each human being is unique in the sense that each is given to a particular group of people to love and be loved, and it is this particular group that will weep at any given man’s passing.  

Who was this Lazarus? Down through the ages, his name is known by billions, but we know very little about him.   Here’s what we do know: Lazarus was loved by his sisters Mary and Martha, and he was loved by Jesus, and apparently by many others in the town of Bethany in which he lived.   In the end, it is the loves of Lazarus’ life that are remembered; it is the love of a person’s life that defines us.

Now there was a certain man named Al Booth who was very ill.   And he, too was loved by a particular group of people, including his wife Gail, and his children Tracy and Tim, his brothers and sisters, his nephews and nieces, as well as a whole bunch of people in the little church where Al worshipped every Sunday, cooked dinners, took kids fishing, and played Santa Claus.  We loved him not so much for what he did, but because he was easy to love, and we felt loved by him.

So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’

“He whom you love,” said the sisters to Jesus of their brother Lazarus, as though they felt they needed to remind Jesus of his love for Lazarus — get him to live up to his love of Lazarus. “Lord! Remember, this is a man dear to your heart. Come quickly and save the day!”

And in the days of Al’s illness, we too have reminded Jesus that he loves Al as well; we too, have called upon him to come and heal this man we love.

But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus* was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

Alas, Jesus delayed.   He chose to delay. From our human point of view, this seems incomprehensible.   Jesus could have come quickly, but instead he chose to let Lazarus die.   He chose to let the hearts of Mary and Martha break.

And, alas, Jesus let our beloved Al die, as well.   He let our hearts break.  What are we to make of this? 

Then after this (Jesus) said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’  The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the religious authorities were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’

At the center of our faith is this man named Jesus. This man who walked upon this earth in human flesh nearly 2000 years ago is the reason we are here today.   He shared fully in our humanity. He didn’t run from a world of pain and struggle and conflict and broken hearts.  He joins us in the death walk. He chooses to go to the place where there are people waiting to kill him, in order to be with those he loves.

He knows death from the inside.   Therefore he was there to take the hand of Al in his death walk. 

Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand,I am tired, I am weak, I am worn; through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light: Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.

Here’s one memory I have of Al.  There was a Maundy Thursday service thattook place many years ago, during a time in which Al was in a great deal of pain personally, going through the breakup of his first marriage, stuck in a job in which he found no pleasure.   During the service we simply read aloud the story of Jesus’ passion, his arrest and betrayal, his abandonment, his torture, his slow, painful death.  

Al came forth from the service with tears in his eyes.  He heard the story of Jesus’ suffering, and he knew that his own suffering was a place to be in communion with Jesus.  He felt Jesus’ presence with him to help him find the strength to put one foot in front of another.  Al found the courage to carry his cross. 

Around that same time Al’s son Tim realized just how much Al disliked his job, how hard it was for him to get up and go to that job.   Tim asked his father, “How do you do it?”   

“Well, I take comfort,” said Al, “in the fact that I really have no choice.  I have a job.  I’ve got to go to work.” 

“Take up your cross, daily”, Jesus said, “and follow me.”

Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep.

Time and again in the Gospels, Jesus is a mystery to his disciples.   His words and actions repeatedly confuse and bewilder them.  Only over time is the meaning of it  all revealed.   

So it is with us.  Things begin to make sense only by and by.  It takes patience to make the faith walk. 

Al was the patron saint of patience. 

Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’

In John’s Gospel, the point is made that Jesus had friends.   They were disciples, but they were friends as well. Jesus called them such.   Often they didn’t understand him — often they didn’t know what it was he was up to.  But beneath everything, they knew Jesus was their friend.   And if it was time for Jesus to die, well, they would go and keep him company. 

Sometimes friendship and faith are hard to distinguish — this basic, underlying loyalty that keeps us afloat.

Al was good at friendship.  He was loyal.   There was a lot Al couldn’t figure out in this life, which is just the way life is.  But one thing he knew for sure:  he knew where his loyalties were.  And that was enough.

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus* had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles* away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’

Martha speaks for all of us, doesn’t she?   Now and then we hear remarkable stories about people who receive miraculous healings — patients whom doctors had given up hope on — and suddenly they were well again — the doctors know not how.   The eyes of faith recognize the hand of God.

But alas, why then, and not now, Lord?  Why have you chosen to let my heart break?

Jesus said to (Martha), ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah,* the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’

It is never easy, but where we have the patience to rely simply in our faith that God is good, that Jesus is trustworthy, come what may — even when our hearts are breaking, then a mysterious transformation begins to take place.  We let go.  A peculiar peace descends.  Martha is able to say simply, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the savior.  I will put my trust in you — come what may.”

I was moved in recent weeks by Gail and the rest of the Booth clan.    I saw them reach a point where they were ready to let go; they could release their tight grip on Al’s life in this world.   They came to his bedside and said simply, “I love you Al.  I am so very grateful that you have been a part of my life.   I’d love for God to bring about one of his miracles here so you could be restored to me.  But if you and God decide that you are ready to leave this world and join the saints in glory, you have my blessing.   Whichever you and God choose; I’ve got your back, buddy.”

When Martha had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’  When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’

Jesus wept.  His tears, like everything else about him, led people to react to him in conflicting ways.   He remains a mystery, misunderstood.

How do we understand the tears of Jesus at Lazarus’ grave site?

I think they have two meanings, both of which we are invited to embrace.

The first is simply this.  Jesus loved Lazarus, his friend, and so he shares in the tears of sorrow at his death.  This is a big part of what it means to be human.  To love is to have your heart broken, and one way to respond to this fact is to keep your heart protected; love things, not people; that way you won’t have to cry.  

But this is a big mistake.  We lose our souls along the away of playing it safe.  

Jesus’ tears show us that tears are to be embraced.  If Jesus — the manliest man ever, could weep at the graveside of his friend, then so can we.  Tears are the lubricant of the holy spirit.  They help bring us to that place of letting go.

The second meaning of Jesus tears is that he is weeping not so much for Lazarus as he is weeping for the rest of us in this world where death roams the land like this cold-hearted bully, intimidating us to live lives of timidity, cowering in fear.

Jesus has come to take down the bully.  

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone.

Eighteen years ago, Al suffered his first heart attack.  I remember visiting him in the hospital.  The heart attack clearly expressed the darkness Al was going through in his life.  Al was on his way to death.

But life came back to Al’s body, reflected by changes that were taking place in his life.   He moved through the darkness of his divorce.  He got more deeply involved in the life of our church, awakening his innate spirituality, finding expression for his wonderful, wacky creativity.  And he met Gail.   And life became good again.

And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’

For whom did Jesus perform this wondrous miracle?   For Lazarus?  No, not in the usual sense of the word.  Lazarus wasn’t better off being alive once more in this world.  Lazarus had already entered into glory land, where there is no death, no tears, and every thing is made new.  It was wonderful there.   Lazarus had a home in glory.  

No, Jesus was inviting Lazarus to be a servant of the Gospel – to take up his cross and follow — to give up his home in glory for a time and come back to this life so that he could have a hand in revealing God’s glory to the people who have loved him, so that they might not be so bullied by death.  

Jesus was inviting Lazarus to take on once more the burdens of life in this world, with the pain and hunger and decay that are part and parcel of having flesh and blood — come back to a world where lost souls commit violence with crosses and all manner of cruelty. 

 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’

Lazarus came forth from the tomb; but in short order, Jesus would be entering the tomb.  In a couple of days at a dinner party hosted by the family for Jesus, sister Mary, recognizing what others were missing, would weird folks out by cracking open an alabaster jar of expensive ointment, filling the room with the lovely fragrance.  She would go on to anoint Jesus’ body, in anticipation of his burial. 

Not long after that, Jesus was nailed to a cross.   

And shortly there after Jesus began showing up in a new resurrection body — one that would never suffer death again. 

It’s John’s Gospel that records the lovely little story of a bunch of old friends whose hearts were broken by grief who decide to go fishing.     Fishing is what they had been doing when they met the friend for whom they were grieving. 

But that night they caught not one fish.  

As the morning was just breaking, a stranger appeared on the shore.   “Children, have you caught any fish?” he asked.

“Cast your nets on the other side,” he said.

They did, and there were suddenly more fish than they knew what to do with. 

And in that moment they recognized their friend, who it turns out, was busy cooking them breakfast. 

Will the circle be unbroken, by and by, Lord by and by. There’s a better home awaiting in the sky, Lord in the sky.