Writer Sarah Dylan Breuer believes the core of our lectionary text this morning can be found in John 11:44 “Unbind him, and let him go.” Or in her words, “Open every dark place to light and air; this is the time to uncover and unbind!” Breuer’s analysis of this text is this, Jesus has come to heal and mend that which is broken. And Jesus heals these wounds, our wounds, and the world’s wounds, by unbinding those in pain and letting them go. We are all called as disciples of Jesus to open every place hidden from the light of love, to uncover what is hidden and unbind what is being held down and held back.
A little context might help us understand this well-known text. First, Mary and Martha and Lazarus were living in tune with Jesus' radical call. And because they all lived under one roof, "unattached," this provided them a great deal of freedom, including the freedom to be extravagantly generous hosts. And another key point here is that Lazarus is the only male in the household in a culture in which a woman without a man was profoundly vulnerable to poverty and exploitation.
And so it goes, a family of sisters and brother, who have given everything to living the Jesus way, who offer a ministry of hospitality in Jesus name to their “sisters and brothers” in faith, find that this selfless, faith-filled, dedication to Jesus has not been rewarded with a long life or an easy life. This situation proves that being faithful to Jesus is in no way a guarantee against pain and tragedy. There is no one on earth whose righteousness, wisdom, hard work, and good planning will preserve her from seeing the depths that Mary and Martha see. Good people become widows and orphans. If Lazarus dies it could get even worse.
However, here is the good news of the story, there is no depth, no loss, no tragedy, no disease or death, nothing on heaven or on earth or under the earth that can place the world or anyone in it beyond God's redemption. Our God is redeeming us every day, unbinding us and setting us free, letting us go. It happens all around us every day and we are called to bear witness to what God is doing and to become disciples like Mary, Martha and Lazarus in offering hospitality and healing to those God is unbinding and setting free.
I should add here that Jesus’ miracle of bringing his friend Lazarus to life needs to be understood as what it is, a story that defies our western scientific assessment of what is and what is not possible. In Jesus’ time medicine was not what it is today. People believed in miracles and faith healings and went regularly to persons like Jesus for this experience. Faith healing was one of the very few things said about the Jesus of history by contemporaries of Jesus who were not part of his movement. What scholars do say is that what set Jesus apart from all the other miracle workers and faith healers was that he did not charge for his service. Jesus’ ministry of healing was not done to make himself wealthy or famous, these acts like bringing Lazarus to life were carried out to point to what God was doing, is doing, in our world. Jesus healing of Lazarus is part of the story of God’s redeeming love for those bound and in need of being set free.
I witnessed a story like this first hand. Several years ago I was contacted by a woman named Mary about her dear friend Orest. They had been friends for years and Mary had witnessed her friend steadily lose all that he held dear: his family, his career, his friends, and his sense of self. Only his faith remained and now even that was at risk. Orest had visited almost every church in metro looking for answers to his questions, which were mostly about how his life could have come to be so bound up. According to Mary Orest had read my columns and had reached out to me for help but had received my voicemail, and feeling defeated had not left a message. Mary begged me to call Orest. And so I did.
I told Orest about the various churches I served and others I knew well. His response was to sigh and say, “I’ve been to those churches and nothing really worked.” Then I told him about Brunswick Street United, an informal gathering of 15 disciples in a circle, where conversations might be deep and spiritual one Sunday night and chaotic and strange the next. I wasn’t sure such a service would work for Orest, after all he came from an Orthodox background and he was something of an intellectual, there would be no beautiful liturgy or deeply researched and footnoted sermon. But the more I told him about Brunswick Street the more he wanted to know.
That Sunday night Orest joined us in the circle. He came wearing his night security outfit, at 82 he was still working, struggling to make a living. We don’t have formal sermons at Brunswick Street, I ask a question based on the lectionary reading for the day and then the circle all speak to it based on their own life experience. Orest joined in. He asked his questions and he heard responses around the circle, some of these answers were clearly ones he had not heard before.
Week after week Orest came on Sunday night with his deep and personal questions and people around the circle shared their answers. Orest would respectfully disagree, push back, he did not understand how a loving God would allow his life to go in such a painful direction when everything had looked early on like it was all going so well. Around the circle Orest heard from others with similar stories, women and men who had come to new understandings of what life with God meant, what a blessing was and what success looked like.
What we all began to notice with Orest was that while his questions were not changing the tone was. He seemed less angry, less agitated, less bewildered. In asking the questions, in listening to the others and their answers, there was now more peace. Slowly but surely God was redeeming Orest, healing Orest, unbinding him and setting him free.
And then one day, like Lazarus, Orest told us that he was dying. He tried a variety of treatments, some conventional, some not. But he continued to die. When he went to the hospital a member of our church came up with a Spirit-filled idea, we would all come on the First Sunday of Advent with a gift for Orest and we would wrap it that night. Brian took our photos and together, gift and picture of our smiling faces, we would give Orest one gift a day while he was in the hospital. The delight in Orest’s eyes as he opened each gift was healing for him and healing for us. In a very real way Orest was being unbound and set free.
Unlike Lazarus Orest died and was not brought back to life. But his time with us in the circle every Sunday night was a reminder to us all that God seeks to redeem each and every one of us, to unbind and set free. Like Mary, Martha and Lazarus we are all given the opportunity to be part of that effort, to be generous with our hospitality and healing care. Some of us even get to offer a gesture like Mary who poured expensive ointment on Jesus’ feet.
May Bethany find opportunity to sit with one another and be part of what God is doing in our world, to “open every dark place to light and air, to uncover and unbind!” It will truly bring others back to life, bring us back to life, bring our church back to life. Amen.