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Sunday, March 04, 2012

Let the Mystery Be: A Sermon

Let the Mystery Be
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

March 4, 2012
Second Sunday of Lent

John 11:1-57 (Scholars' Version)

The story of Lazarus is a curious one.

I have been fascinated by this story since I was a little kid.

There is all this business of Jesus delaying so he can make a big show. Of course, there are Martha’s famous words when Jesus commands that the stone be rolled away after Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days.

The King James puts its best.  

“Lord! By this time, he stinketh.”

Jesus shouting at the top of his lungs:  

“Lazarus, come out!” 

The corpse of Lazarus rumbles and bumbles, and out he staggers, wrapped like a mummy.

Jesus says: “Unbind him and let him go!”

John’s gospel tells the stories in a big way. Jesus just doesn’t cure a person from blindness, but a person born blind. He doesn’t just raise a child from death who has recently died, but he raises a guy who has been entombed for four days. He doesn’t just make a little bit of wine from water, but enough for several parties and better wine than the host served first. When Jesus goes to his execution, unlike the synoptic gospels, who have someone carry the cross for him, in John, Jesus carries his own cross. Jesus isn’t the adopted son of God at his baptism, or even his birth as in the other gospels. In John, Jesus is the pre-existent Word in the beginning with God. No one messes with John’s Jesus unless he allows them to do so. He is kind of like Chuck Norris. Jesus doesn’t even need to pray. He just prays for the benefit of others who hear. Abraham? Ha! Before Abraham, I AM. That is John’s Jesus.

John’s story leaves many unanswered questions. Such as, what happened to Lazarus? I thought it might have been interesting to ask Lazarus what it was like to be dead. Did his soul go somewhere then come back? Did he see the light? Did he have a spirit guide? Did he go to Hades or to Heaven? Did he hover over his body? Or was he simply without consciousness then have it back again? Was he the same guy when he came back? Were his memories intact? Was he happy coming back? Did he stinketh?

None of that is interesting to John. We never hear of or from stinky Lazarus again.

Those kinds of questions always get you in trouble in Sunday School. Just stick to the script. I used to ask a lot of troubling questions. I learned fairly early that my preachers and teachers were pretty grave about the Bible. It wasn’t a book to enjoy, really, it was a book to believe.

I preach on the Bible about as much as any other preacher. I don’t preach on it as if it were a book to believe. I don’t find most of it particularly believable, at least in the way that we were supposed to believe it. For instance, that this story is about something that happened. I look at it and I see some kind of literary imagination at work, or perhaps on oral story put in writing. The author may be having fun with us.

I don’t find this story credible, but I do find it enjoyable. I don’t think that is a bad way to read the gospels or the Bible for that matter. I think we should at least have as much fun as the authors had. I think we tend to regard these stories far too gravely and more gravely than the authors intended us to regard them.

To put it bluntly, our serious, belief-oriented readings stinketh. We need to hear the command to come out and to be unbound. My irreverence is not intended to be a dismissal of these stories. It is intended to prod (myself mostly) out of a too serious, belief-oriented, reading. If this story seems funny and weird, then go with it. There may be something to that.

When I suggest that Jesus in the Gospel of John is a more of a fictional character than an historical figure, and that John is using his creative imagination in creating this story, it isn’t that I am saying throw out the gospel.

When I learn that these Appalachian mountains are 500 million years old and formed by natural processes such as continental crashes as opposed to being created 6,000 years ago by God, that doesn’t make them less sacred. I find that natural explanation far more interesting, actually.

When I admire a painting or hear a beautiful song, it doesn’t make either less admirable or less beautiful because human beings were the painters and the singers as opposed to angels.

I can be inspired and intrigued by Hamlet’s soliloquy even though I know that Hamlet was a creation of Shakespeare. It is easier of course with Hamlet as opposed to Jesus because there was no church that claimed Hamlet was the second person of the Trinity. Hamlet is thus unbound from the strictures of church dogma.

This is one of the changes that has been underway for some time. The Bible is beginning to be seen as a human product and as a classic of Western literature. It no longer belongs to the church. It can be read, interpreted, enjoyed, and criticized as a literary product. When it is unbound from church restrictions, it can be an inspiration to our creativity.

This is true for other so-called holy books, such as the Qur’an or the Bhagavad Gita. Those who want to have control of those books and their interpretation may not like this freedom, but it doesn’t matter. Those books do not belong to them. They belong to all of us. The field is wide open. The stone to the tomb has been rolled away.

“Come out!”

This freedom allows us to read again these texts with a new perspective.

That freedom has to do with reading, enjoying, and savoring these stories and the life questions they raise with curiosity, unbounded curiosity, as opposed to indoctrination. We can have a conversation with the author. We can resist the author. We can embrace the author.

In this story, Jesus says to Martha,

“Your brother will be raised.”

Martha responds, 

“I know he’ll be raised—in the resurrection on the last day.”

Jesus said to her, 

“I am the resurrection and the life; those who believe in me, even if they die, will live, but everyone who is alive and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Throughout the Gospel of John, the reader is often at a loss of how literal to take the character of Jesus when he makes these pronouncements. This story is odd in the fact that Martha seems to have the doctrine correct. That is even traditional Christian doctrine, resurrection on the last day. Yet apparently, that isn’t right.

For John has Jesus say that anyone “who is alive and believes will never die.” That is odd. He can’t literally mean that. Or does he? Is “die” a metaphor for something? Does he just mean those who believe will go to heaven when they die? What would the difference between that and what she originally said? Does “believe” and thus “never die” mean quality of life?

What does that have to do with Lazarus? The zombie thing? The corpse that stinketh coming back to life is just kind of creepy. Are we still to assume that Lazarus is still alive somewhere? Or did he die again or just go to heaven?

I am sure there are preachers who will give you the answers.

I think answers are boring. They turn us into believers (or non-believers) rather than curious seekers.

What happens after death?

I don’t know. Do you know?

I personally have not met anyone or read anyone ever who has convinced me that they actually know anything about life after death. I have met people who believe and who seem certain and are concerned that I believe correctly (or at least that I lead the sheep correctly). I simply don’t find them convincing.

I especially don’t find people convincing who claim (and all religions and spiritualties seem to do this) that there are certain practices or beliefs you have to do in this life to get the best action on the other side. I am not convinced. I am not convinced they know what is on the other side and I am skeptical that I have to jump through beliefs or practices to get there.

Someone posted on Facebook a phrase that made me snicker. It said,

“I am going to hell in every religion.”

That is probably true for me.

In the worry over life after death, I will let that mystery be.

However, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t fun to think or talk about.

I am having fun now with the idea of the multi-verse, the possibility of an infinite number of universes.  That sounds fun.  Maybe I will experience consciousness in one of them.  Who knows?

Mostly I am just amazed when I allow myself to be aware that I am actually here.

I think when Jesus has that conversation with Martha that Martha is anxious. She has her beliefs "right", but they aren’t that comforting. Jesus says,

“…everyone who is alive and believes (or trusts which is a better word) in me will never die…”

He is saying in effect, 

“Don’t worry about it so much.”

John’s Jesus is the authoritative Word from the beginning. He knows everything. He can do anything. He is the Chuck Norris Jesus. You know those Chuck Norris jokes. Like this one:

“The universe isn’t expanding. It is just running away from Chuck Norris.”

That Jesus, is telling Martha, I am the guy with the answers. Trust me. Don’t trust your religious doctrine. Trust that whatever happens, alive or dead, it is OK.

This is what I take away.

There is a great deal of anxiety about our lives. Certainly. The contingencies of life are challenging and there is suffering to be sure. One of the goals of religious institutions ought to be to help people negotiate and come to terms with the contingencies of life. They do that.

Sometimes, however, they can add needless suffering. I see people
 anxious that they are good enough,
worried that they will believe the wrong things,
or convinced that they believe the right things,
concerned that God will reject them or has rejected them.

Much of that comes because they have been brow-beaten by some form of religion. The answer from these spiritual abusers has been,

“No you are not good enough and you are going to hell unless you believe X, Y, and Z and do A, B, and C.”

I keep thinking to myself that that cannot be the main narrative out there. I keep naively optimistic that people are not that religiously abusive. But, then I run into reality. That spiritual abuse and its effects are rampant.

The abuse is based on something that no one can possibly know.

How can anyone know anything about God or about what happens (if anything) when we die? The most anyone can do is make guesses. Your guess is as good as any preacher’s.

Let the mystery be.

I think that the author of John’s gospel was in his own quirky way trying to get that message across. He creates this character, Jesus, as the Word with God from the beginning of time to come down to Earth and to give the answers.

The first miracle that the Creator the Universe performs when he comes down to Earth in human form is turn water into wine. He is the life of the wedding party. That should say something about how John wants us to approach the mystery of life.

He has Jesus say, in effect:

“I have been there. I have been everywhere. I and the Father are One. Chuck Norris runs away from me.”

The answer to life’s perplexing questions is,

“Trust.”

Trust.

If John’s Jesus is the personification of Reality, I hear Reality say:

"Chill out. 
Come out! 
Be unbound! 
I am life. 
Enjoy it. 
Whatever happens after you are dead, it is OK too. 
How can it not be OK? 
In the meantime, 
I am the party and I am in charge."

Amen.
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