Lent is coming. And I wanted to get back into the right frame of mind this year. Through internet meandering a few months before, I had come upon St. Lydia's, a dinner church here in Brooklyn. They had finally set root not too far from my apartment, so last night I meandered across the Gowanus Canal (all important travels require a river crossing), and arrived at their meeting place, the Brooklyn Zen Center, in time to help prepare dinner, which is the opening ritual of this community. I was kindly welcomed and was put to work setting the table. This is how intentional community begins.
After songs and breaking bread with one another, we shared a simple and filling meal of curry corn chowder and got to know each other. Then the Reading of the evening from the Gospel according to John was read, the death of Lazarus. We were asked to say aloud a passage that struck us during the recitation. I didn't say it aloud, but what struck me was "If you had been here, my brother would not have died," said by Martha in verse 21 and again by Mary in 32. It happened that this was the focus of the sermon.
The writer of John wants the reader to focus on this, because he repeats himself. If. If. Jesus had not been there. And he chose not to be there. "If" is about the possible, "then" is the result of that possibility. If Jesus had been there, claim Martha and Mary, Lazarus would still be alive. And Jesus says there are larger things at stake: the glorification of the Son of God through the glory of God.
And here is where things get interesting. John 1 is about the relationships between God, the Word of God, and Creation. And in John 11, Jesus, the Word (through whom all things were made) made flesh, is absent. In the time of suffering, Jesus, by choice, simply is not there. And Lazarus suffers and dies and everyone suffers from his absence. Everyone comes to mourn with Martha and Mary.
There is an odd theodicy of absence here. John writes that this is all for the demonstration of God's glory. John Calvin would be just fine with this. But are we? If God had been at our side in times of trouble, the trouble would have been resolved to our liking, to our approval. And God is not merely silent. God seems to be – and may very well be – gone. And we suffer for it, seemingly for God's greater glory. What comfort is that when our loved ones have suffered and died? The religions of the world found themselves upon the problems of power and of suffering.
The combination of "if" and "then" are called "conditional statements." They are basic in both grammar and logic. If a certain condition exists, then a certain result happens. I find them cold and unfeeling actions of cause and effect. "If you had been here, then my brother would not have died." It's nice and neat, but that's not how life works. Jesus disrupts both the condition and result. Before Jesus even leaves, he says he will wake up the dead Lazarus. Jesus is not there, but Lazarus will not be dead. The seemingly simply logic of life and death begins to unravel.
When Jesus finally gets there after taking his sweet ass time, he says to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (vv. 25-26). And John makes a point in Martha's response: “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” This is for the reader's benefit, not Jesus'. John is reminding the reader to pay attention. He is going back to the beginning of his gospel, of his Good News. This is a matter of Creation.
The Reading ended with some (not all) of the Jews there saying, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” And John, being ironic, winks at the reader, whose eyes should already be open to the meaning of the story. Whose eyes are open? Whose eyes are closed? Everyone's eyes, including those of dead Lazarus, will be opened and God's glory will be revealed.
But why did everyone in this story and why does everyone before and since then have to suffer so much? Is the explanation of "for God's glory" enough? Should we be satisfied with that? Does "God's glory" justify the very real suffering in the world? Lazarus' story will resolve itself nicely in his resurrection and the foreshadowing of Jesus' own. Isn't that a nice story? It's such a nice story. And in the meantime, poverty and war and death and sorrow and isolation and hatred and persecution go on and on and on.
So we approach Lent as we take time to reflect on this story and the stories of our lives. After the sermon at St. Lydia's, we were given the opportunity to share briefly our reactions to this Reading. There was much death and lack of explanation and unexpectedness in these stories. There were no easy answers, if there were any answers at all (and no one asked for them, thankfully). What there was, though, was comfort in community.
The paradox of living is that we do so as individuals and as social beings, in isolation and in community. And we suffer both ways. We also find solace both ways. And solace is good and mourning is good. And remembering who we are together and individually is good. These are good things. We must live towards our death and in doing so we live beyond our death. Reflecting upon our death and suffering, we live beyond our death and suffering.
Do you believe this? If only…