11/1/2015 sermon “Unbound”

Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, Virginia 
Text: John 11:32-44
All Saints Day, Year B


Jim Ruland won the Reader’s Digest Best Life Story contest with his story, which he called Homeward Bound. Listen.

“When I was in the Navy,” Jim wrote, “I drank like a sailor. When I got out of the Navy, I drank like a sailor. You could say I went overboard.… Took a long time before I settled on the bottom. But look! A boat on the horizon. A life raft with my wife and daughter in it. ‘You’re here,’ they cheered. ‘Take us ashore!’ ‘I’m just a drunken sailor,’ I said. My wife reeled me in. ‘No, you’re the captain.’ I looked to the stars and plotted our course for home.”

– – – – –
Speaking of Lazarus, “Jesus said to them,
‘Unbind him, and let him go.’”
– – – – –
These words come at the end of today’s gospel lesson. The words we heard at the beginning of the lesson are not actually the beginning of the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from death. What our lesson leaves out is that Jesus had received word that his friend Lazarus was gravely ill. What’s more, Jesus lingered for two more days after hearing this news before setting out to go to Lazarus.

This is a seemingly cavalier attitude for Jesus to have had. John explained Jesus’ actions with the notion that Lazarus was to become a divine object lesson, was to become a way to reveal Jesus as the Christ. If so, Jesus was following the will of God, was himself bound by the need to fulfill the wishes of God. But still, this image of Jesus is not one that we particularly like.

We see a whole different Jesus when he arrived at Lazarus house and saw everyone weeping. Jesus became “greatly disturbed in spirit” and then HE began to weep. The verb used here for “weep” indicates that Jesus sobbed so violently that his weeping shook his whole body. At this point, when he experienced the reality of the situation, Jesus became unbound, in a way. He was participating in God’s will, but was very, very sorry about Lazarus.

Duccio, The Raising of Lazarus, 1310–11

Let’s freeze the scene right here. Jesus was sobbing, but unbound. Everyone else in this story was stuck in place. Lazarus was four days dead, bound by death. His sisters and his friends were bound by their grief and by their blame. “Lord, if you had been here,” Mary said, “my brother wouldn’t have died.” And Lazarus’ friends said, “If you cured a blind man, why not Lazarus?”

Compare these attitudes of people who were close to Jesus to the attitudes of strangers. For example, several chapters earlier in John’s gospel Jesus told a royal official that he had healed the man’s son FROM A LONG WAY AWAY, and the man believed him.

Perhaps we shouldn’t judge Lazarus’ family and friends too harshly, though. After all, they WERE grieving. And grief has a way of stripping us down to the essentials, revealing what’s at our core, and revealing what binds us.

So it’s no wonder that our lesson says that “Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb.” The tomb is eerily prescient of the tomb that Jesus himself will soon be in, the tomb that Jesus knew lay ahead of him, the tomb that WE know lies ahead of each of us.

Jesus, facing Lazarus’ death—and eventually death itself—told them to take away the stone. But they balked; death is a stinky business. Jesus chided them for their lack of faith and they eventually rolled the stone away. Little did they know that by practicing their faith here, this would become a “training leap” for greater leaps of faith later. “So they took away the stone.”

Then Jesus did what he so often did before performing great miracles; he “looked upward” as he prayed, thanking God for ALREADY DOING what he was asking of God. Then Jesus instructed Lazarus to “come out” of his tomb and his family and friends to “unbind him, and let him go.”

The Raising of Lazarus, 14th century, Decani Monastery, Serbia (courtesy BLAGO Archives)

Of course, Jesus’ instructions involved unwrapping Lazarus of the burial cloths in which he had been wrapped. But there’s a deeper meaning here, as well. Lazarus had been bound by death itself, and needed to be released to new life.

Of course, Lazarus eventually died again. But his return to this life became the object lesson that God wanted us to have. Jesus’ function on earth was not to save us from mortal death, but to defeat death itself so that death cannot bind us.

And yet, this part of today’s lesson makes me wonder, how do we get “bound,” get stuck, in life?

For many years, for example, I was bound by a stinking relationship with my father. Truth be told, at home he just wasn’t a nice man. Not until his funeral in 2009 was I able—listening to the testimonies of many of the people whom he had helped—to see him anew and to forgive him. Unbound!

There are all manner of other ways by which we might be bound here in this life:

  • By our habits, which (like Jim Ruland’s habit) might not be fully life-giving;
  • By our health, for which we might be avoiding full responsibility;
  • By our fear of death, despite our knowledge of and belief in life eternal;
  • Or even, by allowing ourselves to be bound to others in less-than-healthy ways.

Today Jesus tells us to become unbound. He even shows us how to get loose of what binds us. Following Jesus’ example, we need to “look up to heaven,” give thanks to God for already creating a new reality in our lives, and then live into that new reality.

Of course, some help from friends and even strangers may be required. By ourselves, we humans have a very hard time living an unbound life for any length of time. This is why we immerse ourselves in a community of faith, in Resurrection, so that we can unbind each other. This is why we observe All Saints Day, to remind ourselves of those who have gone before who show us by their example the way to live an unbound life.

Today we follow the example of Lazarus. Let go of whatever binds you; be unbound.

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