Called Out

April 02, 2017
John 11:1-45

Lately, my foot hurts.

I am having a flare up of plantar fasciitis.

If you have experienced plantar fasciitis you will immediately shake your head in commiseration and consolation. You know what I am going through.

For those who haven’t experienced it, there isn’t a great way to describe it other than to say that it feels like my heel is very deeply bruised most of the time and in the morning, when I first step out of bed, it feels like my whole foot might just break.

As you walk through the day it gets stretched out and begins to hurt a bit less, but then in moments the pain resurges unexpectedly and you have to walk it off again.

To experience a plantar fasciitis flare up is to feel extremely embodied and human.

The first time it happened to me I was in my late twenties. It is a condition that can occur at any age, but is more prevalent for our human bodies as we age. At the time of my first flare up I was super excited to be experiencing it because it felt like I had reached another marker of coming of age, a rite of passage of sorts. I was finally starting to get the aches and pains that come with a body the longer we live in it.

Now that I have another decade on my body, I laugh at my excitement over that moment because those aches and pains just continue to creep into our bodies as we age. What we used to be able to do, we can no longer do in the ways we used to. When we are young we are constantly learning and adapting to the skills our bodies have as we learn to live into our bodies for the first time. As we age, we must continue to learn and adapt to the abilities of our bodies as we learn to live into the shifting capacity of our bodies in new ways.

Our relationship with our bodies from birth to death is an ever present part of our human experience.

The human experience is more than just our physical bodies. It is also the emotional and spiritual experience that moves within us. And just like with our physical bodies, as we grow and live into life, we are also learning and adapting to the flowing state and capacities of our emotional and spiritual selves.

The two states of existence for us humans are inextricably linked. Our physical experiences impact our spirits. Likewise our emotional/spiritual experiences can buoy or bog down our physical bodies. We are a whole package, body and soul.

One of the brilliant aspects of the Christian journey is that, in Jesus, we have an example of what it means to fully live into that whole package life of body and spirit. His interactions with people touched their bodies and their spirits – we have seen this in the stories of the past couple of weeks of scripture that we have looked at during lent:

  • Jesus restored physical sight to the blind man while also challenging the spiritual vision of the community.
  • He asked the woman at the well for a drink of water, a necessity for our human bodies, and also offered living (spiritual) water to her.
  • In conversation with Nicodemus he affirmed that while we are born and live in our earthly bodies we must also be born in spirit to truly experience the fullness of life.
  • At the very beginning of this Lenten season, Jesus himself fasted in body in order to increase his spiritual awareness and used that spiritual strength to ward off physical temptations.

And in the story today, Jesus joins in the very embodied, whole package human, experience of grief.

The scripture passage today starts with Jesus receiving word of the illness of one of his friends, an illness that leads to death for Lazarus. And the death of others is one of many causes of grief for us humans. We grieve when we lose someone we know and love. We grieve when those we love experience the death of someone they love. We grieve when strangers die, be it from natural disasters, accidents, or senseless acts of violence. The human instinct to grieve is as natural as the reality of death in the cycle of life.

And death is natural. In certain natural processes, it is necessary for death to happen in order for life to thrive. The seasons of nature in this climate region remind us of that – in the fall things go dormant and in some cases die as fall moves into winter. Winter transitions to spring and signs of life start to appear again all around us. This new life is made possible by the dormancy and death of winter.

It is challenging though, for those of us who are living, to really grasp that death is a natural part of life. It feels unnatural to us. When loved ones move into the shadows of death, we are left to walk in the valley of death. A valley created by the rift left in our lives from the death of others.

It is into the valley of the shadow of death that Jesus is walking in the John text we heard today. When he arrives on the scene in Bethany his first encounter is with Lazarus’ sister Martha, who is in the throes of grief. She brings to Jesus the if-only’s that so often find voice early in our journeys of grief – if only you had been here, this wouldn’t have happened. Mary, Martha’s sister echoes the same response, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died. When we walk in the valley of death the path leads us through second guesses and a deep desire for denial to be truth instead of illusion.

Martha even presses Jesus further – if only you will do something about it now, change the story Jesus.

And Jesus does. He changes the story for Lazarus, his family, and a whole community. But before he does that – he grieves. Because once again, Jesus is living into the reality of being a whole package, body and spirit, human being. He comes into the town of Bethany, fully aware of his plans to once again showcase the glory of God, and yet, when he sees the pain and sorrow of his beloved friends at the loss of their brother. He is deeply moved. Even Jesus can’t escape the physical response that accompanies the emotional/spiritual side of loss and love. He weeps.

He grieves. And…he acts.

You see Jesus came to Bethany with a specific purpose. A purpose that he had in mind before Lazarus was even dead and in the tomb. He came to affirm the presence and intention of God to restore and breathe life and hope into all things. From the beginning, God has been present and actively creating and engaging in life. Jesus comes to Bethany to remind us of God’s presence and to restore our hope.

And we need that reminder and restoration.

Grief is a powerful agent in our lives. Grief is something we experience not just because of death, we experience varying levels of grief for all sorts of reasons, in times of tangible and intangible loss, in times of failure, in times of illness, in times of disappointment, in times of change, in times of trauma…grief is a companion in many ways in our lives. And it is not an easy or quick path to travel.

Dr Clarissa Pinkola Estes is a poet, psychoanalyst, and a post-trauma recovery specialist. She put together an International Post Trauma Recovery Protocol which was used and then sent out as a resource for others following the earthquake in Nepal in 2015. [Thanks to Crissie for sending it my way] The document names the potential responses to grief/shock/trauma that we as humans might experience and then offers some tangible tips for recovery. Within the document is says this:

[trauma/grief] can make us feel like we have lost our minds. We have not. But a huge wind has blown through us upsetting all previous order. Order will return. A new order.

In this story and in our lives, God, through Jesus, is at work establishing a new order.

An order that is beyond our own understandings and expectations. When Jesus steps up to act he says to the gathered crowd, “take away the stone.” The crowd responds with hesitation, they respond with what they know based on their experience. “But Jesus, by this time there is a bad odor, he has been there four days.” We are hesitant to look beyond our own understandings and expectations. Yet, when we cling too tightly to the stones of limitation in place in our lives we fail to leave space for the possibility of God’s movement.

And God moves in the world in creative and unexpected ways.

Jesus patiently responds to the hesitancy of the gathered crowd. He reminds them that God’s glory can be seen if we choose to see it and if we choose to take part in the work of God in the world. Those gathered there choose to take action, they move the stone away from the tomb and Jesus, calls in a loud voice:

“Lazarus, come out!”

Within the dormant tomb, Lazarus hears the call. From out of the depths of the tomb he steps forth, still wrapped in the markers of death. And then Jesus calls the community to take part in the restoration of Lazarus telling them: “go, take off the grave clothes, let him go free.”

We are called out to create space for and be participants in the movement of God in the world. We are called out as individuals [like Lazarus, who had to choose to respond to the call of life and step forth from the grave]. And we are called out for each other [like the gathered community, who had to choose to help Lazarus remove the remnants of death and step into a new way of life together].

A few weeks ago, on one of the many unseasonably warm days we had in February, I was resting in the hammock we have in our side yard. I was physically and spiritually tired and I had retreated outside for some sunshine, fresh air, and perspective. As I lay in the hammock I looked up at the tangle of bare tree branches soaring over my head. I then closed my eyes to rest. When I opened my eyes again a while later, I was surprised to see little bursts of red scattered all along the branches I had just thought looked so barren and empty. There before my eyes was new life bursting forth. It has been there the whole time, I had not taken the time, nor made the choice to see it.

We live in the midst of death and dormancy. It surrounds us. As people faith we are called to see and name the death and dormancy around us – to call out injustice and oppression where it is and to step into spaces of grief and sorrow with and for others.

As people of faith, we can also choose to look for the signs of life in the dormant spaces of our lives and to call out hope. Joanna Harader, pastor of Peace Mennonite Church in Lawrence Kansas wrote this in a blog post this week:

There is a need for us to speak hope into places of desolation, to speak life into places of death. A need for us to remember—and to remind each other—that God’s holy wind is all around. A need for us to remember—and remind each other—that in the midst of the valley, we must keep breathing.

When we choose to seek and name hope, we may be surprised to find that it already surrounds us, calling us out of dormancy and into new life.

As whole package beings who are created to live in the constant balancing act of body and spirit, we are equipped to live with tension. We are naturally wired to live fully into the simultaneous presence of grief and hope. And we do live in the presence grief and hope…to live in the midst of that tension is like:

  • -caring spirits showing up on your doorstep for a visit and to just spend time with you when your spirit is low
  • -it is learning of the death of peace worker MJ Sharp and seeing the light of his life so vividly expressed in the memories shared by those who knew and loved him personally
  • -it is receiving and responding to an email from a young queer Mennonite who is having a rough time with their church right now but felt a surge of hope in reading about the celebration of licensing we had here last Sunday
  • -it is the work of many folks in this community to develop ways for us to tangibly welcome our neighbors by building relationships with refugee families in the area and through finding ways to support and be a place of sanctuary in a time of political turbulence
  • -it is praying the 23rd Psalm in the shower on a morning of vulnerability and choosing, beyond logic and understanding, to let yourself be bubble wrapped in the presence of God and making space for God to shepherd you from moment to moment that day

The hope in these moments doesn’t negate the grief and desolation, it doesn’t fix the brokenness that is and has been, but choosing to lean in with hope can change the way we live into the story. It can offer us a new path, a companion on the journey, and a burst of energy when we thought we were burnt out.

As we step forth in the footsteps of Jesus, may we grieve and give space for grief and may we choose to call out hope that all may step forth with new life.