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Ground Control to Major Tom

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Apr 02

Text: John 11: 1-45

Friends, the story we are about to hear – the Raising of Lazarus – is one of the most powerful and emotionally charged passages in all the Gospels. Indeed, we read it during this 5th week of Lent in preparation for the Holy Week drama that begins to unfold next week on Palm Sunday. The story is long, and demands our best attention. As I read it, I invite you to close your eyes, and to enter into it as a meditation. Listen to what the characters are saying to one another. Listen with your heart to what they might be feeling, whether its Mary, Martha, one of the crowd, Jesus or perhaps even Lazarus himself...

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I’ll come to those emotions you all may be holding in a moment. First, I want begin today with a story about David Bowie. From Duke Ellington last Sunday to the so-called Thin White Duke this week! Before his death in January of 2016, Bowie had become one of the most iconic glam/punk/pop-rock musicians ever to live, a global rebel and rock star whose fame as a performer in part evolved through a series of often cosmic, musical alter-egos. Ever sophisticated, ever-innovative, Bowie literally wore the identities of some of his better-known songs. Consider Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke and Alladin Sane. For that latter alter ego, perhaps his most famous visually, he would wear a fiery red hairdo and a multicolored lightning bolt painted across his face. Well, it turns out that there was one more identity that came at the end of Bowie’s prolific career. Lazarus! Just three months before he died, and before virtually anyone knew he had already been diagnosed with and had ended treatments for liver cancer, he recorded a song and video, the last of his epic career, called “Lazarus.” In the video, a 68-year old Bowie is pictured lying flat in a hospital bed, with an eerie-looking bandage draped across his face. Lying down and sometimes levitating, he soberly croons the lyrics with that classic British accent:

“Look up here, I’m in heaven,
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen/
I’ve got drama can’t be stolen.
Everybody knows me now.”

For Bowie’s millions of fans worldwide, the song offered something of a song track for their grief, and with it a peek into his otherwise guarded inner life. On the one hand, the alter-ego of Lazarus, already in Heaven and bound by bandages on the outside, and on the other, Bowie, with inner scars that can’t be seen, with some inner turmoil and drama that can’t be stolen, not even by the paparazzi! When news of Bowie’s death traveled, fans were astonished by the seemingly prescient foreshadowing of the haunting lyrics of his last offering. It made him all the more an almost cosmic, transcendent figure, a “space oddity” as one of his number one hits was called, that could somehow cross the bounds of time and space! “This is Ground Control to Major Tom,” all over again.

Like Bowie’s song foretelling his death, we find a similar, almost eerie kind of foreshadowing in our text for today – a story that involves Lazarus in a tomb covered by a stone that needs to be rolled away, surrounded by grieving women, there are bands of cloth, too. Sound familiar? In John’s gospel, the raising of Lazarus is the last act of Jesus’ public ministry and is clearly meant to foreshadow the death and resurrection of Jesus. As such, the story itself, miraculous as it surely is, ought not to be taken too literally! It’s intended to point to something larger, indeed to something more cosmic. Yet much like we need Good Friday to truly understand the meaning of Easter, we need this scene of Lazarus, the grief of his sisters, the tears of Jesus, and the stench of death to keep us grounded in reality, lest the narrative becomes untethered! One might consider this as a story of “Ground Control to God.” It’s about the gut wrenching pain and reality of a particular human death, but one that points beyond itself and so is seen in the light of that universal glory of God, of that cosmic presence and promise of eternal life! Let’s take a closer look at the text, and in particular to two moments where we see Jesus move between his own dual identity as both human and divine.

First, the human Jesus, and that two-word statement widely heralded as the shortest verse in scripture. “Jesus wept!” Martin Luther and others point to this line as a quintessential symbol of Christ’s humanity. Luther said: “Christ’s gestures are so human that a man might never have thought that he was God.” But for what is he is weeping, after all? For his beloved friend Lazarus, no doubt, and for his family. But I wonder if his tears and turmoil don’t also transcend the immediacy of his personal relationships with this family. What if Jesus not only was weeping for his friend, but for the human condition of death and suffering writ large. What’s more, the writer of this gospel believes that Jesus knew how this story would end. What if the deep and spiritual disturbance Jesus is feeling has to do with the anticipation of his own death, and of the amazing glory that will follow it when he is raised? What if he was overwhelmed by the profound role he himself was about to play in being an instrument of God’s glory and in showing a new way for humanity to relate to suffering and death in their lives? Whichever the case, his tears say “I’m a human being.” And yet his words and actions say: “I am the resurrection and the life.” His tears suggest that he is Jesus of Nazareth, the carpenter’s son who has lost a close friend. His words say something more like “I am Jesus Christ Superstar,” who is operating at a whole different level, who sees and knows what is happening all around him, even the pain and suffering, as a sign and symbol of God’s glory revealed!

After all, why else would he wait a few days to show up? I can’t say I know for sure but I wonder if it was because he wanted to give them more time to understand what he had been telling them – that Lazarus’ illness and death ultimately pointed to something larger, to his death and new life, to the gift of eternal life he brought, and ultimately to the glory of God!. Maybe he knew that would take some time settle in! This is clearly the more divine Jesus talking here – saying he’s far more than Lazarus’s friend but that he is the resurrection and the life! The words are supposed to bring comfort and assurance, we can imagine, but Mary and Martha are rightfully inconsolable and maybe even a little angry that Jesus didn’t come sooner! The delay gives the gospel writer a chance to speak to those times in our lives when we too need to know God cares, when we too want to cry out, as Mary and Martha do, “Lord, if you had been here!” The gospel writer speaks to those times when the answers we so desperately want just aren’t there! If only you had been here, God, my brother, my father, my mother, my child, my neighbor, my very soul, would not have died! If only you had been here, Lord! Talk about an emotionally charged moment. We know there are times when we wish we could see the tears in God’s own eyes, if only to be assured that the divine presence was truly with us in our despair, or in our outrage over how unfair and unjust life can sometimes be. And yet, here, we return to Jesus’ human tears that shows us that he gets it, he’s with them at the grave and he’s with us, just not always in the ways or in the timing we want.

Whether through his words and promises that point beyond the particulars of the moment, or through his tears, Jesus has his eye on a bigger picture, a broader perspective, a larger, divine drama that constantly surrounds and enfolds the intimate particulars of our short lives. It's a broader perspective that connects us with ages past, and ages to come and to a faith, hope and love that abides through it all! Even and especially in those excruciating moments of our private grief and pain, we can be assured that God’s life is bigger, that’ God’s story is larger, that God’s love is stronger, stronger even than death.

This past week, I went to Baltimore with a group of leaders from the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization. We met with colleagues, clergy and lay, from GBIO-like groups from 22 metropolitan areas. Part of our time was spent building 1:1 relationships with peers from other cities. During one of our breakouts, I met a fiery Catholic priest of a congregation that serves 1,300 mostly immigrant, mostly undocumented families in a poor part of New Haven. I had worked with Fr. Jim a few times before and was eager to catch up with him. When we sat down, he leaned back in his chair, while somehow leaning in to ask me an amazing question: “So, man,” he says to me, “what’s been making your life big these days?” Since we were there as part of a community organizing conference, I told him about some of our current work in GBIO and where I’m feeling stretched to think bigger about this place and our shared ministry. He shared the same with me. The conference was all about asking us to think bigger for this moment, to take a longer view and to thinking not reactively to the headlines but proactively, not just statewide but nationally, when it comes to our collective power and to our work of resistance, whether for immigrants, criminal justice reform, gun control or jobs. I thanked him and told him I’d be using that question in my 1:1’s from now on, and not just in terms of what is making our lives bigger when it comes to our organizing work.

Consider it now: If you are a care giver, I wonder, what is making your heart bigger these days? If you are one with gifts for prayer, or music or the arts, what is making your soul bigger? If you are a researcher or a teacher or a business person, what is making you think bigger? And, as importantly, for the sake of what? Jesus gives us a hint. He says it’s for the glory of God! As he set his face towards Jerusalem, his purpose of Love with a capital L and Justice with a capital J would involve confrontation with power, sacrifice, tears, suffering and ultimately death, but all of those particulars of his own life and story were for the glory of God’s eternal life in which we all have a role to play!

As Holy Week approaches, I wonder if our text gives us all an opportunity to ask what is making our lives bigger! How can we better situate our lives, our stories, our grief and pain in the light of God’s love and in an experience of that cosmic and eternal life that Jesus offers us, right here and right now? Could we dare to think of our tears in times of grief, and those of Jesus, not as ends in themselves, but as foreshadowing and a preparing the way for God’s glory to shine? Given the powers of empire that we are being asked to confront in this moment of our country’s history, it’s almost as if we too could use a super-charged Christian or spiritual alter-ego to remind us that our lives are never as small, or narrow, nor as predictable as we might sometimes think! We need that sense of ground control, to be sure, the anchors of our stories, of our relationships, but man can we blast off, and blast off together, into a far bigger and more purposeful life when we remember that we are already part of God’s cosmic and eternal life, right here and right now! Maybe it’s time, as the great Bowie song goes: “Take your protein pills and put your helmets on! Commencing countdown, engines are on. This is Ground Control to Major Tom, Major Alice, Major Moana, Major Kate, Major Holly, Major Cesar! Check ignition and may God's love be with you!”

As one commentator has noted, “Amid painful circumstances and death-dealing social realities we yearn for [new life] and the unbinding that releases us to dream [and hope] beyond the boundaries [of reason].”(1) As Jesus says: “Lazarus, come out. Unbind him and let him go!” Whatever imagination we need to keep us thinking and dreaming bigger, to set our inner scars in the vast universe of God’s presence and love, we can and must heed Christ’s call and come out of those particular places which keep us less than fully alive. Come out, right here, right now! Try on a new spiritual alter ego! Let your rebellious, punk rock, freak flags fly if you want! Come out to this table of love, knowing that our stories and our tears are always welcome, always part of something larger. Unbind yourselves, all of you, and give yourselves to a larger story, a greater glory, a cosmic hope, and to an abiding and resurrected love that outlasts death. And to think, this story of Lazarus, these tears of mercy and this unbinding is just the prequel of the Holy Week that is almost upon us! Glory be to God, indeed. Amen!

1) David O. Duke, from “Feasting on the Word Lenten Companion: A Thematic Resource for Preaching and Worship,” edited By David L. Bartlett, Barbara Brown Taylor, Kimberly Bracken Long, John Knox Press, 2014.

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