Preached 4/6/14 at Westminster PC for Youth Sunday
It seems a little strange, doesn’t it, to be celebrating Youth Sunday on this fifth Sunday of Lent – when we’ve grown tired of all this talk of death, and of the snowy gross weather, and we’re really just ready for spring and Easter already! But the church calendar keeps us stuck for a little while longer hanging around the tombs, with the stench of death hanging in the air. It doesn’t seem to fit with the hope that we see in our young people, about to graduate from high school and going off into the world full of joy and expectation and possibility!
I’m reminded, somehow, of all the uproar lately over young adult literature. Stories like Divergent and The Hunger Games, stories of dystopian futures, of children forced to kill children for entertainment or survival; stories like the Riders of the Apocalypse series, where four teenagers channel their demons of eating disorders and bullying and self-harm and abuse into their new roles (as the riders of the apocalypse) to tackle these issues on a global scale; stories like Harry Potter, even, where children and then teenagers are on the front lines of a battle to save their whole world from evil creatures who would destroy them — young adult literature is dealing with darker themes than ever, and for plenty of adults, this is a sure sign that our youth are being corrupted and let down a path of moral decay.
(Never mind that this debate has been around since the Beatles showed up with their long hair and suggestive lyrics, or the brothers Grimm filled their fairy tales with child abuse and anti-Semitism and incest.)
It’s a constant debate, I think, because it’s such a natural instinct to try and protect our loved ones, especially our children, from the awful realities of the world we live in. Often it seems like we will just pretend the bad stuff doesn’t exist – as if not talking about abuse or racism or pedophilia will just make them go away.
But of course, kids see the reality of the world eventually, like we all have at some point, and we can’t protect them forever. For some parents this comes sooner than others, like for African-American or mixed-race families, who must at some point prepare their children for the reality of the racist fear and violence that they will probably face, in this society where it seems like every week there is a new face on the news of a Black child who has been shot or kidnapped or sentenced to an adolescence behind bars.
We can’t protect our children, and we can’t protect ourselves or the ones we love, and so we tell stories. In our stories, the monsters hiding in the shadows have faces, and they have weak spots. We can figure out how to beat them. The world might be an impossibly frightening place, it might be that everyone really is out to get us, but in our stories there is a way out. The good guys can fight back, and maybe win eventually, once we figure out where that tiny crack in the force field is to aim our arrows.
* * *
I’ve been catching up on the first several seasons of The Walking Dead on Netflix, which is a great show about a group of survivors of the zombie apocalypse. The first battles have passed (actually, our protagonist Rick slept through them in the hospital), and now this bunch of people thrown together by circumstance are just learning how to live in a world overrun by the reanimated corpses of their friends and neighbors.
One of the most interesting dynamics, for me, is around the children of the group. How do we teach our children to live in this world of zombies? Do we lock them in the library and pretend everything is okay? Do we teach them how to shoot a gun or use a knife, or where to hit a walker to take them down? Can we really bring another child into this world with such an uncertain future? Rick has a 10-year-old son named Carl, who seems to be just as happy curled up with a comic book and his baby sister as he is wearing his dad’s sheriff hat and gunning down zombies.
In one episode, while the camp is fighting a flu epidemic from the inside as well as the walkers from the outside, Rick tells Carl to stay with the younger kids, even though he wants to be out fighting too. They argue, of course, and Carl retorts, “Dad, you can’t keep me from it.” From what, Rick says. “From what always happens,” Carl says. He knows by now that loved ones die, that their fences can’t keep the evil out, that some day they’ll be betrayed by the infection inside them. “I know,” Rick says, “but it’s my job to try.”
* * *
Our story today is full of death and sickness and a bit of political intrigue – one of those that if it weren’t in the Bible, well-meaning folks would probably try to have banned from school libraries – and there are so many details that don’t quite line up, either. Why does Jesus wait to go to Lazarus? How does he know that Lazarus is dead? Why does he say this disease won’t kill him, when clearly it eventually does? Did he really just let Lazarus die in order to do this miracle and show off God’s power? That’s kind of harsh.
And Mary and Martha voice this too – “If you had been here, my brother would not have died!” It’s a statement of faith, but also a cry of abandonment. Whether Jesus had come as soon as he received word or not isn’t really the point – as some of the onlookers put it, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” And of course, he could have—but if we get stuck on this question, we will run around in circles asking ourselves why Jesus did not come to Bethany immediately if he loved this family so much.
But there is no good answer, here; and even if there were, it does not change the fact that Lazarus, whom Jesus loves, is dead. However it happens, Lazarus is dead. Mary and Martha are weeping, their friends are weeping, and even Jesus weeps, because someone he loves is dead.
He says to Martha in her grief, her anger, “Your brother will rise again.” And she answers, almost mechanically, “Yes, I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” We can almost hear her thinking, “but that doesn’t help me now!” He answers her, “those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” Martha says yes, I believe this, but she doesn’t seem to understand it any more than we do. What kind of life is this, if we still have to die? If we still have to lose each other? I thought our faith was supposed to protect us from this??
All through John’s gospel, Jesus talks about the life he promises us, the eternal life that he has brought to those who love him. And the way he tells it, most of the time, this is a life that he has brought now, not “on the last day,” like Martha says. “I am the life,” he says. It’s no wonder, when Jesus talks like that, that John’s community started thinking they might not have to die at all!
But in this story, Jesus says, no, sorry. The sad stuff, the awful stuff, that’s still going to happen. Even Lazarus, and Martha, and Mary, whom Jesus loves dearly, even they will weep, and die. The monsters are still real.
But despite this, in spite of the grief, and the stench, and the threat of his own death, Jesus stands there weeping, in front of people who have tried to kill him, and calls out to God, calls out to Lazarus, “Come out!” Come out, and live!
In the face of all this death, Jesus does not turn away, but Jesus gives life. God gives life, because that’s just how God works. In the midst of pain, in the midst of weeping, God brings a brilliant flash of life, of joy, of reconciliation.
Life goes on. Our faith and our best efforts won’t protect us or our loved ones from the scary stuff that surrounds us – the death and hatred and violence of our world. But in the very face of all that, God still brings life.
In the very next chapter after our text today, Lazarus is alive, but the chief priests are planning to put Lazarus to death (again) because people saw him and believed. Our world sees life and chooses death. But God sees death, always and everywhere around us, and God brings life.
Easter happens in the midst of the worst kinds of hatred and fear and politically expedient executions. Death comes, like it seems death always comes, but God has bigger plans than that. God knows the weak spots of the monsters who come after us. God knows how to take them down. Even before we figure out what this “eternal life” thing might look like that Jesus has promised us, we know that our God is about life in the face of death.
Death finds a way to squeeze through the fences we’ve built around ourselves for protection, but we are not fighting alone. When the zombies get in, or the Capitol-dwellers or the dementors, or whatever monster it might be today, we are not standing alone. Jesus stands beside us, having been through those battles and many more, having seen the very worst that humans are capable of doing to each other and come out the other side holier and more full of life than ever.
We tell stories of vampires and conspiracies and werewolves and serial killers because we know how those stories end. We have some control over those stories. The real world is often as scary as any of the stories we tell, but the really scary part is that we don’t know how our story is going to turn out.
Wait– that’s not quite true. We don’t know the details of the end of our stories, or even what’s coming up in the next chapter. We probably never will until it happens.
But I do have one spoiler for you: God wins. Life wins. Love wins.
Thanks be to God.