"Lectionary Homiletics" Highlights
2008-03-06 by David von Schlichten

Guest blogger Teresa Strickland has given us much to soak up here amid the bubbles, and Tom Steagald has also created quite a splash. Please scroll down to their entries.

The Lazarus story seems to beg for what Henry Mitchell calls imaginative elaboration. If we go that route, creatively embellishing the story to help people connect to it, we want to make sure that we remain faithful to the message. When being creative, it is easy to wander into the cave of eisegesis and heresy.

You can go to Share It! and then to “Free Samples from Lectionary Homiletics” to read vanThanh Nguyen's exegetical article for this week's gospel.

Below are highlights from this week's articles in Lectionary Homiletics.

Theological Themes”

Arun W. Jones reminds us that, more important than whether the raising of Lazarus actually happened, is the meaning of the story. Arun also reveals that love is essential to the story's significance. Love is a salient motif in the story and what gets the Jews to believe in Jesus is that the sign is “performed in a context of a loving community” (p. 46). Jesus loves the people he cares for in the story, and the Jewish mourners are showing love for Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Further, while we can believe in Jesus without a sign and believe in the sign without believing in Jesus, love is essential for belief in Jesus.

Pastoral Implications”

Kristin Saldine brilliantly points out that the story contains two miracles, the second one being that Jesus weeps. She suggests that, while the common criticism is that we are a society that avoids death, we are really a society that avoids mourning. People are expected to get over grieving as soon as possible. However, in our text, Jesus weeps. God saves us and grieves with us.

Saldine also refers to Kushner's When All You've Ever Wanted Isn't Enough. In that book, Kushner writes that, to find meaning in our lives and bring relevance to our faith, we need to: A. accept the reality of pain in our lives; B. we need to learn how to belong to others; and C. if we seek meaning in our lives we will feel compelled to make a difference in the world (p. 47).

Preaching the Lesson”

Anna Carter Florence waxes perspicacious as she focuses on the idea that, while God is the one who does the resurrecting, he calls upon us to do the unbinding. She writes about people who have emerged to life but then have not quite broken free of the bonds of death because no one unbound them. A person recovers but then relapses because no one helps the person with the process of breaking free permanently from old patterns and behaviors. Some of us fixate on grieving the deaths of our loved ones instead of letting them go and letting us go, too. Florence provides several examples such as these. Profound.

Unwrapping, I am

Ever yours in Christ,

David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator

2008-03-04 by Tom Steagald

I have written elsewhere on Lazarus, wondering if he wanted to be raised from the dead. I mean, did anyone ask him how he felt about the matter? I compare his dilema to mine when I was a boy, snug in the covers (read:burial cloths) and not wanting to wake or leave the comfort of the bed, but mother's voice was insistent that I must rise and go to school. Obedience dragged me out of slumber (Praying for Dear Life, NavPress, 2006; pp.17-19)

Likewise, Lazarus' answer to Jesus' summons is obedience, and in its own way as radical (or more) an obedience as the fishermen leaving the nets, the tax collector his booth. He obeys Jesus, which is the first task of (further?) discipleship. 

It is an interesting notion...answering the call to life from the midst of (even comfortable) death to stand again against the given-ness of things.

On another, completely different note, the Girardian website mentioned some weeks ago (http://girardianlectionary.net)  has an interesting reading of the Greek verb in vs. 33, most usually translated "deeply moved"--that in reality, Jesus feels anger that what should be a miracle executed among disciples and the loved ones of Lazarus (and keeping with the Johannine rendering of the Messianic Secret, i.e., "my time has not yet come") instead becomes a public display that occasions further grief when the word gets out.

I think I may try to enter the text through that portal--Jesus's anger/grief and his "in spite of it" ministry, which is how the Word is still to be enfleshed among us. Something like that.

Lazarus in the Funeral Home
2008-03-04 by David von Schlichten

It is fun to splash around the text in the tub with Teresa, an unmet neighbor of mine. I am in Latrobe, PA, a mere hour east of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, where Teresa teaches (I have been on that campus many times and am looking forward to the lectures on Calvin that will be given there in April).

Anyway, I value her "imaginative elaboration" (Henry Mitchell's term) on the Lazarus text.

Sometimes I imagine the Lazarus story happening today. We're at the funeral home, during the viewing. The body lies in the casket, bloodless and embalmed. There is no way that body will live, but Jesus walks in, signs the guest register, takes some flak from the grieving family. He pays his respects. Then he orders, "Lazarus, get up!" and the body sits up.

I invite parishioners to imagine being in such a situation. How would they react?

From there, I would probably return to the text and advance to proclaiming how we are the beloved ones whom God helps. We have life, physical and spiritual, because of Christ. I'd help parishioners to see their Lazarene nature.

Please share your thoughts with Teresa.

Yours in Christ in the Steeler Nation,

David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator

2008-03-04 by Teresa Strickland

     Some lections lend themselves to what I call character exegesis.  This is an imaginative exercise, similar to Ignatian readings of scripture, trying to imagine yourself in the scene based on research.  So I thought I’d engage in that little exercise to see what stirs.  Though some scholars may eschew taking the scripture as literally true, I find that when I take scripture at face value and really go with it that deeper spiritual truths beyond mere facts emerge.  So let’s see where looking at Lazarus takes us.  .

            Lazarus may be considered at first glance to be the easiest of the characters in this gospel lesson.  After all, there’s not much character to examine in a dead man except insofar as he is remembered.  We don’t know much about Lazarus.  Jesus loved him enough to risk going to him when it was clearly dangerous (John 11:8).   Jesus also weeps over his death and the grief of all the loved ones gathered.  Exactly who Lazarus is we don’t know, other than that he is the brother of Martha and Mary—no doubt leaders of the early church because of their testimony.  Lazarus’ name means “whom God helps.”   The only other Lazarus in the Bible is the poor man who is suffering at the gates of the rich man who gets to rest finally in the bosom of Abraham.          

            We also know that during his last days, Jesus stays at Lazarus’ house where Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with perfumed oil when he is at dinner with Lazarus and the disciples object to the extravagance and probably the scandalous sensuality of it all.  After Lazarus is raised, it seems the dead man walking is quite the curiosity, as we read in John 12:9.  Many believed in Jesus because of the raising of Lazarus, and the religious authorities are so upset that they talk about how they can kill Lazarus; evidently he and those who witnessed his resurrection made excellent evangelists.

            Literary types have wondered what Lazarus’ post-resurrection life was like, imagining that life must have been quite unbearable after knowing death.  This is not Biblical, though.  Instead, we have Lazarus feasting with Jesus in the days before his death in a picture of the Messianic banquet where the “anointed one” is indeed anointed.  Scholars speculate that when Jesus retired to Bethany after confronting folks in Jerusalem that he stayed with Lazarus, which probably pleased Lazarus to no end.  I probably wouldn’t want to leave Jesus’ side if I were Lazarus.  Would you? 

            But now, let’s imagine Lazarus coming forth from the tomb.  Warm light shines in the cold darkness. He hears the Word speak: “Lazarus, come forth!”    How would he come forth?  Tentatively at first, surely.  His feet were bound together with a band of cloth over his grave clothes.  The same was true of his hands and the cloth over his face secured at the neck with another band of cloth.  This means he would have had to hobble toward the light.  Bewildered, confused, but obedient, he puts weight on his feet then shuffles toward the light, which must have been blinding even through the face cloth.  What did he hear after emerging into the light, I wonder?  My imagination hears shocked silence, perhaps the rustle of people falling to their knees, mouths gaping open as they tried to wrap their minds around this turn of events.  Even the birds were silenced in my imagination.  The trees stopped whispering as the breeze died.  Everything stands still.

            Or maybe it didn’t.  Maybe it was more like what Yeats described in “The Musee des Beaux Arts” where Icarus falls from the sky and no one even notices.  (See http://poetrypages.lemon8.nl/life/musee/museebeauxarts.htm for the poem and an unclear reproduction of the painting by Breughel.)  Maybe Lazarus came forth and most folks in the village barely took notice:    “Oh, yeah, there goes Lazarus.  Thought he was dead, but apparently he wasn’t.  Oops!” 

            At any rate, there stands Lazarus before the open grave.  Did it hurt when Martha and Mary rushed to hug him?  When folks removed his grave clothes?  Or was it more of an enveloping warmth?   In the narthex of Benton Chapel on the campus of Vanderbilt University are two sculptures—one of Lazarus bound and the other unbound bursting forth with arms in wide-open joy.  Some picture Lazarus as wistful, sad even, that he had to return to earth from the presence of God’s glory, as some do who have died and return to life.  But many of those who have after-death experiences have a profound appreciation for life in all its mundane splendors.  Would Lazarus have leapt for joy like Scrooge does on Christmas, stopping to praise God for the intricacies of even a fly’s wing?   I’d like to think Lazarus’ life became one glorious, extended doxology—a model of human life touched by Christ, the Resurrection and the Life.    

            Spiritually, there is much here, isn’t there?  When Christ calls us out of our tombs of death, we’re blinded, confounded at first.  We’re not sure what anything means.  We hobble tentatively toward the light, unsure, but compelled by that Word to obediently go forth.  When we emerge from death for others to see, we can expect that no one else will know what to do with the changes they see in us.  They may stand back at first to see if it’s really real before helping us take off the grave clothes and continue the process of being integrated into life in all its abundance, which continues to astound and amaze us as a profound gift of God, the Giver of Life, Christ the Resurrection, and the Spirit Life Eternal.        

            We don’t know much about Lazarus, but we know the effect he had on those who saw him come forth from the tomb.  We know the effect their testimony had on the religious authorities as the leaders intensified their efforts to get rid of Jesus and the living proof of Lazarus that made life under Roman rule difficult at best. 

            But the religious authorities are another character to explore another time. . . .

I encourage you to use your “sanctified imagination,” dear preachers, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit that continues to bring us the living and life-giving Word through Holy Scripture.   Preach on!

Pastoral question
2008-03-03 by Teresa Strickland

Thanks for your thoughts on Homiletical Hot Tub.
I read these words \"the preacher could make connections with the places in our human life that look devoid of all hope, naming personal as well as social situations to leave us feeling like we’re in the valley of dry bones\" but the people in my congregation think that being \"devoid of all hope\" etc. might mean not getting a new car this year or taking a one week vacation instead of two.(Not that some are not truly struggling with issues of health and deaths of loved ones.)
But how do I help my congregation understand that they have it pretty good (for the most part) but should be doing more to help those around the globe who are truly \"devoid of all hope\"?

Great question, and too true, lamentably.

The best way to handle people's thoughts that get in the way of hearing what you're trying to say is to acknowledge them and then tell them you want to go deeper, with something like:

Now, when you hear me talk about situations beyond hope, what may have popped into your mind was a picture of that new car you can't seem to scrape together the money to buy or maybe the likelihood of you ever getting to take that {cruise to the Bahamas or European vacation--whatever the concrete dream of your folks is}, but I want you to put those things out of your mind to go somewhere even more desperate, places some of you know about all too well, dark places--like when you hear the words "Cancer" and find life spiralling down into the depths of chemotherapy only to have your heart damaged by all the drugs until it works at only 10% capacity and you're too old for a transplant, which you couldn't afford anyway entombed as you are in the Medicare system now that your life savings are gone.  We're talking dark places here.   Desperate places, like being the loved one who can't do anything anymore but watch their beloved die to the uneasy blip blip blip of the hospital monitors until there's nothing but a steady flat line.  Desperate places like the eyes of the African refugee holding a skeletal baby trying to nurse, but the mother has no milk because she's starving, too, and life for her is dry as a bone.  . . .

Don't underestimate people.  Sure, they're sheep.  But sheep know suffering, too.  They struggle with despair.  Name those situations of despair in concrete terms that will happen to them, if it hasn't already--whatever those terms are.  I know of no congregation who hasn't experienced the pain of grief or sickness.  Everyone dies.  Connecting these experiences of loss/pain/death/desperation, then, with an international place of what may seem like unimaginable desperation can also aid their empathy beyond their lives. 

But notice, we had to meet them where they are first and then ask them to go deeper. 

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