The gospel of John is amazingly rich. My friend and colleague, Vicar Denise Rector of Ascension Lutheran Church in Milwaukee, says the author of the gospel must have been a mystic. Each passage flows with multiple meanings that speak to us in so many different ways. As soon as you say this is what this one means, another interpretation springs to life. In the story of the man born blind, I heard a question of identity. Who am I? Who are we to be in the world? Who is the man born blind? Who is Jesus? What is his identity? Because he had more than one in the story. To say it means only this or only that is to turn away from the richness of the writer’s work. It’s the same with this week’s story of the raising of Lazarus. Yes, Jesus brings his friend back to life. Yes, it presages his own death and resurrection. But the story has so many other different lives that we shouldn’t, that we can’t turn our backs on. This is how it hits me this time around. This is how I connected with the power of the raising of Lazarus in March / April of 2017 as societal forces in our world are trying to break the connections that are so vital to us as people of God in the world.
I like my devices, my gadgets. This tablet that I got from my five children as a combination Father’s Day-60th birthday present back in the summer of 2014. This smartphone that I got myself from the Boostmobile store at 52nd and 22nd back in the summer of 2015. I don’t need a new tablet. This one works just fine. But I could use a new smartphone, one with a slightly bigger screen, because the screen size inexplicably has shrunk over the years, making it harder to read what’s on it. Go figure.
I like my devices, my gadgets. They help me stay connected to friends, family to the world. There are some who have a problem with them. They think, for one, I am too attached to them. Maybe. And they assert such devices are part of the problem because it would be better not to be connected, at least not so much, at least not so often. And while an “information fast” may sound like a good idea – and may even have merit – it is not a panacea. It won’t protect us. Even though it seems like it would be a lot easier, a lot safer, a lot less stressful to find a cave, hide away from the world’s troubles – as long as it was a comfortable cave with hot and cold running water, indoor plumbing, modern appliances, tasteful furnishings and access to a healthy food supply and good medical care. The flaw in that plan – and yes, there likely is more than one – but one of the biggest ones is that the world’s troubles don’t stop just because you are trying to hide away.
Truth be told, I have a problem with my devices as well. They use prodigious amounts of battery power. They run down in just a few hours. And the phone doesn’t work all that well if the battery level drops below 50%. Another reason I should get a new one. The batteries are rechargeable. Which is good. The flaw in that plan – there always seems to be a flaw, doesn’t there – is that you have to have access to an electrical outlet so you can plug in a charger so you can plug in your device so you can recharge it so you can keep the connection to the world strong and unbroken.
At the synod assembly last spring, for example, we were in the gymnasium at Carthage for most of our business. It had very limited outlets. You would think that in a modern university, that wouldn’t be a problem. Because of that, even though I had my charger with me, it wasn’t always possible to plug in. I had to try to nurse both devices along so I would have one that worked. I would turn off the tablet if I wasn’t going to be taking notes or turn off the phone when I had the tablet on. It worked, but just barely. The phone’s battery life almost ended at one point. It almost went dead.
Without power, the phone and similar devices don’t do the jobs they are supposed to do. Without power, the phone and similar devices are no good to anyone. Without power, the phone and similar devices are just lumps of metal and glass and plastic. This says something about the power and importance of connections. They need to be connected so they can help us be connected and stay connected. There is always a way to do that if we know where to look.
And we need to be connected to the world because that is what we are called to be. Whether we want to be or not. We’ve heard that. We’ve seen that. Even if we were to find the comfortable cave away from the world, we couldn’t stay there. Not if we want to do the work, walk the path, make the journey God has given us to do, to walk, to make. We can’t do that if we try to pull away from the world, if we say this isn’t our job, let someone else do it, if we say we don’t have the power to stay in touch with the world, with God’s world, and with the people, God’s people.
Jesus goes to great lengths, as we can see in the story about the raising of Lazarus today, to keep us connected to the world. Jesus goes to great lengths, as we see in the story about the raising of Lazarus today, to make sure that we have a source of power, strong and unbroken, so that we can stay connected to the world.
Even with all that going for us, it is tempting to pull all the plugs. It is tempting to let the batteries run down on all the devices. It is tempting to look for that cave or make one of our own where we think we can stay and never be touched by what is going on out there.
Jesus doesn’t let us do that. Jesus doesn’t let us hide. Even when that “cave” is a tomb. Even when it appears death has sapped all our power. Even when we may not see any way we can recharge our batteries. Even when it looks like all of the connections we have made have been irreparably broken. With all of this swirling around us, Jesus stands in front of us and calls to us to come out, pulls us out of the stench – that is a powerful word right there – pulls us out of the stench of our own self-absorption and gives us the power to connect with and stay connected with the world and its people. Jesus acts somewhat like this portable charger here.
I was walking through the Kenosha Penneys just after last Thanksgiving. I passed a display of brightly colored cylindrical objects advertised as “portable chargers for your mobile device.” Brilliant. Why hadn’t anyone told me about these things before? They are rechargeable batteries inside a container. You can plug your phone, tablet or other mobile device into them and recharge the device. The one I bought – not from Penneys because they didn’t have very good ratings – is supposed to be capable of recharging my phone 7 times and the tablet twice before needing to be recharged itself. I haven’t let it run down that far. It works marvelously. I don’t have to worry about having enough energy to stay connected. And that’s good. One less thing.
Or is it good? Do we want to do that? To stay connected? To stay powered up?
Do we want to be a church, do we want to be part of a church that is always connected, that draws its power from staying plugged in? Or do we want to be a church, be part of a church, that is looking to unplug or to stay unplugged?
Do we want to be a church, be a part of a church, that looks for ways, for opportunities to recharge, or do we want to be a church, be a part of a church, that is comfortable with running down, with having our batteries fall to low levels, even if that means we just become a lump of metal and wood and mortar, no longer able to make or sustain connections with God’s people and God’s world?
Do we want to be a church, be a part of a church that looks for ways to get out of the tomb, to help lead others out as well, or do we want to be a church that looks for excuses to stay in the tomb?
Do we want to be a church, be a part of a church, that hears and acts on the voice of Jesus calling us into the light of action and mission in the world or do we want to be a church, be part of church that lets the voice go unheeded, even if it means we stay in, are trapped in, the darkness and in the stench? Such a nasty word.
We are almost at the end of our Lenten journey, our weekly reflection of what kind of church we want to be, what kind of church do we want to be a part of. Hopefully, it has given us pause to think about how we see ourselves and our mission in God’s world. Next week, we will triumphantly enter Jerusalem with Jesus, we will go on trial with Jesus, we will be in the upper room when Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, we will stand at the foot of the cross as Jesus breathes his last, we will keep watch over the tomb of Jesus. And as we do all that, we can continue to contemplate and reflect on what kind of church we want to be, what kind of church we want to be a part of, what kind of church we are being called to be, where our power actually is, whether being in the world or being unplugged is what we are being led by the one who stood and the entrance of Lazarus’ tomb so long ago and brought him back into the world, into life, into the light with a single sentence: “Lazarus, come out.” Only he will have updated it so it has more power for us today, so we can better connect with it today: “Church, come out.”