- Children | Youth | Family
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In two weeks we will hear again the two seminal stories of our tradition. In the dark of the Easter Vigil we will hear retold the ancient account of Israel’s liberation from Egypt through the Exodus. We will remember again Moses’ call to Pharaoh to let his people go and we will hear of that harrowing journey as the Hebrew people fled the soldiers and passed through the Red Sea.
This is one of the two required readings for the Great Vigil because it is the pivotal story of Israel and the focal story of God’s vision: liberation; freedom. In this great account Israel came to know – and continues to this day to know – God’s great desire for them and for all people, that they and we should be free; that they should be free of the tyranny of slavery and anything that binds them in poverty and servitude and despair.
The other great story, of course, is that of Jesus’ resurrection. There, in the dark of the Great Vigil, we will recount again God’s response to the darkness of the tomb and the depravity of the human heart: light and forgiveness.
Of course, these two stories are mandated for Easter as they are the two great accounts of our faith tradition. The first the ancient Jewish story of political liberation for Israel and the second Jesus’ great promise of human liberation from sin and death. They are similar not only in theme (liberation), but also in scope – a people. While we are wise to take these two great stories personally, they are principally stories of God’s desire for all, together. That all will be free, that all will be forgiven, and that all will live.
Today’s story from the Gospel of John, however, takes up this foundational reality of God as well. While some will focus on the parallels between Lazarus’ death and Jesus, it is clear even for Jesus that the focus lies elsewhere. “Unbind him and let him go.” This is the story of Exodus. This is the story of the Resurrection. This, too, is the story of Lazarus, but unlike the others, Saint John makes this story, this truth, personal. The freedom we talk about isn’t just for all the people out there – it’s for you here. It wasn’t just for the masses on a mountainside with Jesus or the throngs crowding the house or even the crowds jeering at him on the cross; it was for this one man and his family, for a friend and a brother.
As Lazarus emerges, we find him wrapped up in death, with burial clothes around his feet, his hand, and even his head. And while these clothes reflect the rituals and practicalities of death, they are clear metaphors for the ways we are bound in life.
One the one hand, our feet, too are bound. So often, we find ourselves in places where it seems impossible to move. Perhaps it’s in a job that we hate but cannot leave. Perhaps it’s a situation where no good path can be found, and we are immobilized by the fear of what could be.
Even more, we are so often bound by the place itself. Sometimes, the very place we are in bind us – it’s not done that way, we say; or we don’t do that here. At other times, we’re immobilized by the place from which we have come – “you don’t belong here” one might hear, or “I don’t belong here” we might even say to ourselves. Both have the same effect: binding the individual to a place from which she came, closing her off from the place she is now.
Are hands are bound, too, are they not? How often we feel powerless to help – others and ourselves. We might know where we must go or what we must do, but the ability to accomplish it seems well beyond our reach or capacity. At times this is external to us – we lack the resources or political capacity to make the change we need, or others are telling us that we can’t do something.
In this case, when another says that we can’t do something, it’s not about local practice, but about personal capacity or propriety – boys don’t cry, girls don’t play sports, men don’t cook, and women don’t lead. Of course, it’s easy to note gender codes as an example, and we are all grateful that they are changing (not quickly enough!), but other examples abound. Throughout our life – whether they are friends or spouses or co-workers or bosses or teachers – we will run into women and men who bind us up by telling us that we can’t do something.
Yet at other times, the cloth wrapped around our hands comes from within us – we say to ourselves, “I can’t do it.” We say that we can’t learn it, that we’re not smart enough, that we’re not strong enough, that we’re not good enough, that it’s not my role or my responsibility or my place. So often the disempowering voice comes from within, not without. It is our own voice that constricts us and prevents us from acting for the betterment of others or ourselves.
We so often find ourselves bound by the broken actions of our life. We all know the lingering power of past hurts inflicted upon us. The pain or fear of that hurtful action done 10, 20, 30, even 50 years ago can be as real today as it was then, and it bind us as strongly as chains can bind. The same is true of those hurts we have caused to others. Remember for a moment a real hurt you have another. Maybe it was a scathing word to a loved one. Perhaps an injustice to a co-worker. Maybe it was a legal theft in the course of “good negotiation” in which you took advantage of a weakness in another (it's OK, I won’t ask you what it was or to share it with another). Go ahead and think about it for just a moment and remember the pain it caused to another.
Ugh. It hurts. I suspect, too, that you want to close it off and hide it away as if it never happened. We all do it. But here’s a truth, when we do, we bind ourselves up, we are left alone – alone in that pain receive or inflicted. And, try as we might, they seldom stay caged up for long.
And yet, it is the third set of cloths that is perhaps the most constricting of all. Not only is Lazarus bound at his hands and his feet, even his head is bound up so that he cannot see, he cannot hear, and he cannot speak. And this is the most powerful of all our enslavements.
We cannot hear the voices proclaiming our worth and goodness and that we belong. We cannot hear the words of forgiveness or sorrow for past hurts inflicted and received. We cannot speak the same goodness and worth and forgiveness to ourselves or to others. And, perhaps, worst of all we so often cannot see the truth of God’s kingdom around us. We have so much noise – audible and visual – that we cannot see or hear the reality of God’s kingdom that is here, right now. We can’t see or hear that forgiveness and mercy and hope are the real way of the world.
And so we are bound.
And it is here that Jesus finds us. Unafraid of by the stench of death, undeterred by the barriers that stand in the way, and undaunted by the bands that bind our lives, Jesus comes to us. But he doesn’t leave us there. He doesn’t simply bless that place we are in, but call us, calls out to Lazarus, “come out! Leave that place of darkness and imprisonment and death.”
But Jesus can’t do it alone. He needs us. We must do our part. We must move. Stumbling though he was, Lazarus had to come out himself.
Fortunately, like Lazarus, we are not alone. He was fortunate, not only to have Jesus calling him out, but to have his friends and his family there to greet him. And they, too, had a role to play. Like Lazarus, they, too, had to do their part and remove the cloths that that bound up his hands and his feet and his head.
When we are bound, especially in the most difficult places, we cannot unbind ourselves. We need help. We need one another. And that is our task: to unbind him, to unbind one another.
May we take it up.
“Unbind him and let him go.”