Miracles in the Minutiae

Prof. Jonathan L. WaltonSermon by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, for Harvard Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service. 


“And many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother.” John 11:19


Each week at 9:30 a.m.  we hold the Faith & Life Forum. It meets upstairs in the Pusey Room. We read books. We hear from faculty members. Often visiting ministers or authors discuss their work. The overall aim is to promote religious literacy and cultural competency in regards to matters of faith.

The theme this semester is “Faith & Uncertainty.” One need not be a theologian to understand why. Anybody born of a woman knows the words of Jesus in John’s gospel to be true. “In this life you will have trouble.”

Jesus does not say that you might have trouble. He does not say that you may face difficulty. Nor does he say that you probably will have to cry some time. No. He is quite clear. In this life we will have trouble. Thus, the questions we have wrestled with this semester involve how do we confront trouble. How do we keep the faith when all evidence points to the contrary? For instance, what do we do when life disappoints and evil appears to prevail? What do we say when illness makes a seemingly premature appearance, or when sickness shows up unannounced. Or what does it mean to celebrate the “good news” each Sunday, when our lives Monday through Saturday seem anything but?

Some of you know what I am talking about. You played by the rules. You attended church not just as a weekly exercise, but as a sincere expression of your faith. When others did you wrong, you kept your integrity. When others cheated and took short cuts, you kept working and trusting. When others used whatever they had to get whatever they wanted, you refused to sacrifice your dignity or pawn your principles. Yet what happened? It feels like you are the one who keeps drawing the short straw of suffering.

Some of you have experienced this with a relationship. You gave it your all. Your love was real. Your commitment was true. Yet to your dismay, things fell apart. Love moved out, and loneliness signed on as your new roommate.

Some have experienced this with illness, disease, and/or even death. It has caused you to raise a fist toward heaven. You are going to do this to my child, God? My husband? You are going to make my mother suffer like this God when she has spent her whole life doing little more than helping others?

There are some moments in life that shake our faith. Somebody wants to know if the pain of that loss will ever heal. Will the sunshine of life ever pierce back through the dark clouds of sickness and despair. Is life anything more than an academic exercise.

In many ways, this is the scene and setting of today’s gospel lesson. It is the famous story of Lazarus. He's the brother of Martha and Mary. He is the one that fell ill. He is the one that succumbed to his illness. And Lazarus is the one that Jesus miraculously raises from the grave. As is common of the gospels, miracle accounts are polyvalent in their purpose and manifold in their witness. They are conveying multiple messages at the same time. Miracles speak to God’s power. They speak to God’s comfort and care. They speak to God’s compassion and kindness.

Yet often they have more specific theological meanings. Miracles accounts were often used to illustrate and adumbrate Jesus’s ultimate resurrection. That is what's going on here. This story captures what the disciples were feeling. It captures what many who followed Jesus were experiencing. Mary and Martha become a prism through which we can view how disciples felt watching their Lord head to a certain death. Distress. Pain. People had put their hopes in Him. People believed that he, not Caesar, was the true soter, savior of the world. Yet it was all about to come to a violent end. The iron feet of imperial oppression were ready to trample over this upstart Jewish movement of radicals. And the one in whom so many put their hopes and dreams of a brighter future, was about to have his flesh consumed by buzzards, as he hung from an old rugged cross.

Thus this story was put here to encourage the saints. It was put here to instill a sense of hope. No matter how dead Lazarus may be. No matter how dead your circumstances may appear. No matter how heavy the stone the place in front of a borrowed tomb. And no matter when God decides to show up to your situation, you better know that the Lord is always on time. Mary don’t you weep. Martha don’t you moan. For God may not show up when you want him to show up, but the Lord is never late.

That is the point the ancient storytellers sought to make clear. Hang him up. Call the undertaker. Sign the death certificate. It doesn't matter, because the very one who called heaven and earth into existence is the same one who can speak life into a valley of dry bones.

My brothers and sisters, I wish I could end the sermon here. I wish I could just tell you that God’s gonna work it out. I wish I could tell you that whatever you're going through God is going to fix it before you can get home from church. I wish I could tell you that the pain you carry from loss, tragedy, heartbreak, and disappointment will be resolved before nightfall. Unfortunately, I cannot.

In the worlds in which most of us live, heartbreak lingers beyond the next chapter. The pain of tragic circumstances does not resolve instantaneously. Nor do our friends and family members rise up from the grave. We must live with unresolved grief. You and I must anticipate uncertain futures while carrying unspeakable pain.

Peter Wehner made similar points in a moving New York Times editorial published last Sunday. It was entitled, “After Great Pain, Where is God?” He notes how so many of us try to project courage in the midst of our pain. Pronouncements of faith and performances of strength, however, are often masks that conceal our pain and heartbreak.

Wehner also makes a courageous theological claim of his own. Miracle accounts like Lazarus or even Jesus rising from the dead can do harm in the wrong hands at the wrong time. You and I may still believe in God’s ultimate power. But this does not mean that we want our grief minimized in the moment. Nobody wants their suffering overlooked. Glib theodicies and insensitive sayings like “Everything happens for a reason,” or “God needed that child or that spouse more than you did,” pour salt in the wounds of those who go to sleep each night on pillows soaked with tears. There are few quick fix miracles in life. As Wehner concluded, even wounds that heal can leave permanent scars.

And it's with this in mind that I revisited this story this week. You may notice when you read this entire chapter, the Lazarus story is 45 verses. Go home and read it. But the actual miracle of rising Lazarus from the dead is only about five verses. Verses 40-45. Five short verses we see Jesus raise Lazarus. But for the previous forty verses we witness multiple encounters, emotions, and interpersonal engagements on display. The culture of movies and one hour television dramas have conditioned us to anticipate a climax. But those of us who are fans of literature know that the best writers do not focus so much on the plot. They focus on the characters. Whether Virginia Woolf, Tennessee Williams, or Toni Morrison, each will tell you that beauty is often found in the quotidian rhythms of life. Don't ignore the miNUTE details of daily existence. For in them miracles often appear.

Consider Jesus’s response to his disciples when he decides to head to see about Lazarus. The disciples did not want him to go. Many religious leaders in the region of Jude's wanted to quiet this upstart Jewish teacher from rebellious Galilee. Some had even tried to stone him. But what does Jesus say? Those who walk in the light should be encouraged and not fear. It's only those who walk in darkness who ultimately stumble and fall. Thus because Jesus’s concern for his friends was greater than his fear of the unknown, he went to stand alongside those who mourn.

Many of us might learn a lesson from Jesus today. How often do we mean to go see about a friend in need? How often do we mean to pick up the phone and call that family member? Purchase that plane ticket? Go spend the day or evening helping someone in need? But when it comes down to the moment, personal reasons preclude us from doing what we know is right. We may not be living under threats like Jesus, yet some of us still become threatened by the loss of time. The sheer busyness of life holds us hostage. Our fear of the loss of time proves greater than our walking in the light of love and service.

But look at Jesus. In him we see a friend that is never too busy. This is not only true of Jesus, it's true of other members of the community. The Bible tells us in verse 19 that when Jesus arrived in Bethany, he sees something beautiful. It reads, “many of the Jews had come to console Mary and Martha about their brother.”

The story doesn't tell us what was said. The story doesn't tell us who was there. The story doesn't give us the pastoral or counseling credentials of those assembled. It just tells us that people showed up.

Call me crazy, but I think there is a reason. The emphasis need not be on qualifications. One need not be qualified to show compassion. So often people come to me and ask “what should I say?” when attempting to comfort someone else. They are certain that I have a pithy aphorism or some sort of deep parable to provide that will bring comfort. Yet here is where I like to remix a phrase often attributed to St Francis of Assisi. Show compassion always. Use words when necessary.

How many know that when you are really going through a storm, you don't need a meterologist. You don't need someone explaining to you the source of the storm, where it ranks in relation to other storms. Nor offering predictions about when it's going to end. You just want someone to stand with you and help hold an umbrella. When people are hurting, we don't need answers as much as we need love and care.

I can testify for myself. When I've felt terrible grief, or profound disappointment, I don't remember what anyone said. But I do remember their warm embrace. I remember a soothing touch of comfort. Or even a sigh through the phone that let me know that no words were appropriate.

Maybe this is why this story gives us the shortest and one of the most memorable lines of the four gospels. Jesus wept. Even Jesus, the gifted Rabbi, the skilled teacher could not contribute any words to the conversation that were more powerful than his own tears.

This story is about a miracle. Lazarus rising from the dead. But what I am trying to suggest is that there are also many other miracles within the otherwise miNUTE details. The miracles of presence, compassion, care, and empathy. There is a parable in the Buddhist tradition that may drive this point home.

The story is told of a woman whose only son died. She refused to bury her son. She believed he was just sick and asleep. Therefore, she went around to all of her neighbors begging for medicine to revive the young child. Many thought she had gone mad. Finally, a neighbor told her to go and see the Buddha, as he will have the medicine for the child. She did just that. The Buddha said to her, “I can give you medicine for your healing. But I need you to borrow a handful of mustard seeds from one of your neighbors. But it cannot be any neighbor. You must get this mustard seed from a neighbor who has never lost a child, a spouse, a parent, or a friend.”

With energy and enthusiasm she ran to her neighbors. House after house, someone handed her mustard seeds. Yet when she inquired about death in their family, house after house she heard an account. She heard about a beautiful child that died of disease. She heard about a beloved spouse that died suddenly. She heard about a beloved parent who is here no longer. House after house. But in the process, she also saw great strength and resiliency. She also witnessed people that lived on with both heartbreak and appreciative memories. House after house, she came to realize that she was not alone. Nor would she have to live on alone. Thus, without saying a word, this woman took her son, and went back to place him in the arms of the Buddha for burial. In her grief, she experienced the miracle and power of empathy.

This is the message for us this morning. How might we just be present? For this is the miracle.