The Silence of Lazarus

Martha Stortz
All Soul’s Day—November 5, 2003

Isaiah 25: 6-9
Revelations 21: 1-6a
Psalms 24
John 11: 32-44

I guess I’ve always wondered how Lazarus felt about all this. We have lots of words from his two sisters in the gospels. Mary, whom tradition has taken to be the meeker of the two, shows herself to be possibly also the more manipulative. She accuses Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” And his reaction leaves no doubt that her words stung. Martha, who has the world-class mouth on her, accosts Jesus. She leaves the house to meet up with Jesus in the street, crossing that domestic boundary which kept all women safely enveloped within and protected the wealthy in particularly from the bustle and dirt and vapors of the city. She speaks her sister’s accusation, intensifying its force: “I know God will give you whatever you ask of him.” She does not even try to mask the dare floating on her conviction: “Are you willing to ask God to raise him from the dead? Will you cash in your chips on the man who is our brother and your friend?”

What follows in the wake of this domestic drama is a torrent of words. There are words between Jesus and the mourners as he tries to figure out where Lazarus has been buried. There are more words between the pesky Martha and Jesus as he delivers the obligatory theology lesson on resurrection. Even more words at the tomb, as Martha warns Jesus about the stench of death. There are even words between Jesus and his Father, as he coaxes God into compliance with this resurrection: “Thanks for hearing me. I know you always hear me. I’m really saying this for the benefit of the crowd, but I sure hope you’re on-line for this one… ” Indeed, the raising of Lazarus packs the most multi-tiered, multi-perspectival conversation into a single incident in the whole of the Gospels. But there is one person in this tiny drama who says nothing: Lazarus. From him we hear only silence.

It’s always a little dangerous to keep silent. Lazarus has this empty balloon hovering over his head, and people rushed to fill in the blanks. Frustrated by the silence, Christians across the centuries told the story about Lazarus that he did not tell about himself. One legend dispatches Lazarus and his sisters to the south of France to preach the Gospel to the pagans. Today there are still pagans lurking in the south of France in bikinis and designer shades, so one wonders how successful the missionaries were. But the Cote d’Azur attracts the rich and famous to this day, and Lazarus and his sisters seem to have started the trend. According to this legend, Lazarus died in Marseilles in the persecution of Diocletian, which was around the year 300, making him long in the tooth indeed. Another legend sets Lazarus and his sisters adrift at sea in a leaky boat. They flounder about, but finally land on the Island of Cyprus, soggy but still flapping. Lazarus becomes bishop and dies of old age. Still another legend features Lazarus as the traveling companion of Peter, like Silas or Timothy with Paul. The two spread the Gospel throughout Syria. These legends register as cautionary words for good Christians, because in Christianity, as in the great traditions of gossip, if you don’t speak up for yourself, others are happy to fill in the blanks. The story you haven’t told about yourself gets told about you—and often it does not flatter.

But I want to know how Lazarus felt about all this. Or more precisely, what the silence of Lazarus speaks? What does the silence of Lazarus say to us today on this All Soul’s festival centuries beyond?

Lazarus says nothing, and the first thing we read in the silence of Lazarus is ambivalence. I strongly suspect Lazarus was none too pleased about being back in the world—and if he said anything it was probably unprintable to the pious souls who recorded the Gospels. After all, if you’d seen what he had seen, described in our second reading for the day, “a new heaven and a new earth—the new Jerusalem,” not the old Jerusalem, bombed out and rotting in hatreds, would you really be happy to come back to a world where your sisters ran the family and your best friend only came every time he needed a shower and a square meal? If you had heard what Lazarus had heard from the voice of God Almighty the promise that “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Rev. 21:1-5), would you want to go back to a world riven with suffering and death, mourning and crying, pain beyond bearing? I wouldn’t. No reasonable human would.

Tom Rogers and I had dinner with one of Tom’s homiletics colleagues at a conference we attended last week in Pittsburgh. The man related a postcard from the other side. He’d walked into the business center of the hotel to check his e-mail, and the woman minding the store—or office—asked him if he were a “man of the cloth.” He answered in the affirmative and braced for a confession or a rant against all things religious. He was utterly unprepared for what she said next: “I died about two years ago,” and launched into the story of how she had been on the treadmill at her health club—and then the next thing she knew she was talking to her brother, who had died four years before of leukemia. He was standing just outside this incredible circle of light, saying to her: “You’ll love it here; you’ll just love it. I’m so happy to see you.” And as she approached him, and she heard another voice, telling her sternly, “Don’t go toward the light. Come on back; come on back to us.” And she turned away, opened her eyes—the sequencing was muddy—and found herself blinking into the face of an EMT in an ambulance on the way to a hospital.

She spoke of the cost of her turning back—she’d been anoxic for several minutes and had suffered brain damage. She was mentally slower than she had been and walked with a limp. But she said that in the main, she was glad she did. “I have literally the best of both worlds. I can be with my family a bit longer,” she concluded, “and I know that the best is yet to come. I’ll love it on the other side.” I hope Lazarus had as much equanimity. The first thing we have to hear in Lazarus’ silence is ambivalence. Ambivalence because he has seen a better world, and for four days he has seen it, sang with it, savored it. Such incomparable beauty, such a home for the restless heart. The first thing the silence of Lazarus gives us is hope.

A second thing we hear in the silence of Lazarus is peace. You’ve walked in cemeteries before, and you know the silence of stone and memory. The grave markers bear a silent plea: “Rest in peace,” and we think the words express the family’s wishes for the departed. Conversations we eavesdrop on in cemeteries bear this out, as mourners remember someone who is finally “at peace,” and “peace” seems to refer to everything from the wasting disease that made someone’s final months miserable to a string of unresolved estrangements that brought an embittered family to the funeral. We think the silent plea “Rest in peace” is a final benediction spoken by the living to the dead.

But the silence of Lazarus suggests otherwise. The words “Rest in peace” do not address the dead; rather, they speak in silence to us the living. This final counsel from the dead to the living challenges us to spend our time making peace. Imagine what these bones would say if they could speak. “We have seen it all, and we know that peace is the only way to live. Resist violence; reconcile with your enemies; love without measure.” “Rest in Peace:” these are the words of the dead to the living—and if we could just be still long enough to hear them.

An old rancher in Missoula heard these silent words while he was still alive. Relocated to the city so that he could be close to his chemotherapy, he had to abandon his farm, his cattle, and the landscape he had grown to love. He knew his days were numbered, and he called the extended family to his bedside. There was still time, he announced, to put aside grudges great and small. He bade all disgruntled parties to be reconciled to one another. “I’ll say it,” he said,“ my family got to know me a lot better. It made better people out of us. I went to my brother and sister and in-laws, and said, you know there’s no hope on me ever healing up or getting well again. Now, do you want to keep on fighting on whose land that is over there or make up. It has all changed us for the better.” The rancher tried to leave his family and his family affairs in peace, asking them to silence their grievances and rest in a greater peace than they had experienced until that point. As they remember him in the silence of death, they will remember also his example of reconciliation. The second thing the silence of Lazarus offers us is peace.

The final thing we have to hear in the silence of Lazarus is—well, silence. That shouldn’t be too hard for a tradition centered on Word and Sacrament, but too often our piety and our practice get filled with “… words words words! I’m so sick of words,” as Eliza Doolittle said in “My Fair Lady.” Words of our assignments, words of our professors, words of our students, words of books and papers and memos, words of our sermons. Walk into any Lutheran church and you get bombarded with text, more hymnals than hands to hold them, bulletin inserts, alternative orders of services, words words and more words. And in the midst of these words, we miss the Word that God is speaking, speaking to us in every moment of every day.

Lazarus’ final offering from the grave is silence, for it is into the silence of Lazarus that Jesus speaks. Because he is silent, Lazarus can listen and let Jesus’ words seep deep into his soul: “Unbind him, and let him go.”

These words spoken into a great silence to free Lazarus from everything that binds him. And he was just like we are, filled with sadness, neuroses, anxieties, distractions, pettiness, worry. This is the real tomb in which he lives and in which we all live.

And these are the real words that Jesus speaks to us, if we could be still long enough to listen: “Unbind them, and let them go.”.