Lord, if you had been here . . .

Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A
March 9, 2008

Grace, mercy and peace to you, in the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Jessicah, if you had been here.
That’s about what I said when my wife returned home from an errand
early Wednesday evening.
I had the kids for a few hours and, generally capable father that I am,
    the one-on-three match-up – one parent vs. three children under age 5 –
    was going alright.
Until.
Until something.
Something happened.   
Some switch flipped.
Some realization came upon Cana, our one year old daughter.
At some point she realized that Mommy wasn’t there,
    and she wasn’t happy about it.
Of course, this realization came upon Cana
    well after Mommy left for her errands,
and while her older sister was outside playing with the neighbors,
    and while I was feeding her baby brother a bottle.
So there we are – Cana screaming her cute little head off in the middle of the living room floor,
    Naaman fidgeting in my lap with a bottle
and none too pleased about his screaming sister,
    and Tali, the four year-old big sister,
who would otherwise be my helping hand in such a situation
is nowhere to lend a helping hand.
Nope.  Just me.  Hemmed in by a 16 week-old baby drinking a bottle.
    I do my best to offer comforting words,
    to ask Cana to come to me so that I can comfort her with,
        well, not with a hug, but with my forearm or leg,
        since both hands and arms are involved in the whole
feed-the-baby-a-bottle process.
Well, she was not interested in coming my way,
        and who would blame her? 
I wouldn’t want a lame leg-hug or a pat with the forearm .
And even after Naaman drank his bottle,
    Cana was not much interested in the comfort that I could give her.
Nope.  She wanted Mommy.  And truth be told, I wanted Mommy,
And Mommy wasn’t here.
Mommy, if you had been here.

We’ve all had moments, I’m sure, that we wish someone had showed up,
    had been there for us,
    to support us, to make something happen, to witness something,
        to simply be there,
so that we wouldn’t be alone.
In today’s Gospel story Martha and Mary each tell Jesus, separately,
that if He had been there, their brother Lazarus would not have died.
Are they scolding Jesus?  Complaining?  Lamenting?  Grieving?
“Lord, if you had been here . . .”
Do you hear the disappointment, the sadness,
the lonliness, the helplessness in their voices?
Lord, if you had been here . . . but you weren’t.
Yes, perhaps there was some anger in there, too.
After all, when their brother got sick Mary and Martha immediately called for Jesus,
    so that He might come and be with Lazarus.
Jesus didn’t come immediately. 
Rather, he remained for two days in the place where he was.
Two days?

Last year I was a hospital chaplain.
I had to make several phone calls to family members,
    telling them of loved ones who arrived unexpectedly to the hospital.
    Almost every time the family member who I called
        dropped everything and came, immediately, to the hospital.
But Jesus, when he received a call that his beloved friend was sick,
    didn’t come for two day.
Lord, if you had been here.

I had another, more serious, if you had been here moment on Wednesday evening.
    A few hours after my, Jessicah, if you had been here moment,
    I came to church for the soup supper and Lenten worship service
and had a Lord, if you had been here moment.
A gentleman who is without work and without a home,
    came through our church doors at about 6:30pm
    and sat in the back pew of the church.
Pastor Mike and I had met this gentleman before,
    a man not unlike many of us who battle demons,
    but who, for whatever reason, seemed to be on the losing end of that battle.
We invited him to have some soup and bread and drink,
    and he had some.
Over the meal we talked –
    his voice just as broken and muted as his life had been.

I sat with him while he ate,
    even as others began cleaning up the fellowship hall –
    wiping down and folding up the tables and chairs,
    sweeping the floor,
        gathering up the soup,
    and I thought to myself –
        what can I do for this man?  What will I do?
I had no good answer to my questions,
    and I simply ended up
sending him on his way, with a full belly, perhaps,
    and a few dollars for a bus ride, and a rather hollow “God bless you”
    as he walked down the dark corner toward the bus stop at 50 and Middle Ridge.
I sent him on his way no different than when he arrived –
    still homeless, still jobless, still hopeless.

Lord, if you had been here . . .

I thought of Jesus at that moment, about how he met people who were hopeless and helpless,
    people who were sick and oppressed, people who were down and out.
And with those people Jesus did something, some how –
    gave sight to the blind, gave walk to the lame,
    renewed the skin of the leper, and gave relief to bleeding woman.
When Jesus showed up, amazing things happened.

Lord, if you had been here . . .
If you showed up you would have done something, somehow.
But Lord, as with Lazarus, you didn’t show up on Wednesday night.
Nothing miraculous happened.  Lazarus died,
    and our Wednesday evening visitor left this place –
this holy place, this place of your people, and, indeed,
this place of your Holy Presence –
    our visitor left this hallowed place unchanged.

But that’s not what is supposed to happen, Lord.
You are supposed to show up, as with the blind man we read about last week,
    or the lame man or the hemmoraging woman –
    people who were changed by you,
people who experience your healing and after a blessed renewal of body and spirit
        go forth to proclaim your praise and testify to your might acts.
That’s what is supposed to happen.
That’s what you were supposed to do with our guest on Wednesday evening.
Work an amazing change in his life.  Heal what ails him.  Restore him to life –
    that is, restore him to family, to friends, to a place to live, to a respectable job,
        restore him to health.

But Lord, if you were here . . . last Wednesday, evening.
Lord, if you were there for Mary, Martha,
for Lazarus who was dying.
Lord, if you were here . . . something would have happened.

We know how the story ends, for Lazarus, anyway.
Jesus raises him from death to life,
    restores his life and his health,
    loosens that which binds him,
    and frees him to live in the life that God has called him to.
For Lazarus, it’s a great story and a great day,
a foretelling of the Easter resurrection itself.
But . . . but I don’t want to go there just yet.
It’s too easy to tell the Lazarus story as a story of a man who is raised from the dead.
Sick man, dying man, and then a dead man.  But Jesus brings him back to life!
    Praise God, Alleluia! 
That’s the story we want to tell.
But when we’re standing at the foot of the cross,
it’s not the story we always get to tell.

Shortly after Tali, our oldest child, was born Jessicah and I attended a funeral
    for a four year old boy,
    a boy who died in a horrible back-yard accident playing with his brother.
And at that funeral they read this story –
    the story of Lazarus – as the Gospel reading.
We all stood for the reading of the Gospel,
    and the pastor read this sacred story with a deliberate tone.
The reading wasn’t as long as it was for us today. 
He stopped after Martha’s painful words:
    Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.
A particularly poignant verse for the funeral of a young brother.
That’s where the story ended for us on that day –
Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.
And then the pastor announced: The Gospel of our Lord. 
Praise to you, O Christ was our response.
Praise to you, O Christ?  You gotta be kidding me?  Praise?
Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.
All of us at that funeral, we all knew how the Lazarus story ended.
And so too did we know
what God promised to the boy who passed away,
        a promise that nothing would separate him from the love of God,
    that death is temporary and life is eternal,
    that the Lord Jesus would be with him – and us – always, to the end of the age,
    a promise of the resurrection and the new kingdom that God will send to this earth.
We knew these things, but . . . but that funeral for a four year-old was a moment for grief,
    a time for mourning, a time for crying, a time for being angry at God and the world.

Just because we know the end of the story,
    it doesn’t mean we should rush there.
For there are times when the agony of Mary and Martha,
    recorded in sacred scripture,
    makes more sense to us than the glory of Lazarus’ new life.
There are times that we need to, as in today’s psalm, cry from the depths rather than
    shout from the rooftops.
There are times when the suffering of the cross
    hits closer to home than the joy of the resurrection.
There are times when . . .
When we just need to shout out to God,
Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.

Yes, dear friends, we know the end of the story,
    and I hope and pray that we can all take comfort in its glorious ending.
For indeed, the raising of Lazarus this week,
    the healing of the blind man last week,
    and the resurrection of Jesus in just two weeks –
        these are previews,
        these are in-breakings,
        these are glimpses of what the Kingdom of God is like,
        of what God’s promised reign will be
            when Jesus comes in grace and love to rule over a New Creation.
But . . . we’re not there yet. 
And for all of us who have some loss to grieve,
    some pain to endure,
    some anger seething beneath the surface,
    for all of us who have something in us
that a Hallmark greeting card cannot adequately address . . .
let us take comfort that our Scriptures, our tradition, our God
honors, embraces, and lifts up
    the pain of death, the agony of loss, and the righteousness of anger
        as part and parcel of the human condition, of our faith story,
        of our relationship with God.

Lord, if you had been here . . . .
Lord, if you had just showed up . . .
Lord, you are here . . .
Lord, you did show up . . . . on a cross . . . and you died.

About Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.
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3 Responses to Lord, if you had been here . . .

  1. Ivy Gauvin says:

    Excellent message, Chris. Blessings.

  2. liz says:

    Thanks for posting this, Chris. As someone who has uttered “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” and meant it quite literally, I needed to hear this (and the sermon on this text in my own parish wasn’t quite enough for me). Very well said, and thank you.

  3. Nathan B-T says:

    Thanks, Chris. I’ve been re-reading Forde (JBF: A Matter of Death and Life). Your last line does the whole law/gospel “explosion” beautifully. Where the law ends, Christ enters in.

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