Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A
Out of the depths have I called to you, O LORD;
LORD, hear my voice; *
let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication.
My soul waits for the LORD,
more than watchmen for the morning, *
more than watchmen for the morning.
O Israel, wait for the LORD, *
for with the LORD there is mercy;
With him there is plenteous redemption, *
and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.
Out of the depths they called to Jesus. Mary and Martha were in dire straits. The way they'd been living was in many ways exactly in tune with Jesus' radical call; they lived with their brother Lazarus and remained remained "unattached," a path that gave them a great deal of freedom, including the freedom to be extravagantly generous, as Mary was when she poured out ointment worth a year's wages for many onto Jesus' feet. Everybody hearing this story knows about that gesture and what it meant, as you can tell from how the gospel identifies Mary as "the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair" in verse 2, even though that event doesn't happen in John's gospel until the next chapter (props to the Social-Science Commentary on John for that point). Everybody knows that these people, this family of brother and sisters who lived with God as their father, are being faithful on the path Jesus showed them.
And now the risk involved in that path is frighteningly clear to Mary and Martha, as their brother Lazarus is dying. Lazarus is the only male in the household in a culture in which a woman without a man was profoundly vulnerable to poverty and exploitation. Lazarus was not only a beloved brother, but was also the closest thing to Social Security that Mary and Martha had, and he was slipping away.
So they called to Jesus, calling on him (in verse 2) as one who loves Lazarus, and challenging Jesus to behave in a manner in keeping with that love. Jesus doesn't come. He doesn't come to be with his beloved friend as he lies dying, and he doesn't come to honor his friend by being present at his funeral.
When the sisters get word that Jesus is finally on his way, Martha impetuously and angrily runs out to meet him -- conduct that would have been seen as scandalous, or even dangerous for a woman alone. She runs at Jesus with the depths of her grief and anger.
If nothing else, her situation proves that being faithful to Jesus is in no way a guarantee against pain and tragedy. There is no one on earth whose righteousness, wisdom, hard work, or good planning will preserve her from seeing the depths that Martha sees. Good people become widows and orphans. It's a fact, and no less of a fact for Jesus' coming.
But there is something else. We can cry to God from the depths.
There is no depth, no loss, no tragedy, no disease or death, nothing on heaven or on earth or under the earth that can place the world or anyone in it beyond God's redemption. Good people become widows and orphans, but God defends the widow and the orphan, and will not leave those God loves bereft. What Sara Maitland writes in the voice of a grieving mother in her short story "Dragon Dreams" (from Angel Maker) strikes me as a psalm, a cry from the depths, that resonates with the longings of all of us who have seen grief:
So that is why I am writing to you. When my child died I knew that there was no safety, anywhere, and I will not sacrifice to false gods. There is no safety, but there is wildness and joy, there is love and life within the danger. I love you. I want to be with you. ... I refuse to believe that we only get one chance. This letter is just a start. I am going to hunt you down now in all the lovely desolate places of the world. ... Wherever there is a perfect sunrise, a dark cliff, a small pool of water, a distant city wreathed in morning mist, there I will be waiting for you. Please come. Please come soon.
And there is something more than that, even, something more fundamental to the order of the universe: that God is redeeming the universe God made and loves. When we cry out from the depths, God hears. When Jesus seems slow in coming, he is coming nonetheless. And if we worry that it is too late, Jesus shows that it is never too late. After we have become convinced that all is lost, when we are ready to concede to death and are seeking only to contain the damage or bury it, Jesus demonstrates that there is no loss, no death, no tragedy, no depth, no power in heaven or on earth on under the earth that can place a person, a situation, or a world beyond God's redemption, beyond the reach of infinite love and abundant life.
Open every dark place to light and air; this is the time to uncover and unbind!
the green of jesus
is breaking the ground
and the sweet
smell of delicious jesus
is opening the house and
the dance of jesus music
has hold of the air and
the world is turning
in the body of jesus and
the future is possible
-- lucille clifton, "spring song," good woman: poems and a memoir 1969 - 1980
Thanks be to God!
Terrific, Dylan. This really touched me. Thanks.
Posted by: Rick+ | Mar 9, 2005 2:14:17 PM
Posted by: Gordon | Mar 10, 2005 8:21:47 AM
Thanks for the nice meditation. In a male dominated society women like Martha and Mary crossed the boundary from helplessness to power, from death to life. More so, from patriarchy toward equality.
Posted by: frank hernando | Mar 11, 2005 1:25:20 AM
Great stuff -- I'm going to *try* not to steal it on Sunday!
Posted by: Richard Hall | Mar 11, 2005 9:16:05 AM
Thanks, all, for your kind words. :)
By the way, this stuff is here to steal, as long as appropriate credit is given. (It's awkward at best when I say something that's original to me and someone thinks I've stolen from the person they first heard it from, who quoted me without attribution.)
I'm pleased whenever someone finds my work useful. For me, scripture is the primary place I go for booster shots of vision, the way I hold on to the truth of who made the world and for what. For a lot of people, even a lot of Christians, the bible is a book that's boring, or oppressive, or both. I want to do what I can to change that, whether it's helping layfolk who want to read the bible but aren't sure how, and whose schedules don't allow for going to classes during the week (or who don't have resources near where they are), or clergy who could use a little help amidst all of the other demands on their time and energy coming up with a sermon that inspires.
Thanks again! I appreciate the encouragement.
Posted by: Sarah Dylan Breuer | Mar 11, 2005 11:39:02 AM
Once upon a time there was a TV sitcom -- I can't even remember which one -- where one of the characters would scold, "Talk like a person!" One of the things that strike me about this story -- in the most "High Christological" of the Gospels, no less -- is that Jesus "acts like a person"...not only that, but relates to his female friends "like people." This is radical stuff! It always amazes me how readers can consistently miss the radicality of the reign of God as modeled by Jesus.
Posted by: LutheranChik | Mar 11, 2005 1:48:00 PM
Wonderful stuff! Thank you! I loved the poem, too.
What I also find comforting is that shot-through the Gospels is the concept of a God is seeking to save.
It is like realising you are lost in the woods and starting to panic, but turning round to see that somebody who loved you had started searching for you long ago.
God bless your work!
Posted by: David | Mar 12, 2005 1:17:14 PM
Sarah, Anything you can do to help give inspiration for the entire series/sweep of sermons would be appreciated. I enjoy the unique twists you give. Thanks.
Posted by: Patrick Ormos | Mar 14, 2005 9:51:31 PM
Another Lenten season is almost upon us and Christians around the world, mainly from the Orthodox denomination/s, are packing their coffee, mars bars and other minor indulgences away for another 40 plus days. The sacrifice, if you can call it a sacrifice, does rather pale into insignificance compared with Christ’s 40 days in the desert — that’s desert and not dessert.
Perhaps Lent has some meaningful lessons for the fashion world too? What if some of the major Fashion Brands gave up exploiting third world labour for 40 days and insisted on fair wages for works during this 6 week amnesty? What if the guilty Fashion Houses (we all know who they are) reflected on the barbarity of the fur trade for 40 days - perhaps their suppressed spirit of compassion would see the light of day? What if the fashion trade gave up production methods that harm the environment and during the 40 days held collective workshops seeking environmentally-friendly alternatives? …And us, the consumer, what if we gave up a piece of designer clothing in our wardrobe and donated it to charity and agreed to buy only ethically and environmentally conducive clothing during Lent. What if? What if? What if?
It’s not all doom, gloom and cynicism — the fashion world can take heart from a growing number of ethically and environmentally responsible brands: KOhZO, Loomstate, Edun, Coexist and Stella McCartney amongst others.
Even icons of consumerism and their devotees should turn to the sacred for at least 40 days each year.
Posted by: Jake | Feb 28, 2006 4:18:38 AM
Dylan, Your eye for the pathos and promise of the text is profound. Thanks,
Posted by: email@example.com | Apr 8, 2011 8:05:08 PM
Well Dylan, I am still troubled by the fact that If this is a believable event, then Jesus' behavior is reprehensable! All theological points aside, and custom aside, delaying his coming to make a point is not way to treat friends. Jesus was articulate enough to have handled the demands for assistance in person rather than leave them wondering what happened. I don't like what this says about his way of handling relationships. On possible answer is that Jesus himself disregarded the feelings of the "women" as important, just like his surrounding culture, and I don't like that conclusion either. All this leads me to the strongest feeling that this is simply a literary device of the author of John to make HIS point. Tuff reading.
Posted by: firstname.lastname@example.org | Apr 8, 2011 10:40:33 PM
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