Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

As most of us learned years ago in high school composition class, verbs are what make stories work. While character development matters, it’s the verbs — the parts of speech that describe what actually happens to the characters — that move the story forward. The difference between vigorous, descriptive prose that captures and keeps your attention and limp, lifeless writing that seeps out of your memory without leaving an imprint often turns on the verbs: passive or active, transitive or intransitive, full of life or staid. Further, good verbs invite us into the story. By rendering the action of the narrative vividly and concretely, verbs create space for us not just to watch but actually and sympathetically to participate in what is happening. In reading this week’s story of the raising of Lazarus, I was struck by four verbs, each of which reveal a dynamic insight into this crucial pivot point in John’s gospel and invite us powerfully into the story.

11:6 — “Tarried” — While most versions translate this as “stayed” or “remained,” I think “tarried” better captures the intentionality inherent in the Greek meno (abide). Jesus wasn’t just held up, he intentionally waited, delayed, dragged his feet, tarried. Why? Because he saw in Lazarus’ death the in-breaking of God’s glory and he wanted to make sure no one missed it. And so he tarried two more days so that by the time he arrived Lazarus would have been in the tomb four days, meaning his spirit — which according to Jewish tradition of the time stayed close to the body for three days — would most certainly be gone.

Whatever the holy purpose of his tarrying however, the pain it caused comes out in the half-lament, half-accusation that crosses the lips of both Mary and Martha, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Who has not felt a similar pang during times of grief or tragedy: “God, where are you?” “God, couldn’t you have done something to prevent this?” “God, why did this happen?” I once heard a sermon that began with these few words, “And Jesus tarried…,” and in the pause that followed I was surprised by the unbidden emotion and tears that welled up at the recognition of how often it feels that God is tarrying. Hindsight in faith, as in life, is twenty-twenty, such that in the moment of delay, all we can feel is the ache of God’s absence that is deep it nearly overwhelms the poignant, fragile hope of God’s eventual redemption.

11:35 — “Weep” — Some interpreters suggest that the cause of Jesus’ distress is the lack of faith of those gathered. Perhaps. I am more inclined to see it as a result of his identification with those who both have lost a loved one and simultaneously have lost confidence in God’s present-tense redemption and power. Earlier, when Martha confessed that she believed her brother would rise again at the last day, Jesus steered her toward a more immediate sense of God’s activity: “I am the resurrection and the life” even now, even here. Jesus weeps for both their grief and their diminished hope. What I find striking is that Jesus, though portrayed as such a powerful being in John — is not unmoved by our plight. Rather, Jesus, the word made flesh, share our lot as well as our life fully and completely.

11:43 — “Come out!” — Jesus, the one who is with God from the beginning, issues an executive order not unlike the command in Genesis that called forth light. “Let there be light” spoken long ago. “Let there be life” spoken into the pain and need of those gathered in today’s reading. “Come out!” It is a command that creates that which was not there and draws us into the knowledge and hope of those who follow the crucified and risen one: When pressed to the edge, when faced with the absolute end of all that we have known or can imagine, we are thrown back on the mercy of the God who commands Lazarus, and in time each of us, to come forth. The responsibility for life — creating it in the first place and recreating it once again — is wholly God’s.

11:44 — “Unbind him” — Yet while this scene is God’s, it is not God’s alone. Creation and redemption are God’s work, activity, and responsibility, yet we also are given a role to play. In responding to God’s call to participate in the ongoing work of God to renew and restore the world, we are drawn into God’s redemptive work and in this way made God’s partners, even co-creators. Do we see ourselves this way? What would it be like to imagine that through our work, our roles, and our relationships, God is still commanding us to unbind, set free, release, and renew?

Any one of these verbs might rightly occupy a preacher’s attention depending on the circumstances of her or his congregation. At the same time, there is a certain pattern of movement that might also deserve comment: God can work even through tragedy, though that can be difficult to see and wait for; God identifies with us and feels our hopes and hurts as God’s own; God acts to redeem and save in mercy and love; God invites us into that activity and grants us lives of meaning and purpose.

Whatever tack you take, Working Preacher, I’d invite you also to consider these two possibilities. First, this would be an excellent opportunity to continue the pattern of inviting people into the text and sermon by having them talk about it. Pertinent questions suggest themselves immediately:
    “When you have felt that God is tarrying? What has helped you hold onto your faith.”
    “What does it mean to you to know that God weeps with us and for us?”
    “Where have you seen God act in your life or in the world recently?”
    “Where do you feel called to unbind and set free? What difference does it make to know that God regards you as a partner and co-creator in God’s work to care for neighbor and world?”

If you are not ready for conversation or want to vary the means by which you engage your people in the proclamation, you could also provide paper and pencil and invite them to journal — either during the sermon or before or after. And either way, they could then share their reflections with you and each other via email or weblog and in this way participate more fully in the ongoing proclamation of the word.

Second, this might also be a great opportunity to turn some of the responsibility for the proclamation over to your congregation more fully. As you know, over the last year or so I have increasingly become an advocate of giving people the chance to practice the Christians skills of interpreting Scripture — of making sense, that is, of our lives in light of the biblical passages and vice versa — by giving them opportunities to do so on Sunday morning. I do this partly in response to the uncomfortable realization that, ironically, the better we are as interpreters and preachers of the word, the easier it is for our people to feel either no responsibility or no ability to interpret and proclaim it themselves. For this reason, this might be an ideal Sunday in which to invite four persons from your congregation each to take one of these verbs (and the questions suggested above) and reflect on them for just a few moments in light of their own life of faith from the pulpit.

Would this be a traditional sermon? Probably not. Will some in the congregation be uncomfortable? Undoubtedly. Will it be eye-opening, even transformative for the preachers and listeners alike? I am confident it will. It is a powerful thing for everyday Christians to see themselves as not just recipients of the preached word but also as proclaimers, and I invite you to consider this option. After all, the God who created the vast cosmos and called Lazarus from the dead is not yet finished surprising us with light, life, hope, and meaning.

What you do matters so much, Working Preacher, and whatever direction you move in this week, know of my gratitude for your fidelity.

Yours in Christ,