Jesus knows what’s going to happen. Lazarus… does not.
Lazarus is on the edge of the grave. His sisters, Mary and Martha, are staying at his bedside all the time—because they want to make sure he’s comfortable… and because they want to make sure that they’re there when… —but they’re not quite sure where Lazarus is. Not really.
There are times when he mumbles words that they can’t hear to people who they can’t see. There are times when he stares into an empty part of the room with an expression of terror on his face. There are times when it’s like there’s nothing at all behind those glassy eyes.
So they send a message to Jesus, “The one whom you love is sick. The one whom you love is on the edge of the grave. Come quickly and heal him!”
And they wait. They wait as Lazarus’s skin grows mottled… and as his breathing grows slower… until he falls asleep. But Jesus does not come; there is no healing here.
And Lazarus feels himself fall past sleep… as he steps off the edge and into the grave.
There’s a voice. It’s muffled and at the edge of hearing. But it’s calling, “Lazarus, come out!”
He opens his eyes and everything is dark. And he can barely move against the… it feels like chains wrapped around him, but it’s soft like cloth… against this whatever that’s constricting him. And he struggles and stumbles toward the voice.
And a moment later, he steps out of the cool and into the warmth. He feels hands on him, ripping and tearing. And suddenly the darkness is snatched from his face… it was linen!… and his eyes adjust to the light of the world… and he sees his friend… with red eyes and tear-stained cheeks and an outstretched hand.
This is the first Sunday of Lent.
Lent is a serious season. It’s the season when we wear ashes and remember that we are dust; when we confess our sins—all of those ways that we chip away at the world—and ask for mercy.
It’s the season when we eat the bread and drink the wine; when we remember the moment when the word who was in the beginning—the word through whom all things came into being and without whom not one thing came into being—stepped off the edge and into the grave.
It’s the season when some of us might even fast; when some of us might even pray. It’s the season when all of us walk through the valley of the shadow of death. It’s a season of darkness; it might even be a season of despair.
And Lent is about a lot of things. But it’s a little bit about the season that comes after, when we remember that we were dead… and that Christ called to us… and took our hand… and pulled us out of the grave. It’s a little bit about remembering that we can’t step out of the grave unless we’ve already stepped into it.
And the thing about graves is that…
There’s a reason that our logo is a butterfly. It’s a little bit because we have a butterfly garden. And it’s a little bit because we have other things around with butterflies on them. But it’s mostly because the butterfly is a symbol of the transformative power of resurrection.
A caterpillar hangs upside down from a branch and spins its own tomb. Then it digests itself. It melts its whole body down to liquid except for the instructions about what to do next. It soups up. It dies… in pretty much every meaningful sense.
And then it uses those instructions that it didn’t melt down to liquid and it builds a new body. And, one day, it opens its tomb and steps out into the world as a butterfly.
And the thing about graves is that the people who step out of them are not the same people who stepped into them. We can’t be.
That’s true when we’re talking about the big graves that everyone destined for: the six-foot-deep hole in the earth, the tomb hewn from rock, the earth that collects our ashes. And that’s true when we’re talking about the little graves that people have to endure every day…
…when someone changes their voice to talk to customer service, because they know that using that word or that accent won’t get them anywhere…
…when someone doesn’t mention their pronouns or their name, because the teasing or the violence would hurt worse than being called the wrong thing…
…when a nation doesn’t talk about some parts of its history or some parts of its present, because some people don’t want to feel uncomfortable, even if that means that some other people are always uncomfortable…
…that’s true when we’re talking about the little graves that people have to endure every day, just because it’s easier to bury ourselves than it is to be ourselves… just because it’s easier to endure the little graves until we can step off the edge into the big one.
And the thing about graves is that the people who step out of them are not the same people who stepped into them. We can’t be. Because we step out of the grave as ourselves. Whole and complete… redeemed and restored… dead to sin and to shame… alive to grace.
Some churches tell stories.
Some say that the first time Lazarus died, he died in his sins, unredeemed and unrestored. So he spent those four days between his death and his resurrection in hell. And he met other souls who had died in their sins, unreeled and unrestored. And when he stepped out of hell and out of his tomb…
Some say that after Lazarus stepped out of his tomb—and, later, after Christ stepped out of his—Lazarus had to leave Judea, because there were people who wanted to kill him, and who had plans to make sure that, this time, he stayed dead. Some say that he sailed to Cyprus. Some say that he sailed to Provence. But wherever he went, he lived there until the day that he died… again.
And some say that he was so haunted by the memories of those souls who he met in hell… and that he was so worried about those souls who he met during his second life… that he was so concerned about all of these souls who were unredeemed and unrestored… that he never smiled again.
Now, I do not believe in unredeemed souls; I do not believe in unrestored souls. I believe that every soul is redeemed and restored. I believe that the whole world is redeemed and restored. I believe that if hell exists, it is empty. But…
I also know that the world is broken. I know that we chip away at the world… that we dig little graves… that we commit little murders and die little deaths… that we bury ourselves because, sometimes, that is easier than being ourselves.
And I know that we lie here, in the cool of our tombs, wrapped tightly in our sins, waiting for… something. Or, worse, that we lie here, in the cool of our tombs, wrapped tightly in our sins, believing that this is all there is.
And I know that there is a voice. It might be muffled. It might be on the edge of hearing. But it is calling. It is calling us each by name. It is calling us each to come out.
And I know that’s hard. But here’s the thing.
Some say that after Lazarus stepped out of his tomb, he never smiled again. I say that after Lazarus stepped out of his tomb, he grabbed a shovel and got to work. I say that after Lazarus stepped out of his tomb, he started telling other people about the voice that he heard. I say that after Lazarus stepped out of his tomb, he started helping people out of theirs.
And that is the work of the church.
This is the first Sunday of Lent. And Lent is about a lot of things. But it’s a little bit about remembering that we were dead… and that Christ called to us… and took out hand… and pulled us out of the grave… and cut our sins away… and freed us to be ourselves.
It’s a little bit about remembering that we went through that… that we are not the same people who we used to be… and that we have shovels.
You have good news.
You know that graves are not forever and that they don’t even have to be for now. You know that we can take off the things that constrain us and be who we are.
You know that there is a table that is open to everyone who hungers and everyone who thirsts. You know that there is a community that proclaims—and that sometimes even lives up to the idea—that no matter who you are and no matter where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.
Only Christ can call people out of the big graves that everyone is destined for. But you… you… have the power to call people out of the little graves that people have to endure every day. You… you… have the power to say, “I have been where you are. I have been in the grave, in the tomb, in the chrysalis. I stepped out into new life. And I can help you do that, too.”
You… you… have the power to help people become butterflies.