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Apron Strings and Open Tombs

April 7, 2014

“Apron Strings and Open Tombs” John 11:1-45 (ESV) © 4/6/14 Lent 5A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, M. All rights reserved.

You hang up the phone, stunned. A long-time friend, in fact, your best friend, is dying. You’ve stood by each other in thick and thin, shared laughter and tears, been there at marker events and major holidays. Wouldn’t you without hesitation drop what you were doing and rush to the friend’s side, both to see him or her again and to offer whatever comfort and assurance you could? Or if somehow you were absolutely prevented from going, wouldn’t you call, just so you could hear that familiar voice once last time and say goodbye? Of course you would. And so would I.

Not Jesus. Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha were our Lord’s best friends, but he didn’t go. When Jesus finally got to Bethany, after what the text tells us was an intentional delay, Lazarus was in the tomb, and Martha was livid. She was convinced that if Jesus had really cared and made the effort to come in a timely way, her brother, our Lord’s friend, would have been healed and lifted up from his sick bed, fully restored. Her sister Mary said the same thing a little later.

We share their pain. Haven’t we felt the gnawing suspicion that God really doesn’t care or if he does, he’s powerless to do anything about our problems? In loss and disappointment, trouble and sorrow, death and despair, we cry out with Martha and Mary: “Lord, if you had been here…!” Even if somehow we’ve been spared personal hardship and anguish, we still resonate with the complaint. Day after day we’re bombarded in the media with scenes and stories of hunger, fear, terror, cruelty, corruption, lying, greed, and suffering.

It’s been a little over 25 years since a terrorist bomb brought down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in December 1988. The preacher in the memorial service for the victims chose as his text the anguished complaint of the sisters to Jesus. He knew there was only one question on the minds of those gathered as they struggled to sing hymns and recite the creed. “Lord, if you had been here….” Where was God? It’s a question we have had occasion to ask over and over, not just in subsequent terrorist attacks, including 9/11, but during times of social crisis and personal loss and tragedy. When so many children go hungry, while a few über-rich live unconcerned in luxury beyond imagination, where is God? As we watch a loved one waste away from disease, where is God? On days life comes crashing down on us, and we feel abandoned, exhausted, and hopeless, where is God?

The Gospel of John freely admits the difficulty. But that doesn’t really help, does it? We already know there’s a problem. What’s the solution?

The writer has a response, but get ready. It’s not easy to swallow or understand. It will make us think outside the box of our conventional notions. Here it is: the absence of God is an expression of his love.

Immediately we want to object. He must be kidding. But there it is in the text, plain as day: Jesus loved his friends, so, therefore, he delayed and stayed where he was. John repeatedly insists that Jesus reveals the Father, that he is one with God. So what Jesus does, God does. This is how God acts. Sometimes, because he loves us, he stays away.

I find that absolutely startling. What could God be up to? Rainer Maria Rilke, the great 20th century poet, once observed that “…we…need…great mysteries, we for whom grief is so often the source of our spirit’s growth.” So maybe God is somehow helping us to grow. Some years ago, a theologian said that in Judaism, Christianity, and Buddhism, the indifference or apathy of God is seen as a “rich and subtle way of teasing us out of ourselves and into relationship with God.” God is “a Fierce Mother, as well as a Gentle Father, who woos her children to a relationship of deeper maturity. One is astonished, in standing nakedly before the divine resplendence, to discover that a grand and new wholeness comes to replace all that has been lost” (Belden Lane, “Fierce Landscapes and the Indifference of God,” The Christian Century, 10/11/89: 908-09).

That reflection on God as Mother and Father leads me to some musing about the two distinct kinds of parenting I’ve noticed and experienced over the years, both personally and professionally. Both are motivated by love. In one style, mothers and fathers want to keep the apron strings pretty securely attached to, even tightly wound around, their children. They shield the kids from troubles and the world, rescue them from their problems, provide for their every need and want, blame their failures on somebody else, and rarely, if ever, hold the kids accountable. In campus ministry, we called these folks “helicopter parents,” because they hovered over their college student. The more the son or daughter seeks to cut the apron strings through independent thought and action, the stronger the resistance from the parents. They genuinely fear for the child’s safety and well-being. They may also be afraid of something else: losing control. Sometimes kids in these families take a very long time to grow up and learn to cope with life and its challenges on their own. They were not taught how to solve a problem, because there was no need; it was assumed someone would always be there to bail them out. So even though their bodies may be 20 or 30 or 40 years old, their maturity level has not kept pace.

The other way of being a parent I’ve witnessed and benefited from sees the task of parenting as teaching values and preparing children to be responsible, self-sufficient adults. The apron strings become looser and looser as time goes by. Rather than fostering dependency, these parents model, inculcate, and expect independence. They believe they have been successful only when their kids think for themselves; know how to solve problems on their own; and can relate to others, including their parents, as what theorist Ed Friedman called “self-differentiated” people. These are parents who teach their fledglings to fly, forage, and feed. They don’t want them to stay in the nest forever.

The Gospel of John gives us a God who wants us to fly. And sometimes to do that he has to stay away. We need to fail and grieve and hurt and struggle. He cuts the apron strings so that another kind of link can be forged, a mutual relationship of covenant partners, one of trust on both sides.

There is a common notion among some Christians that God wants us to stay cuddled in the divine arms forever, a dependent, helpless infant. We never grow up. We abdicate choice, we believe whatever anybody in authority tells us is so, we give up making decisions that affect our lives and the destiny of this planet. God will take care of everything. God has ordained everything, from what we will do today to our life’s work to our very identity. But this text exposes such ideas for the lies they are. God is not glorified by clingy, helpless, desperate children, but by people who have groaned in trials and matured in faith. The problems we have, the grief we know, the failures that haunt us, the heartbreak that we must endure are like scissors snipping away at the apron strings, and we go out on our own a little more all the time. Finally we come to a place of mature trust, only to find, of course, that there is still more growing to do.

Yet even should we learn to trust a God who shows us such strange and strong affection, we still might not be able to love him. Maybe could manage fear or respect. But love? Not likely. Fortunately, John doesn’t leave us desperately trying to return the love of a mysterious and inscrutable God. Yes, God is sovereign and free, with a timetable that confounds reason and generally increases our anxiety, even our anger, level. But he does come to the aid of his hurting children. On occasion, the God of John is One who waits, but he is always One who comes in Christ. We might say this gospel is anchored by two texts, six words in English: “The Word became flesh” and “Jesus wept.” Our Lord shows us a God who has become one with us, walking the path of joy and sorrow, feeling what we feel, entering fully into our lives. Jesus reveals a God who waits, but also one who weeps.

I remember even all these years later my middle school physical education class and a tyrannical, sadistic coach. We ran and ran and ran some more around the football field. “How long do we have to run, Coach?” one of the boys asked. “Till I get tired,” came the sarcastic reply.

The God we know in Christ isn’t like that at all. Yes, we have to run. He doesn’t carry us. But he runs with us. He does not demand of us that which he will not do, as he stands on the sidelines, watching our pain. He knows the bitter tears we shed when a friend or spouse dies, the emptiness that gnaws like a hungry rat at our insides. He has stood among mourners outside a tomb and felt their anger and pain. He has looked at the blighted creation, so mistreated by those he appointed his stewards, and remembered with sorrow how lovely it once was. He sobs because he knows the tragic and sinful choices corporations, governments, courts, families, and churches make that contribute to human suffering rather than bringing justice and peace. He is “deeply moved in spirit and troubled” by what he sees. This is the God who suffers our pain. This is a God who has earned our love, because he bears our burdens, stands with us, and weeps. Where is God? He’s right beside us.

But even when John has given us a God who shares our misery and knows our pain, he’s not finished. Because this suffering God is also the life-giving God. As someone has said, “…the suffering of God…is not just a sharing in misery, but a redemption from it. While evil burdens God, it does not defeat God” (Jerry Robbins, “A Pastoral Approach to Evil,” Theology Today, January 1988: 491). God stands with us, but he goes beyond companionship to offer genuine relief from misery and pain. Jesus went to the tomb, cried out “Lazarus, come forth!” and the dead man was raised. Unbound, he was free to live again.

We are all of us Lazarus, needing to be resurrected and unbound. When life deals us a deadly blow, and we’re trapped in the prison of our own insecurity, need, shame, guilt, and grief, there comes the gracious cry, “Unbind them, and let them go!” Let my people go! Let them be free from sin, these who labor under a burden of brokenness, who are so bound they can’t act, move, breathe or live. Let them go when they can’t climb from the pit of despair and doubt and fly to new heights of creativity and growth and faith as God intends. Untangle them from the web of suspicion and hatred and intolerance and envy and greed and hostility in which they are caught. Let them come out of the tomb to a new sense of self and the Savior, to a renewed experience of community and caring. Restore their lives! “Lazarus, come forth!” “Unbind him, and let him go!” “Let loose the grave clothes and set her free!”

The end of suffering and death is not yet. But God in Jesus Christ has brought us hope. He has gone to the cross to show his resolve to defeat death, to demonstrate his love, to show us how much he is with us. The day will come when God will triumph over every power than can hurt or destroy us and creation. In the meantime, we may suffer, but we know he weeps with us. He battles valiantly to overcome his enemies and bring in the day when there will be no more pain or suffering, but God will be all in all. And no one will ask any longer “Where is God?” because he will dwell forever with his people.

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