Edward Snowden was back in the news this week. You’ll remember he was the National Security Agency staff person who revealed the extent to which the United States government is listening in on the conversations of world leaders and its own citizens. It was announced this week that Snowden will receive the Ridenhour award for truth-telling from the Nation Institute and the Fertel Foundation. I know the views about Snowden’s actions and the consequences he should face are all across the board, but we can all agree that his disclosures have sparked a robust conversation about our expectations of privacy and how much information the government should be able to collect about us. In some ways, this is not a new conversation. As an article I read in The New Yorker this week by Kathryn Schulz points out, the flip side of democracy is bureaucracy: if everyone counts, everyone must be counted. Along with the right to vote goes a need to make sure that everyone is who they say they are, and that requires identification and proof of birth and proof of citizenship and a census to determine who lives where and so on. As far back as the 19th century, this troubling dark side of democracy was acknowledged by the French political theorist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who observed that “to be governed is to be noted, registered, enumerated, accounted for, stamped, measured, classified, audited, patented, licensed, authorized, endorsed, reprimanded, prevented, reformed, rectified, and corrected, in every operation, every transaction, every movement.”
The most macabre way we track our citizens is through the death certificate. If you die in the developed world today, your death is documented on a single piece of one-sided paper. It lists your legal name, gender, social security number, last known address, where the death occurred, who pronounced the death, and most importantly, the cause of death. The cause of death is the whole point of the death certificate; it’s the information that the public health system wants so they can figure out how to best allocate research and resources toward the diseases that are affecting the greatest number of people. When governments started tracking deaths like this, back in England in the 17th and 18th centuries, there were about 80 generally recognized causes of death, although many of them would look a bit odd to us today. In her article, Schultz writes that “you could die of Cramp, Itch, or Lethargy. You could be carried off by Cut of the Stone, or King’s Evil, or Planet-struck, or Rising of the Lights. You could succumb to Overjoy, which sounds like a decent way to go, or be Devoured by Lice, which does not. You could die of, basically, death, either “Suddenly”, “Killed by several Accidents,” or “Found dead in the Streets.”
Today, things are bit more scientific and a lot more complicated. The World Health Organization maintains the list of possible causes of death, known as the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, or the ICD-10. The ICD-10 comes in three forest-green volumes, can be purchased for $562.82 through Barnes & Noble, and runs to twenty-two hundred pages. It lists some eight thousand officially sanctioned ways to die. Unfortunately, this makes the death certificate fantastically difficult to fill out, so there are some two hundred and fifty pages of instructions dedicated to explaining to physicians, most often young interns or residents to whom this bureaucratic task falls, how to account for the cause of death. And the death certificate doesn’t list just one cause. Rather, there’s an immediate cause on the top line, due to another underlying cause on the line below, and so on, with four lines that need to be filled out. So, for example, the immediate cause of death might be the rupture of the lining surrounding the heart, brought on by a heart attack, caused by a clot in an artery around the heart, with the underlying cause of death being heart disease.
All of that information, if correctly documented, provides a sort of explanation for a death, but it also leaves a lot of critical information out, such as the person’s two-pack a day smoking habit, or that they were extraordinarily depressed due to the recent death of a spouse, or refused to take medication prescribed for their condition. Unfortunately, this document which is crucial to proving to banks and various government agencies that the person is actually dead, and which helps drive public health spending in this country, fails to get at the true underlying cause of death as much as 50% of the time.
I doubt whether the editors of The New Yorker planned it this way, but this article about death certificates coming out just before Holy Week got me to thinking about what some young resident or coroner might have written on Jesus’s death certificate. Crucifixion was a brutal method of execution practiced throughout the Roman empire. The condemned was nailed or tied to the cross, and hung up in a public place as a warning to others. Often the victim was tortured beforehand. In Jesus’s case, he was flogged, whipped with bands of leather embedded with sharp glass or metal objects that tore at his flesh. The victim could hang on the cross for days, or could succumb in a few hours. Most often, the immediate cause of death was probably asphyxiation, because the victim would have to hoist themselves up in order to breathe, and would eventually become too exhausted to do so. Others probably bled to death from their wounds, or their heart gave out, or they went into shock, or they died of dehydration.
However it happened in Jesus’s case, he died of severe trauma to his body. But to go to the next line, the underlying cause of death, to dig deeper into the behaviors and factors in his life that led him to the cross, I think we have to look at the two readings from Matthew’s gospel that we hear today, the triumphant entry into Jerusalem we heard a moment ago, and the long and painful account of his passion, his arrest, trial, and crucifixion, which we’ll hear in a moment. We hear both of these very different stories today, jammed up right next to each other, because I think they are intertwined. This Sunday can give us a bit of spiritual whiplash, with our joyful cries of “Hosanna” just minutes later becoming bloodthirsty cries of “Crucify him.” That whiplash can give us some critical insight into why Jesus died and what his death means for us today.
Jesus spends most of his ministry out in the country, in Galilee north of Jerusalem. When he decides to go to Jerusalem, the capital city, the home of the temple and the religious authorities and the place where the Roman governor Pontius Pilate lives and where most of the Roman army is located, he tells a couple of his disciples to go get a donkey for him to ride in on. News of Jesus has reached the city, and everyone wants to see this man who heals people and preaches about the kingdom of God. There is a festive atmosphere in the air because it’s almost Passover, and Jerusalem is filled with visitors from the country side. The Roman soldiers are on alert for any kind of trouble, and the religious authorities who try and keep the peace so that the Romans don’t have an excuse to crackdown are anxious that things don’t get out of hand. Neither the Romans nor the religious authorities are thrilled about this crowd shouting “Hosanna!” about Jesus, because they know how quickly crowds can get out of hand. The smart thing, the prudent thing, for Jesus to do would be to keep a low profile, but instead, he walks around the city preaching and teaching and criticizing the religious authorities. He does this because the kingdom of God will not wait for a safe time; it is not cautious, it is not prudent, it is not careful. This week there was a three-day civil rights summit at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, TX. Johnson of course is most often remembered for his record in Vietnam, a black mark which has overshadowed his landmark accomplishments in civil rights, his work to get voting rights and comprehensive civil rights bills passed through Congress. Shortly after becoming president after Kennedy was assassinated, LBJ spoke to congress and told them that passage of a comprehensive civil rights bill was a fitting and proper tribute to Kennedy’s memory. Most of his advisors urged caution, warning Johnson that civil rights, however worthy it might be, was a lost cause, and that he should go slowly. Johnson responded, and I’m paraphrasing, “Then what in the world is the presidency for?” Jesus knew that convincing the world to love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself, was a lost cause, but that didn’t slow him down or make him play it safe. He spoke out for what he knew was important and for what he knew was right, and it got him killed.
The crowds who are so enthusiastic when Jesus enters Jerusalem show up again when he is taken before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. The festival is at its height now, and tensions are running high. Pilate couldn’t care less who Jesus says he is, what he’s been preaching about over the last few years, couldn’t care less what he’s done that has so enraged the religious authorities. As was the custom at the festival, he’d been planning to release a prisoner, Barabbas, a bandit who’d been annoying the Roman army but was pretty popular with the crowds. But crowds are fickle; crowds are dangerous. The chief priests know just the things to say, just the rumors to spread, just the way to get the crowd riled up and to demand that Jesus be crucified. Who knows how they did it, it seems incredible, hard to believe that they could be so easily manipulated. Twenty years ago this week, on April 7, 1994, members of the core political elite in Rwanda known as the akazu instigated a genocidal mass slaughter of Rwandan citizens known as Tutsis. They convinced tens of thousands soldiers, police, and civilians to arm themselves with machetes and clubs to maim and kill their Tutsi neighbors. In a hundred days, nearly one million Tutsis were killed, often by people they had known well and lived next to peacefully for years. Who can explain how that happened? Who can explain the Holocaust, or the genocides in Cambodia or Armenia, or the lynchings by the KKK, or the wartime atrocities around the world? As Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.” There were good people in all those crowds gone bad, in every crowd that becomes a mob, but they either got swept up in the furor or they were afraid to speak up or their voices were drowned out or they figured everyone else was doing it so why not them. Mob mentality makes it possible to do the impossible, the unthinkable, the awful thing. Mob mentality got Jesus killed.
I can’t help but think that in addition to the physical injuries he received at the hands of the Romans that Jesus suffered from emotional and spiritual injuries he received at the hands of his friends. There’s Peter and the two sons of Zebedee who couldn’t keep their eyes open in the garden and keep Jesus company as he waited for the inevitable. There;s Judas, who betrays him with a kiss, a gesture of friendship. There’s Peter who denied even knowing him when it got too dangerous. None of his disciples were around to help carry his cross, so a stranger, Simon of Cyrene had to be pressed into service. And Jesus was left alone on the cross, surrounded by criminals and the mocking soldiers and bystanders. It would be easy if we could just point the finger of blame at Peter and Judas and the disciples, accuse them of character flaws and cowardice, but it’s not that easy. Craig Barnes, a Presbyterian preacher, reminds us that the Judas chromosome, and by extension, the Peter chromosome, the disciples’ chromosomes, run deep in all of us: we’re still betraying and denying and abandoning Jesus today. We betray him by deciding where we stand when the weak speak the truth to the powerful, by keeping our mouths shut while others are bullied or discriminated against. We deny him by closing our eyes and ears to those in need in our community and around the world. We betray him by failing to speak the truth about our world, and failing to recognize the truth about ourselves. We abandon him by slipping away in the dark, by running from things that are too painful to witness. In some ways, Jesus died of a broken heart, broken because of the betrayal of Judas, the denial of Peter, the abandonment of the disciples; broken because we’re still doing the same things, centuries later.
Holy Week is a hard journey. It’s hard because we’re called to witness the suffering and death of Jesus, and it’s hard because we’re called to acknowledge our own complicity in it. Let us not be afraid to face up to the truths that Holy Week speaks. Let us be reminded that the triumph of good over evil requires our willingness to put ourselves on the line. Let us not abandon ourselves or each other in the dark journey this week, or in any of the dark times that may lie ahead.
Some of you may remember Sam Levenson. He was a comedian, author, and television personality, appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show, What’s My Line?, and The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson throughout the 1970’s. He told this story about the birth of his first child. The first night home from the hospital the baby would not stop crying. Dr. Spock’s landmark book The Common Sense Book of Baby & Child Care had just been published, and so Sam’s wife Sarah took the book off the shelf and began frantically flipping through the pages to find out why babies cry and what to do about it. The book is quite long, running to almost a thousand pages, and so the baby cried for a long time.
Levenson’s mother-in-law was in the house, but in the way these things often seem to work, she was not consulted because she had made some fairly disparaging remarks about her daughter needing a book to know how to care for baby. In her day, Grandma sniffed, they had just known what to do; there was no need for books. This had led to a bit of an argument earlier in the evening. Dinner had been served in a sort of frosty silence, and afterwards Grandma had retreated to the guest room upstairs. Even with the door closed, however, she could hear the baby crying and crying and crying until she could stand it no longer. She opened the door, went to the top of the stairs and shouted down to her daughter, “For heaven’s sake, Sarah, put down the book and pick up the baby!”
Of course, we expect infants to cry, and children to cry when they fall and scrape their knees or elbows, and the mother of the bride to cry at weddings, and everyone to cry at funerals. Those sorts of tears are expected and acceptable. Other times, we have a more ambivalent reaction to crying. It’s gotten somewhat more acceptable for men to cry in public, but it’s still news when politicians cry: Barack Obama’s tearful thank-you to his campaign workers was widely covered, and since being elected Speaker of the House, John Boehner has been taken a lot of guff about his tendency to wear his emotions on his sleeve. At the Olympics a few weeks ago, NBC’s Christin Cooper was roundly criticized for pushing skier Bode Miller about the pain of his brother’s death, and the network was pilloried for letting the camera linger on him for over a minute as he tried to regain his composure. On the one hand, Miller’s obvious emotion and tears over his brother’s death humanized him and showed how he has matured over the years; on the other, the balance of opinion seemed to be that he should have been allowed to have that experience in private, away from the camera.
In our reading this morning of the familiar story of the raising of Lazarus, no one seems to be able to make sense of Jesus’s tears at the death of his friend. In our translation, “Jesus began to weep” when Lazarus’s friends and family tell him to “Come and see” where they have laid him. “Jesus began to week” is more faithful to the original Greek, but perhaps not as memorable and profound sounding as the King James’s concise “Jesus wept.” Seeing Jesus’s tears, some in the crowd are amazed. “See how much Jesus loved Lazarus! See how moved he is!” they say. Others are confused. “Couldn’t Jesus have saved Lazarus from death? Couldn’t he have cured him of his illness? After all, he turned water into wine, he healed the crippled man at Bethesda, he fed 5000 people with a few loaves and fishes, he walked on water, and he opened the eyes of the blind man! Why didn’t he save his friend?”
I don’t know about you, but I find myself falling in with the second camp, the confused folks. Up to this point, Jesus has shown a remarkably cavalier attitude about Lazarus’s health and well-being. Jesus had spent a fair amount of time with Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha. Their house in Bethany had served as a sort of refuge for him, a quiet retreat away from the crowds, and it will again shortly before his death. The Greek text tells us Jesus loved Lazarus as a friend. But when Lazarus falls seriously ill and his sisters send word to Jesus, his response is sort of bizarre. He says, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Then he stays where he is for another two whole days.
When Jesus finally decides to go see Lazarus, he tells the disciples that Lazarus has fallen asleep and he is going to go wake him up. It’s the disciple’s turn to be confused. “Jesus,” they say, “if he’s fallen asleep, he’ll be alright.” Jesus tries to clarify the situation. “Lazarus is dead,” he says. “I’m glad I wasn’t there, because now it gives me the opportunity to show you who I am. Come on, let’s go see him.” It’s a risky journey for the Jesus, because Bethany is in Judea, and the religious authorities in Judea have just tried to stone Jesus. They don’t know what to make of his healing people on the sabbath, his criticisms of the temple authorities, or his claim that he and God are one. Most of the disciples aren’t too keen to go back to Judea, but Thomas says, “Oh come on, let’s go. If Jesus is going to die, I’d rather die with him than stay here.”
When they arrive in Bethany, they find out that Lazarus has already been in the tomb for four days. In Jewish tradition, it was believed that the soul hung out near the body after death for three days, hoping to get back into the body. On the fourth day, it was believed, the soul would give up and leave. So Lazarus is really, really dead. Lazarus’s sister Martha hears that Jesus has come, and she runs to meet him. She says, and you can almost hear the hint of reproach in her voice, “Jesus, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” She immediately thinks better of it, and says, “Never mind; I know that God will give you whatever you ask.” Jesus tells Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha gives the good answer, the correct answer for a faithful Jew, saying, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jews believed that on the day of judgement, all the dead would rise from their graves, they would be resurrected in their flesh and see God in glory. Jesus says to Martha, “That’s not what I’m talking about. The resurrection I’m talking about is not some sort of magic trick with bones and skeletons. I’m talking about a resurrection that is here and now, that has begun already. I am the resurrection; I am the life. If you want to experience life, truly experience life, abundant life beyond anything that you can imagine, believe in me. You don’t have to wait for the grave to experience resurrection, to experience new life. I am the resurrection; you can experience new life here and now through me.” It doesn’t seem like Martha quite gets it, but then, almost no one else in John’s gospel has gotten it, either. Jesus has performed miracle after miracle, sign after sign, he’s talked until he’s blue in the face about how he is the bread of life, the living water, the good shepherd, the gate to the abundant life, the way, the truth, and the life, and almost no one has been able to understand what he’s talking about.
Martha goes to get her sister Mary. Mary comes to Jesus, and says the same thing that Martha did, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” On seeing her, and the other people there weeping, Jesus finally seems to have a normal, human response. He is greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. It may be that the reality of the situation has finally come home for him. He’s known from the beginning of the story that God planned to raise Lazarus from the dead, but somehow, it hadn’t occurred to him that in order for that to happen, Lazarus would have to die first. Lazarus had to go through the suffering, the painful and difficult process of letting go of this life, the only one he knew. It was hard for him, painful for Mary and Martha, devastating for everyone who loved them. Throughout John’s gospel, Jesus has been seeing the world through God’s eyes, seeing it for what it can be. Lazarus’s death forces Jesus to see the world through our eyes, to see it for what it is. He asks where they have laid Lazarus, and the crowd says to him, “Come and see.” This is just too much for Jesus, and he weeps. Throughout John’s gospel, people have been invited to “come and see” who Jesus is, to “come and see” who God is, in all of God’s healing and life-giving glory. Now Jesus is invited to “come and see” the death that is inextricably entwined with that promise of new life. This is the turning point in John’s gospel. This is the last sign, the last miracle that Jesus will perform. He tells the people to move the stone out of the entryway to the tomb, ignoring Martha’s objection that it’s going to smell pretty bad in there. Tears still running down his cheeks, he cries, “Lazarus, come out!” Out comes the dead man, barely able to move because his hands and feet are bound with strips of cloth, barely able to see because his face is wrapped in a veil. He tells the crowd to unbind Lazarus, and let him go. No one is paying attention to Jesus anymore - all eyes are on the dead man returned from the grave, all eyes are on Lazarus. Through his tears, Jesus finally sees the truth he’s been trying to get everyone else to see, he sees the way forward, he knows what is at the end of the road for him. Jesus is not going to be exempt from the suffering and disappointment and death that we all experience. The days ahead will be filled with betrayal and shame and misunderstanding and agony. And after that he’ll be laid in a tomb, a tomb like the one in front of him now. He’ll be bound up with bands of cloth like the ones being unwrapped from Lazarus now. And a stone like the one the crowd moved away will be rolled into place, shutting out the light and the fresh air. Yes, on the third day it will be alright. But the road to Jesus’s resurrection on Easter morning goes straight through the brutal crucifixion on Good Friday. There is no easy road to the empty tomb, there is no detour around the cross.
Jesus weeps at Lazarus’s grave, he weeps for a friend he has lost, he weeps for the trials he will soon face, and he weeps for us as we go through the dark times in our lives. As Fred Craddock, a preacher I like a lot, writes, “Is there any place where this text, Jesus wept, does not fit? Spray paint it on the gray walls of the inner city: “Jesus wept.” Scrawl it with a crayon on the hallway of an orphanage: “Jesus wept.” Embroider it on every pillow in the nursing home: “Jesus wept.” Flash it in blinking neon at the bus station where the homeless are draped over pitiless benches: “Jesus wept.” Carve it over the door of a mountain cabin at which a fifteen year old girl stands with a crying child: “Jesus wept.” Sky write it over every greed raped landscape: “Jesus wept.” There seems no place where this text does not fit.”
On Friday morning I was almost brought to tears by a story I heard on NPR. It was a Storycorps interview with Elisa and Bobby Seeger about their son Aidan, who died of adrenoleukodystrophy, or ALD, in 2012 at age 7. ALD is a very rare genetic disorder that attacks the nervous system; it mainly affects young boys and can be fatal within a year. Elisa remembered that her son Aidan “Always liked be be ‘fancy,’ as he called - he liked to dress in shirts and ties. He had a really strong personality, and he could not be told what to do. We’d find him at 7:30 in the morning, watching cartoons with a bowl of M & M’s, and he’d be drinking a can of Coca-Cola.” The first sign of trouble came when he was age 6 and Aidan was having trouble reading. The pediatrician recommended a neurologist, and the MRI came back revealing large white spots on Aidan’s brain. In a few days, he lost his vision, and then the ability to walk or eat. His father described holding him in his hospital during his last days and hours.
After Aidan died, Elisa and Bobby found a spot to bury him in a cemetery near their home in Brooklyn. Then they began lobbying the New York State legislature. If ALD is detected in newborn babies, a bone marrow transplant can help them survive. In 2013, the legislature passed Aidan’s Law, requiring screening for the disorder in newborns. Several infants have been diagnosed wight he disorder since the new law was passed, including Matthew Hunter. When his parents, Nick and Lindsay, were told their son had ALD, they quickly learned about Aidan and his family while searching on the Internet. Lindsay said, “We have to find Aidan’s mom and just hug her.” They did, and Lindsay told Elisa, “You didn’t even know Matthew, and you fought for his life. And there’s no way to repay that.”
Jesus’s presence at Lazarus’s tomb, no matter how late he was, meant new life for Lazarus. God’s presence at our tombs, the little tombs we experience through the end of a relationship, the grief at the loss of a loved one, the addictions that are slowly killing us, the patterns of behavior and responses in ourselves and those around us that drain the life out of us, or the inexorable decline of our physical and mental health as we age, God’s presence throughout the worst that life has to offer us means that none of that, not even death, will have the last say. God works through the little deaths and the big deaths in our lives, God creates life in the midst of grief, creates love in the midst of loss, creates faith in the midst of despair. God is working even now to call us out of our tombs, God is working even now to call us to new and abundant life, God is calling us even now out of darkness and into the light. That is the Easter story, but it is also the Good Friday story. Amen.