Some days, the gospel seems clear, but it’s hard to talk about. Usually when reading the story of Lazarus, I find myself thinking about the sisters in this story. Perhaps that’s inevitable. It’s a beautiful bit of narrative. Martha, after being chided by Jesus earlier for how she complained about her sister’s lack of housework, is given another chance. Here, she is honest with Jesus, blaming him for her brother’s death, but she isn’t despondent. She believes that there is hope because Jesus is present.
“But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”
Mary also meets Jesus on the road and, like when he visits her at home, she kneels at his feet. She, too, trusts that he is able to answer her grief. And Jesus wept.
In reading this passage, it’s easy to try and find your own heart there. We look to Martha’s activist faith or Mary’s quieter intimate relationship with Christ for a reflection of ourselves. But I think perhaps we’re looking in the wrong place. Because mainly we’re all Lazarus.
We’re in the tomb and we’re stinking. In one way or another, we all need new life. Not just a sunnier day or a better vision for tomorrow. We need life. We need Christ to call us away from the grave – from all the ways that hate and death are manifest in our thinking and our living – and to breath life back into us. All of us.
We’re all Lazarus.
I’m a member of Knox Church Ottawa. I’m currently living far from home, but I grew up in the Sunday School, singing tunelessly in the Junior Choir, trying out my earliest sermons on a patient congregation. Knox is a small gathered congregation in a big downtown church right smackdab in the middle of a great urban neighbourhood. There are a lot of cafes and restaurants, and the streets are busy late into the night. In the church’s garden, there is a notice board that faces the busy main street, and it usually has details about upcoming events with the odd comment about the Senators hockey team. Last week, someone posted what I can only hope was meant to be a joke.
“God does not believe in atheists – therefore they do not exist.”
Now there’s a long tradition of cheesy jokes on church signs. It’s not even as if this “joke” was original.
But it’s not funny. Actually, it’s worse than not funny: it’s counter-Christian. I’m not writing about this to skewer whoever posted it. (I wouldn’t have done that at coffee hour either.) But I want to talk about it here because this is another sort of gathered congregation and this website is a home congregation for me, too.
The bad “joke” hit twitter and facebook. Not a big splash but ripples enough. That’s where I heard about it. And so I’m of two minds about this. Part of me wants to ignore it and let it pass. Why make bigger ripples anyway? Isn’t that going to spread the hurt? But another part of me wants to run down Elgin Street with a painted bed-sheet banner streaming out behind me, yowling at top volume, trying to make things better.
Instead of that, this.
Let’s just get this straight right off the bat. God believes everyone exists. Existence is something that I think God has a far better grasp of than we do. We’re not always sure who we are. God’s been at this game a little bit longer. So no, God doesn’t doubt that we exist. Not any of us.
Secondly, as Christians, we shouldn’t be talking like this. It creates an us-and-them division when we’ve been called to preach radical inclusive love. “Go to all nations.” Be in places where there are people who believe different things. Live and love there. That’s our calling. The underlying assumption in this “joke” is that atheism isn’t a credible perspective. It may differ from ours, but that doesn’t negate its credibility. If we trust people when they describe their faith experiences or intellectual theological convictions (which may or may not be the same thing), then we have to give credence to someone’s assertion that they don’t believe in God. Not to do so belittles all conviction. None more so than our own conviction that the world is created and supported by a loving, living God.
If I still lived in the neighbourhood, and I walked past the sign with my kids, we’d have to talk about it. I would ask them what they thought. I’d want to be careful not to speak hurtfully about the person who posted the sign. I really do think that this was a joke which misfired. And we all make mistakes. I think that the thing to do would be to get the kids to write their own sign in response. That would be a fantastic poster to have. What message would my kids want to share with everyone who walked past their church, all the people in cars and buses, everyone who glanced out their window to look at the church on the corner? What words would they use?
As public Christians go, the Pope’s got more clout than my kids, likely, ever will. On Friday, Pope Francis broke protocol during a public Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica and knelt to confess his sins to an ordinary priest. Usually, the Pope goes to confession in private, so this was unusual to say the least. And, while I’m not a big advocate of sacramental confession, the Pope’s action gives us a strong image of the equality and the fallibility of all people. We all stink. We all need to confess.
I like to think the Pope would post his own sign in the church’s garden. It might look something like this.
We made a mistake
and we’re sorry.