Fifth Sunday of Lent

Fifth Sunday of Lent

“Lazarus, come out!” – it’s a memorable line in today’s gospel reading. Not only was it an emotional and relational climax to the story, it’s also an important turning point in the gospel. Up to this point in the gospel, Rev. Dr. Jennifer Garcia Bashaw, describes Jesus as aloof and minimally impacted by those around him. But here, Jesus is deeply moved, and he even weeps. From this story onward, Jesus will become increasingly more relational and affectionate, like when he washes his disciples’ feet and gives his farewell address.[1] So too, today’s story becomes the final straw for the religious leaders; from this point forward, they will relentlessly pursue Jesus’s arrest and eventual execution. Today’s story thrusts us forward toward what we will experience together next week, during Holy Week. All that will come proceeds from and follows the phrase, “Lazarus, come out!”

Let’s take a closer look at that phrase. Depending on the tone and context it can convey different emotions. Perhaps Jesus was making a strong, bold, decisive demand saying “Lazarus, get out here!” Or was Jesus giving an affirming invitation along the lines of “Lazarus, it’s safe to come out now.” Or was it a pleading phrase, maybe hoping against all hope that Lazarus could be raised, something like “Lazarus, please, please come out here.” We cannot know for sure.

What we do know is that the Greek text doesn’t come to us with any punctuation, so that exclamation point following “Lazarus, come out” is the editors’ way of telling us that this word is an interjection. That is, the word interrupts and expresses emotion. The word in Greek is deuro, and it’s found three other times in the gospels­–once in Matthew, once in Mark, and once in Luke. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus says to a rich man that to receive eternal life he must sell his possessions, give the money to the poor, and to deuro (come) follow him. You see, every time deuro is used it signals a disruptive, transformational, and life-changing moment. And that’s true as we hear, “Lazarus, come out!”

As a queer person, the phrase “come out” particularly resonates with me. The process of coming out to oneself and to others can be a disruptive, transformational, and life-changing experience. This Friday marks International Transgender Day of Visibility. It’s a day that celebrates the joy, resilience, and life-giving transformation of those who have come out as transgender. While we might think that the trans- community is small, the Human Rights Campaign notes there are over 1.6 million trans youth and adults in the United States alone. That’s roughly the size of the entire population of Philadelphia. Yet, here in our country, instead of celebrating who God has made these individuals to be, instead of showering individuals with love and encouragement for Lazarus to come out, far too often policies, words, and actions tell Lazarus to stay in the tomb.

You see, the number of bills seeking to block trans people’s rights have increased dramatically in recent years. In 2023 alone, the Trans Legislation Tracker has recorded over 487 bills in 46 states (including 4 in Illinois) that seek to block trans people from receiving healthcare, education, legal recognition, and the right to publicly exist.[2] It has become a growing epidemic as the number of bills introduced in 2022 were twice the number form 2021 and eight times the total from 2020. You see, like those religious leaders reacting to Jesus’s gift of transformation and life, it’s an all-too-common reality that some will want to capture, torture, and execute that which God brings to life.

Yet, our denomination’s Presiding Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, reminded us early this week that, “as a church, we affirm transgender and nonbinary siblings as God’s children who are loved unconditionally.” She went on to say that “the teaching of our church supports legislation and policies to protect ever person’s human dignity and civil rights.”[3] In other words, to those who are oppressed by these laws, to those who forget that they are made in God’s image, and to those who feel like crawling into a tomb, Christ says, “Lazarus, come out!”

As a church, we must take seriously that Jesus calls Lazarus, our trans siblings, and indeed, our very selves to live fully and abundantly. As a church, it is our collective pursuit to love all people and strive to bring a fullness of life to all. We are encouraged to be like the Mary’s, Martha’s, and witnesses who were crucial in the new life Lazarus received. We are called to be the love that supports those transitional journeys of self-acceptance and authenticity. After all, we all know that that the pursuit of abundant life is not easy, and it’s not always a journey we can understand. Nevertheless, we are here, we are the ones crying “Lazarus, come out!” As a congregation we say: Lazarus, we affirm your pronouns. Lazarus, we are committed to building an affirming environment. Lazarus, we will resist laws that destroy life. Lazarus, we promise to support the laws that bring about God’s vision for an abundance of life. Lazarus, come out!    

So too, this phrase extends beyond the LGBTQIA+ community. It speaks to any journey of transformation. You see, learning to live an abundant life with a chronic condition like HIV, diabetes, or COPD­– that’s God saying, “Lazarus, come out!” Or, the strength and community gathered to walk alongside survivors from a natural disaster, well, that’s God saying, “Lazarus, come out.” Finding a community and path from a life of addiction – yep, that’s God saying, “Lazarus, come out.” Moving beyond a difficult past – “Lazarus, come out.” Freedom from religious fundamentalism and extremism ­– “Lazarus, come out.” Fleeing violence and oppression as a refugee­– “Lazarus, come out.” Finding the right career path or field of study­– “Lazarus, come out.” You see, everywhere we look, we see our God declaring: “Lazarus, come out.”

And that’s what today’s gospel is about. It’s about how we come to notice that God will stop at nothing to free us from the forces of oppression, death, and destruction. And that our God is hopelessly, helplessly, madly in love with you, with me, and with all of creation. It is God’s deepest desire for us is to be transformed so that we might experience abundant life. Then, as we begin to experience that new life, we are given the opportunity bring new life to all around us. We are empowered to stand up for those on the margins, to advocate for transformation, and to financially support those in need so that we might ultimately embrace Christ’s words: “Lazarus, come out!” Amen.