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I used to call them “arrow prayers,” but now I call them “heart prayers.” This is what I call those moments when we seem to pierce the gates of heaven with a prayer so pure, that it simply has to fly from our heart to God’s. The prayers that sound like, “Oh no…” or “Please, God…” or even, just, “Help!”
They can come from joy, too… at the first sight of a baby, when the prayer sounds like, “Oh!” Or when something we’d been hoping for happens, and the prayer sounds like, “Yes!” We might not think of these as prayers. But they are, all the same. These spontaneous utterances come from the deepest place inside us, what professor and psychotherapist Ann Ulanov calls, our primary speech, and they reveal to us what God already knows: our own deepest desires.
In this morning’s passage from the gospel of John, these prayers sound like, “Lord, the one you love is ill!” and “Lord, if you had been here…” and “Yes, Lord, I believe…” Each of these statements bursts forth, out of real human anxiety, and distress, and hope, teetering on the brink of despair. They’re cries from one heart to another. They are prayers from those who have been confronted with the ultimate reality of the human condition. They are prayers made in the face-to-face encounter with death.
This is a story about death… the death of Lazarus, of course, but also the death of Jesus. From the very beginning we are reminded of Jesus’ death, first, in a little aside: “Mary was the one who anointed Jesus with perfume, and wiped his feet with her hair…” In that later story, that takes place at a celebration featuring the risen Lazarus, Jesus makes it clear: Mary has anointed him for his burial. When he tells his disciples that it is time to go to Judea to see Lazarus, they remind him: “Hey Rabbi, weren’t the Jews thereabouts just fixing to stone you to death?” (They were, it was in chapter 10.) It’s clear that a trip to Judea puts Jesus at risk of losing his own life.
We have to take a brief time-out from the story now, to talk about this gospel’s use of the term, “the Jews.” It’s incredibly important that we remind ourselves what that meant, for the writer, and for those who lived this story. Here, “the Jews” is often a catchall term for those who are hostile to Jesus and his followers. Usually these hostile parties are particular religious leaders. But we can never forget: Jesus was a Jew, and all his disciples were Jews. This is a family fight. And all kinds of horrors have taken place over the last two millennia by people calling themselves Christians, all the while using these stories to marginalize and persecute and even kill Jews. We must never forget: Anti-semitic words and actions are completely incompatible with faith in our Jewish Messiah.
Jesus puts himself in harm’s way, in order to go to see “the one whom he loves.” Jesus loves Lazarus, and Mary, and Martha. This is explicitly stated. But it is also stated that Jesus allows Lazarus to die, in order to show the glory of God. It’s easy to imagine that Jesus means this: Jesus allows Lazarus to die so that he can miraculously raise him from the dead, showing the glory of God and God’s son in the power of that miracle.
But I don’t actually think that is what Jesus means here. When Jesus says that he will be glorified by raising Lazarus from the dead, he is not speaking of receiving accolades, or even of having people come to believe in him. The gospel of John has a language all its own, and here, for Jesus, “glory” equals his death on the cross. Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead because his hour is at hand, the hour when he will be raised up in glory—which means, raised up on the cross.
This is a story about death. From the moment when Jesus receives the message from the worried sisters, to the closing scene at the tomb, this passage is about death—the death of Jesus as well as the death of Lazarus. But it is also, profoundly, a story about life.
The central scene of this story takes place, not at the grave, but on the road outside of town, where Martha comes to greet Jesus as he arrives. Her first words practically ring out in accusation: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Where were you? We needed you. You were not here. Oh, my. There are times when all of us, if we can be so honest with ourselves, feel this way about God. When the relationship falls apart, or the job abruptly disappears, or when someone we have trusted disappoints us, and hurts us, we wonder: Where is God in all this?
And yet, Martha follows this accusation, almost without taking a breath, with these words: “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” It is a breathtaking statement of confidence, of faith. Is Martha hinting that Jesus might consider raising Lazarus from the dead? It doesn’t seem so, not if we take her at her word later, at the tomb, when she responds to Jesus’ request to roll back the stone as if he’s just lost his marbles. No. I think this is another heart prayer. “I don’t understand why you did that. But I know that you are still God’s beloved, and I know that you still love us.” Martha and Jesus go on to have a theological conversation—here’s Jesus, again, talking theology, with a woman—about the raising of the dead on the last day. Martha affirms it, putting herself squarely within the Jewish tradition of that time. But then Jesus takes the conversation in a whole new direction:
“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25b-26)
I wonder if we can imagine what it was like, at that moment, to stand in Martha’s shoes. She is talking with her good friend, an intimate, one of her own circle. And suddenly she is confronted with a statement that must have seemed fairly bizarre. “I am the resurrection and the life.”
Do you believe this? Do we believe this? What do we believe? Do we believe that Jesus had—has—the power to change our experience of life and death forever? Do we believe that faith in Jesus means that we no longer have to be afraid of death? Do we believe that our faith can transform the quality of our lives into something called “eternal life,” life that's lived simultaneously here and now and in the confident vision of God’s future? This is a story about life, about how we live... the confidence and joy with which we can look ahead, the way in which we can let go the fear that so often drives us. Do we believe this?
Martha answers, and she too takes the conversation in what might seem an unexpected direction. Martha does not say, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the resurrection and the life,” etc. etc. Martha does not make an affirmation of faith in a particular point of theology or orthodoxy. Instead, she says, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” Instead of saying “I believe what you say to be true," Martha says, “I believe in you. I trust you. I may not know what you’re about, here, letting my brother die, but somehow, I still trust you.”
This is another prayer from the heart. Yes, Lord, I believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, the stench of the tomb and all the rest of it. Writer Kathleen Norris laments what she calls the “impoverishment” of our understanding of that word, “believe.” She says that when we ask people what they believe, we usually mean, what do they think? This is contrary to the original understanding, the Greek of our scripture texts, where “to believe” really means “to give one’s heart to.” When Martha says, “Yes Lord, I believe,” she really means, “Yes Lord, I give my heart to you. I trust you completely.” I trust you, God, even though that precious relationship ended. I trust you, Jesus, even though the tumor keeps growing. I trust you, Holy Spirit, even though I’m not quite sure how I’m going to pay the rent this month. I give you my heart, God, you who are beyond my comprehension. I trust you to hold me in love through all of it.
When Jesus goes to the tomb, it is his turn to utter prayers. His first prayer, an odd one to our ears, is a prayer of thanksgiving. His demeanor at the tomb—this is a lot clearer in the Greek—is one of anger, and agitation. Is he angry that this moment of glory—the moment in which his fate is sealed—must be accomplished in the glare of public scrutiny? Is he angry that, in order for the glory of God to be revealed, he’s had to prolong the suffering of his friends? Is he angry that, as he restores his friend to life, he simultaneously accepts the inevitability of his own death? Despite his anger, whatever its source, Jesus offers a prayer of thanksgiving. Jesus prays, revealing his awareness of his compete connection with God at every moment, including this one. And then, turning to the tomb, Jesus utters a prayer from his heart, directly to the heart of God “Lazarus, come out.” In a scene that foreshadows Jesus’ own resurrection, Lazarus comes forth, still wrapped in the strips of cloth that are his grave clothes, which also remind us of the swaddling clothes worn by babies. Lazarus is newborn into life. Jesus, who will soon be bound as he is headed for his own trial, tells the bystanders: “Unbind him, and let him go.”
What are your heart-prayers? What is the deepest desire at the core of your being? Let it out. Tell God what God already knows. Pierce the gates of heaven. Don’t be afraid. Give God your heart’s desires, and give God your heart.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 2.