Mary and Martha are not the same person, but they make the same accusation.
Lord, if you had been here.
Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.
Mary and Martha make the same accusation.
We have all made it too, at one time or another.
If you had been here.
If it had been different.
If I had been different.
If I had been here sooner.
If I hadn’t said what I said,
“If,” is a terrible word,
colored with a million different possibilities that might have been,
a million choices that would have ended us up anywhere but here,
in the midst of a situation that seems impossible to accept.
If you had been here...
Last summer I worked as a chaplain at a hospital,
and Mary and Martha’s accusation
was the one that I feared most.
One morning I was called to the room of a woman and her husband,
who we preparing to deliver their baby very prematurely.
The nurses and doctors had told them
that it was possible that the fetus would be viable when it was delivered,
and the baby would take just a few breaths before dying.
The mother told me that it was very important to her
that the baby be baptized before it died, by a Catholic Priest.
This meant that the Priest would need to be called just before the birth,
and be present in the delivery room.
I did everything in my power to make sure that this happened.
I called the priest and explained the situation.
He came for a visit and met the mother and gave her a blessing.
Then I wrote down his personal pager and my personal pager for multiple nurses.
I instructed the woman that she could always request the priest verbally,
and gave her the pager numbers too
Just in case something went wrong.
Everything was planned out and ready to go.
Later that afternoon,
I ran into a fellow chaplain,
a non-Christian student who was doing his internship like me.
He told me a story of being called to a woman’s room
as she delivered a baby that died after just a few breaths.
It turned out that my careful instructions to the nurses
had completely fallen by the wayside.
When the woman delivered, they had simply paged the chaplain’s office,
who had sent my colleague, the on-call chaplain,
a very capable person,
but one who had no relationship with the woman who was delivering,
and, as a non-Christian, would probably not be prepared to baptize a baby.
As he told me the story,
Mary and Martha’s words rung in my ears.
If you had been here.
If you had been here, my baby would have been baptized.
If you had been here, it wouldn’t have ended this way.
If you had been here, perhaps some part of this would be some tiny bit better.
With horror, I asked my colleague what had happened
when he arrived at the bedside.
He said that the mother had held her baby,
and they had prayed,
and that he had wept with them.
“Did she ask for you to baptize the baby?” I asked.
“No,” he told me. “They just wanted me to be there with them.”
The Johannine Community,
the community of people for whom this gospel was written,
were asking a lot of questions.
Questions that they were trying to work out
through the stories that have been handed down to us today.
They had questions about what it meant that they,
Jewish people who followed Christ,
were being expelled from the temple.
They had questions about this new life they were trying to live,
and how they were supposed to live it.
And they had questions, big questions,
about just what it was they were supposed to be doing
as followers of Jesus,
now that Jesus was gone.
They were making enormous sacrifices
to follow a man
who had not only died, and left them to figure it own on their own,
but who had promised them eternal life.
And yet, members of their community did die.
And it hurt terribly to loose them.
I imagine that this was all very confusing.
If you don’t think so, check out what Jesus actually says in verse 25.
“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.”
The sentence is a complete contradiction.
So are we supposed to believe that we’ll never die and will live forever,
or that we will die but will live forever anyway?
Plus, there’s all this stuff about sleeping and dying,
which are kind of the same word in Greek anyway,
so we’re not even sure if when we die we’re not actually sleeping,
or if when we die we’re not just really dead.
Then, at the beginning of the story,
Jesus tells the disciples that Lazarus doesn’t have an illness you can die from,
and then a couple verses later, he’s like,
“no, really guys, he’s dead.”
And while the disciples interpret Jesus’ words too literally,
thinking that if Lazarus is just asleep, then he probably doesn’t need a visit from Jesus,
Mary’s interpreting Jesus’ words too symbolically,
telling him that she knows he’s going to rise again,
like on the last day,
when everybody rises again,
but Jesus actually means like, right now,
like in a couple of minutes.
So yes, it’s confusing.
It’s as if all of the writer’s symbols are piling up,
and we’re not quite sure what’s real and what’s a symbol anymore.
What we can be sure of is that two powerful forces are colliding,
two forces that are often paired throughout this gospel:
love and death.
Jesus loves this family,
Martha and Mary and their brother Lazarus.
The text tells us that he loved them,
loved them deeply.
His love for them is real.
And second, death.
Lazarus is dead.
He got sick,
and he died,
and they wrapped him in cloth
and put him in a tomb
four days ago.
Jesus turns to his disciples
and says it plainly.
Lazarus is dead.
Perhaps the people in the Johannine Community
because they followed Jesus,
life would be a little less...real.
Perhaps they believed
that their friends wouldn’t die.
Or if they did die, it would hurt just a little bit less,
because they had hope in the resurrection.
Perhaps they believed that,
because they followed Jesus,
they would be spared just a little of the pain
of loosing those who they loved.
Perhaps they thought that Jesus,
because they had touched the wounds in his hands and his sides,
would continue to show them special favor,
heal their sons and daughters,
keep their brothers and sisters from dying.
Perhaps you have believed the same thing.
Perhaps, by the time this gospel was written,
a few generations along,
they had begun to realize that they were dying, just like everyone else.
And perhaps they uttered the words
that Mary uttered
and Martha uttered,
that we’ve also uttered
at one time or another,
“Lord, if you had been here…”
We are mistaken if we believe that being a follower of Jesus
will make our lives less vulnerable to the pain of death.
The beloved family member will fall ill.
The child will take only a few short breaths and then perish.
The path that is, is the path we have to live,
a million other roads-not-taken will never be anything more than, “if.”
And the pain of it will be real.
More real than we think we can bear.
We are also mistaken if we believe that the love Christ offers us
is anything less than very real.
The words that this gospel writer uses to describe Jesus’
pain at the death of his friend and the pain of all who are mourning
are the same words used at his own death.
This is a savior who experiences our death
with the same force and feeling with which he faces his own.
death is real,
but so too is love.
and deep enough
to say to us,
“where have you laid him,”
and follow us there,
to the tomb where we stand vigil.
To stand with us in silence
as we mourn
and weep with us,
for our pain,
and for his own,
because he loved him,
just as we did.