St. Matthew's Church - Goffstown, NH
March 21, 1999 - Lent 5A
Nancy A. Vogele
I want to begin this sermon by thanking all of you for all the love and hospitality you have shown me. It's been six months since my first sermon here - preached in honor and celebration of St. Matthew. It's not always easy inviting a new person into the group. That person, by her or his mere presence, changes things - hopefully in positive ways most of the time. I truly thank God every time I remember you in my prayers and every time I get to tell my friends about this great place. I really feel free here.
To "feel free" is an expression I learned from my time in Africa where I served as a volunteer missionary some 10 years ago. I lived right next door to the bishop and his family so I would visit with them almost every day. Whenever I came over, his wife Freda would say to me, "Nancy, feel free." She meant, "Please come in and feel at home." You see, she wanted to reassure me that I was welcome and that I should feel at home in their home.
So just as I feel free here at St. Matthew's, I hope you feel free here. After all, the church should be a place where we feel free with each other and with God. Some churches are known for their ability to feel free. People feel free to start singing a hymn if the Spirit moves them. They feel free to talk to their preacher while she or he is preaching -- affirming what's being preached with an "Amen" here or a "Preach it" there or simply by waving their hand back and forth slowly and nodding their head.
From the very first time I came to St. Matthew's - over a year ago to take the services for Bill - I sensed this freedom in you, too. You are present and attentive. You laugh at my jokes - well most of them. You even held up John 3:16 signs! This atmosphere of freedom has encouraged me to do some not-so- ordinary-things like drum and sing for you. I like that. These are all ways that we show how free we feel before each other and before God.
Feeling free with God and with each other is a good reason to come to church, but it's not the only reason. For feeling free is integrally tied to our need to be freed by God and by each other. So, in addition to encouraging us to feel free this morning, I want to talk about being freed - about living life, abundant life - about, in Jesus' words, coming out.
You know, 6 years ago, when I preached on this same text while I was finishing up my seminary education, I couldn't even utter those two words. Even though John wrote that Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!", I had to change those words and say, instead, "Lazarus, come forth." Sounds rather King Jamesian or Shakespearean. A little like "Get thee hence."
But seriously, I could not bring myself to say those two words because I was afraid. Afraid that by merely uttering those words of Jesus, I would somehow communicate a secret about myself to all those gathered in that church. Afraid that by merely uttering those words of Jesus, I would unleash the force within me that I wasn't ready to unleash. You see, I was still in my own little tomb, more commonly called "the closet." Oh, I was "out" to my therapist, my spiritual director, and my best friend. But to the rest of the world, I was securely wrapped in my grave clothes, decaying in my tomb - afraid to listen to Jesus calling me - wooing me - crying out to me, "Nancy, come out!"
You don't need me to tell you that our society excludes, silences, and threatens gay people every day. In order to cope and survive in this context, many gay folk simply become invisible. To do this, however, requires a great deal of energy and hiding. This hidden existence is called life "in the closet." In some ways, life in the closet keeps us from being harassed, beat up or ridiculed^Åbut not really. Life in the closet is no life at all. It would be more accurate to call this existence "death in the tomb." For, like Lazarus, the closet suffocates those who try to live there.
At some point, despite the fear, many gay folk have to get some air. Life in the closet has become too small, too dark, too lonely and unbearable and so they "come out." Coming out means getting honest, finding our voice, shining our light, taking our rightful place in society. It is, according to theologian Carter Heyward, "a desire to connect authentically with others." Coming out means claiming life over death.
That's exactly what Jesus was declaring to Lazarus. Now, don't get me wrong. I am not saying that Lazarus was a gay man and needed to come out of his closet. What I am saying is that Jesus was actually enacting a truth for everyone at Lazarus' tomb - not just for Lazarus. "Lazarus, come out!" Jesus cried. "Come out and live. Come out and claim your life - the abundant life that I have given you. Come out and join us."
You see, coming out isn't just a gay thing. Coming out is something all of us are called to do. Jesus cries out to each one of us, "Come out and live. Come out and claim your life. Come out and get honest with yourself and those around you. Come out and take your rightful place in society."
Barry Stopfel and Will Leckie wrote an amazing book called, Courage To Love. In it they write, "Coming out isn't just something gay people have to do. Coming out is the task of showing ourselves as honestly to the world as we can so that we might get on with the business of living and transformation." (Courage to Love, 181)
"Oh, but it's too late," you might say. "I've been living my life in the closet for too long to come out now. Sure it hasn't been easy, but no way can I face leaving this tomb. I'm too afraid of what might happen. Besides, it's too late."
That's exactly what the people around Lazarus' tomb thought. When Jesus said, "Take away the stone," Martha looked at him and said, "But Lord, by this time there will be an odor - a stench, for he has been dead four days." You see, many Jews believed that after a person's death, the soul hovered around the tomb for three days and that only on the fourth day did it leave for good to the kingdom of the dead. Therefore, from a human point of view, since Lazarus had been dead four days, there was no more hope for him. It was too late.
But Jesus isn't bound by human points of view. Jesus' raising of Lazarus shows that even after four days - even when everyone thought that it was too late - Jesus was able to give life. It's never too late. It's never too late to come out and claim your life.
What is your tomb - your closet? Is it an abusive or overbearing relationship? Is it a mediocre and unsatisfying job? Is it an addiction to drugs or alcohol or food? Has an illness or a family difficulty become your tomb? Perhaps something someone said to you years ago - maybe even when you were a child - has kept you in a tomb.
Whatever it is, what's keeping you there? What's keeping you from coming out? The fear of leaving a relationship? Of starting over? The fear that if you leave your mediocre job and actually try to do what you really want to do, you'll fall flat on your face and everyone will laugh at you? The fear that has convinced you that this tomb-like existence is all you can hope for? All that you deserve?
To any of you who are feeling this way, I say, "Come out! Come on out."
But coming out of the tomb is not all we need to do either. When Lazarus came out, he was still completely bound from his head to his feet. And so Jesus commanded the others to "unbind him and let him go." Jesus used others to help Lazarus be free. And Jesus continues to use others to enable us to be free as well. Isn't that what the church is all about? At least what it should be all about? We need each other to help us get free. And whenever life bind us back up, we need each other to help us get free again -- and again -- and again. Yes, I need God --but I also need you. And you need me.
So when you hear Jesus cry, "Come out!", don't be afraid. Don't cover your ears. Listen to him and take the steps you must to get up and leave your tomb. Ignore all those who would try to convince you to go back into your tomb. Don't let their fear become yours. Look for the others who are waiting for you, to greet you and to lovingly reach out to you. You need them to help you unravel those grave clothes.
And when we are finally unbound may we cry out in a loud voice, "Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last." Amen.
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