October 28, 2012
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
I’m going to talk today about two graves. The first one is inPeru. It’s the grave of a warrior priest that was discovered near the pyramids of the ancient Moche Indians. You’ve heard of the Incas. Well, the Moche preceded the Incas. So this goes way back, maybe as far back as the time of Christ.
Moche graves have been targets for looters for centuries. There’s been a thriving black market for items that have been pilfered. It was when the government cracked down on the black market that they discovered this particular grave.
The police had the house of a suspected looter surrounded. There was a gunfight. The suspect was killed. Sure enough, his house was filled with artifacts he had illegally obtained. They found the nearby grave he had looted and secured it. Then they noticed something suspicious. It was a mound of dirt, the telltale sign of an unopened grave.
The police called in the archeologists and then gave them 24-hour protection from local grave robbers who were upset that their friend had been killed. They had a hard time seeing any difference between what the archeologists were doing and what they had been doing. At any rate, the archeologists kept digging and they uncovered one of the greatest finds ever in the western hemisphere.
What they had stumbled upon was the grave of a warrior priest. He was like a king. They knew immediately he was royalty because of all the gold in the grave. He was wearing vestments covered with gold decorations. He was surrounded with gold artifacts. Apparently the Moche Indians hadn’t heard that “you can’t take it with you”. He certainly was taking it with him!
There were five other people buried with this warrior priest in the same grave: two male servants, two female concubines, and one soldier with a sword in his hand. His role was to protect the others on their journey in the afterlife.
As you can tell, this story fascinates me. Partly because I’ve always loved stories about buried treasure. I’ve always hoped maybe someday I might find some. But there’s something else here that fascinates me. And haunts me. Here we have one person who is buried with honor. All this treasure buried with him. All this trouble to make sure he receives his due as royalty. And we have five other persons who were apparently put to death so that they could be buried beside this warrior priest. His life was of value. Their lives were not.
That was actually fairly common around the ancient world. In Egypt, for example. All those pyramids. The pyramids were built to help the Pharaohs on their journey to the next life. They were not built for common people. They were built for royalty.
In the ancient world you had to be somebody to count for something. If you were a king or a queen or a member of the royal class, then you were somebody. Then your life would be a life of privilege. Then your death would be mourned. Then your story would be remembered. Otherwise, who cares that you ever lived?
Those five other people in that grave with the warrior priest were not there because they were considered precious. They were there because they were considered expendable. They were just servants, or concubines, or soldiers. They mattered only so far as they were useful to the king. His life was important. The common individual was not. They would soon be forgotten.
That’s the first grave I want us to visit this morning. That grave inPeru. Now I want us to travel half way around the world to another grave. This one is inPalestine. The story we heard read today would have taken place about the time that the warrior priest was buried inPeru. His grave was for a very important person. The grave inPalestinewas for a common man. His name was Lazarus. He was the brother of Mary and Martha. Mary and Martha were close friends of Jesus. Every time Jesus comes toJerusalem, he doesn’t stay inJerusalem. He stays inBethany, a little less than two miles away, with Mary and Martha. He must have become acquainted with their brother, Lazarus.
Lazarus is very ill. Mary and Martha are very worried. They send for Jesus. They know Jesus can heal him. It takes awhile for the messengers to find Jesus and then in takes awhile for Jesus to find his way toBethany. The way the story is told, Jesus is in no hurry. He takes his sweet time. And as Lazarus is clearly dying, Mary and Martha are quite upset.
By the time Jesus gets there, Lazarus is dead. He’s been dead for four days. Martha says to Jesus, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:21). Several verses later, Mary says the exact same thing (11:32). They are not happy with Jesus. They are feeling that Jesus doesn’t even care. But Jesus does care, as we see in the shortest verse in the Bible. It just says, “Jesus wept” (11:35). That’s the Bible verse the smart kids always choose to memorize. The not so smart ones choose Esther 8:9. I’ll let you look it up. It’s 83 words. It’s the longest verse in the Bible.
“Jesus wept” is the shortest and it’s also one of the most significant verses in the Bible. It’s a verse that should be read at every funeral or memorial service to remind us that we aren’t the only ones who are sad. We aren’t the only ones who are crying. Jesus wept at the grave of his friend.
Isaiah recorded a prophecy of the Messiah. He said the Messiah would be “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (53:3). Well, here he is at the grave of Lazarus. He knows our sorrow. He is acquainted with our grief. He is weeping.
But then he manages to compose himself and he gives a command. A most unlikely command. He says, “Lazarus, come
out!” (11:43). And what happens next is much more unlikely. Lazarus comes out. Lazarus who has been dead and in a tomb for four days, comes walking out.
It’s a miracle, of course. But as John records it, it’s more than a miracle. It’s also a “sign”. John is big on signs. A sign is something that happens that reveals a deeper truth. What happens is that Lazarus walks out of the tomb. The deeper truth is that we will, too. The deeper truth is that we, like Lazarus, will share in the resurrection of Jesus. That deeper truth is found in an earlier verse in this story, a verse that also should be read at every funeral or memorial service. Jesus said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life; those who believe in me, though they die, yet shall they live. And whoever lives and believes in me shall never die” (11:25-26). Because he lives, we will live also.
That’s the sign, the deep truth, in this story of Lazarus. But there’s something else I don’t want you to miss. Lazarus is not royalty. Lazarus is just a common human being. In other words, Lazarus is you. Lazarus is me. And Jesus weeps for Lazarus. Someone sees the tears and says, “Look how much he loved
him” (11:36). Jesus loved Lazarus so much he wept for him.
And after the tears, he spoke his name. “Lazarus, come out!”
John refers to Jesus as “the Good Shepherd”. The Good Shepherd loves his sheep so much and knows his sheep so well that he knows each one by name. Jesus knows each one of us by name.
Later in John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene is weeping at the grave of Jesus. A stranger approaches her. And then the stranger speaks her name, and the stranger is no longer a stranger. She recognizes Jesus. He knows her name. Jesus knows your name, too. He knows my name. He knows each one of us individually as if we were the most important person on earth. As if we were royalty.
There are two graves. One in Peru, the other in Bethany. And there is a memorial inWashington,DC. I’m referring to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It is a remarkable monument for a number of reasons. One reason is that it lists every single name of those who died in that war. They are not listed according to rank, with officers listed first. Nor are the officers’ names in larger letters than the enlisted persons. Nor are they listed alphabetically. The designer, Maya Lin, insisted on that. It seemed too bureaucratic and dehumanizing. The names are listed according to the date on which they fell. It was as if to say, this day will always be remembered because on this day this person died.
You know the rest of the story about this monument. Millions have visited it and been moved to tears. My own dad, a World War II veteran, doesn’t cry easily, but tears were streaming down his cheeks when he visited. It’s a most unique monument. Not a statue, but simply names. Every name. 58,195 names. And when they dedicated it, they read every name. It took two-and-a-half days, but they read every name.
Something happened between that grave inPeruand that memorial inWashington. What happened happened at a tomb inBethany. That’s where Jesus wept and the crowd said, “Look how much he loved him.” That’s where Jesus called his friend by name. That’s where he said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me shall not die, but have eternal life.”
This is All Saints Sunday. All Saints Day is November 1. It’s the day after Halloween. Halloween had its origin as the night before All Saints Day. All Saints Day used to be called All Hallows Day, so All Hallows Evening was shortened to Hallowe’en.
Saints in the Catholic tradition are remembered on the day they died. Kind of like that memorial wall, listing names according to the day each one died. But if we remembered the saints of our church on the day each one died, every day would be a day to remember some saint. So we take one day each year and remember all the saints on that day. Each one precious and unique, dearly loved by God and by us. None higher. None lower.
When I fly, I love to fly out ofBoise. Lines are short. People are friendly. Security is a breeze. Last week I flew to Portland, which meant I had to go through security in Portland coming back home. That took a little longer. The lines were terrible. But I have a nose for the shortest line, and I noticed one with about three people in it. This was too good to be true. I showed my ID and boarding pass and the security man asked for my special flying club card. I was in the line for the privileged few. I was in the VIP line. That was the wrong line for me, I was told. I needed to go wait in line with all the other common people.
There are no special lines for the rich and the powerful in heaven. Everyone is treated the same, which means everyone is treated like a VIP. Because Jesus showed us that God considers each one of us infinitely precious and worthy.
There is an actor who played Benjamin Franklin for school children. He dressed the part and told his story, helping the children understand a little better the founding of our nation. Then he asked for questions. A boy raised his hand and said, “I thought you died.” The actor said, “You’re right. I did die. I died on April 17, 1790. I was 84 years old. But I didn’t like it, and I don’t plan to do that again.”
He was pleased with his answer. He asked if there were any other questions. Another boy in the back row raised his hand. “When you were in heaven, did you see my mother?”
The actor was stunned. He didn’t know what to say. He’d always had the gift of gab and the perfect thing to say was always on the tip of his tongue. Now he was speechless. He knew that for this boy to ask that question, he must have lost his mother. Probably recently. He knew his answer to that little boy’s question was very important. He had to say something. And then he heard himself say, “I’m not sure if she was the one I think she was. But if she was, she was the prettiest angel there.”
Dear God, we all have people near and dear to us who are no longer with us. They have gone to heaven to be with you. We are so glad to know that heaven is not like earth, where we play all these silly games about who is important and who isn’t. In heaven everyone is important. Infinitely important. Dearly loved by you. We’re glad to know that, because these ones we’ve remembered today and all the others we name in our hearts right now are infinitely important and dearly loved by us. We honor each one today and we pray that by your grace you will guide our lives here on earth and make us one day fit for heaven. In Jesus’ name, Amen.