John 11

In our Gospel story about Lazarus, Jesus comes late to Mary and Martha’s home. Mary chastises him for not getting there sooner because he might have been able to do something to prevent their brother’s death. 

I identify with this passage because we who are activists working on a just peace in Palestine hear about tragedies here after they have occurred. So there is always this sense of deep sadness that if we had been able to come earlier, done something more, we could have prevented this. If only we could have put more pressure on the US to stop its flow of military, to have been more successful with our boycotts, to have challenged the Zionist narrative about land ownership, signed more petitions, taken steps to divest, just done more, period.

And because we care, like Jesus, we weep for our slain sisters and brothers, the children tortured or imprisoned, the families made homeless through home demolitions or impoverished because their trees were uprooted or burned. Like Jesus we weep.

When I was an Ecumenical Accompanier back in 2011, we would often arrive just after the olive trees had been destroyed or a few hours after a village had been terrorized by a night raid. We came after and we often wondered what if we had been able to come before?  Could we in our magic EAPPI vests stop “an incursion?” A wrongful death about to happen? Our accompaniment came after the fact and we often wondered if this coming at this time was enough.

At the Sabeel Center last year during their weekly Thursday service, we studied this passage about Lazarus together from the perspective of what it means here in Palestine. I will always remember what this one Palestinian man said, “I am Lazarus. I feel entombed by this occupation. I can’t move because of this very large stone.” 

The stone of occupation is large and until it is removed there can be no liberation, no real sustainable development in the Occupied Palestinian territories. Last year, President Mahmoud Abbas decided to move forward on following the path of international treaties or law to bring forth justice. Seeing that the peace process was not only not working but a huge weight, a stone, the PLO decided to seek liberation through another channel, international human rights. Sometimes the stone blocking is disguised as something else; in this case the peace process itself was not only not helpful but actually created more pain and suffering as more and more land was able to be appropriated during this time. So instead of weeping that the Peace Process is dead or on the verge of collapse, the Palestinian people are removing the stones of entombment through another means through the application of international law.

According to Naim Ateek, founding director of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center and  leader of our discussion that Thursday, the removal of the stone is only the first step however. The second step is to come out and risk being alive again and free. ”Rise, Lazarus.” It is not enough to roll away the stone if you don’t come out and dare to live.

Every Friday in Palestine I see this part of the Lazarus story re-enacted when the Palestinian people rise to face their oppressors at the flash points of the occupation, the prisons, the wall, the reclaimed villages. Lazarus rises every day because to exist here and not lose your hope or humanity is a miracle. However the spirit of Lazarus is especially present on Fridays when I witness the people unbinding themselves in public. Lazarus is not free until he is unbound.

Coming forward is the first step but it is not the last. The community must unbind him from his death shroud. I experience the holiness of this moment when I see the men and women denied access to al-Aqsa mosque kneeling on the ground in the street. Their prayerful defiance is an act of faith and hope and it is done communally. When I see the people of the world put pressure on Israel to end the occupation, obey international law and respect human rights, I see the entombed Lazarus becoming free. Our work for a just peace is an ongoing unbinding process.

So as you have heard me say before, weeping is good. It is the right place to start but it cannot end here. Removing the stone is next, then the coming out. We, in the international community, can assist in removing the stone that entombs but only the Palestinian people themselves can walk out—define what sovereignty looks like. The removal of the bandages or daring to live with them is a communal event. It takes many shapes and forms which include endless cups of chai, Dabke dancing, olive tree planting or harvesting, and buckets of tears.

So dear ones this is the hope of this Lenten Gospel reading. Our sisters and brothers who have been entombed will rise. The question is where are we in the story?

Are we standing there paralyzed by the force of our own weeping?
Are we working or chipping away at the stone?
Are we throwing stones at the stone?
And when Lazarus appears bound in his death shroud, what do we do?
Do we run away in fear?
Do we join with the others in the gentle task of unbinding one bandage at a time?

God of infinite Compassion
who weeps with us
commands us to remove all stones

You have called us back to life
from the death grip of imperial violence
and occupation to serve life.

You have commanded us to rise
and “stay human”
to unbind ourselves and others.

God of the donkey
You have inspired us to sing and shout
down the Mount of Olives

God of the cup
You have asked us to keep you company
stay awake in the garden.

God of the basin and the towel
You have asked to love one another
to carry your cross
bear our own

God of the empty tomb
You have asked us to believe
to live resurrected lives
with your grace and mercy may it be so.