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New Life Requires Community

by The Rev Beth Knowlton on March 22, 2023

“The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘unbind him and let him go.’” —from John 11:1-44

Years ago I was leading an offsite women’s Lenten retreat. One of the women had struggled for years with an eating disorder that eventually claimed her life in her late sixties. Judy was courageous and at times difficult. But she never stopped trying to find God amid her struggles. She made me and our whole community more faithful. That year, as we arrived at the retreat, I remember watching Judy pulling a large blue Igloo cooler up the hill to our dorm. It contained the food she needed in order to feel safe for the weekend. It was what enabled her to come to the retreat and participate. As I saw her pulling it up the hill, I thought to myself, “We’ve all arrived at this retreat lugging a cooler up the hill. The only difference with Judy is, hers is visible.”

This week’s well-known story of the raising of Lazarus is powerful and full of twists and turns, and foreshadows the ultimate gift of Easter morning. It is also, like the preceding weeks’ lessons, lengthier than we are used to on a Sunday morning. Maybe you could take some time and read it slowly before you come to church on Sunday. As I often joke with the Monday-morning lectionary Bible study that meets each week by Zoom at 7 am, the more we study the text, the better the sermon sounds on Sunday. In all seriousness, the more we steep ourselves in the stories of scripture, the more they inform our own experiences and tether our spiritual lives to the great story of God in the world.

This cannot occur in a vacuum. We can and should have private devotional time, but engaging in scripture presumes a community. This was easier to remember when no one owned a pocket-sized Bible, and you only heard the scriptures when the community was assembled around a large and heavy scroll. We need one another to discern where God is working in our lives and where we are being called to act, as well.

The closing lines of the gospel this week remind us of this. God wants us to be free to enter into new life. But like Lazarus, we emerge from the tomb bound in the clothes of a previous life. We cannot unbind ourselves. We need one another to collectively unbind ourselves. Some of what binds us is obvious; other times there are invisible cloths that impede our journey. As we begin to prepare for Holy Week, what might you need help leaving behind? Who are the people in your life who are prepared to help you find new life?

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