A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on Wednesday 17 March 2021 by Revd Dr Sam Wells.
Readings of address: John 11. 38-44
(I’m going to be touching on distressing issues, including assault. If these might be very painful triggers for you, you might want to switch the sound off for the next ten or fifteen minutes.)
In the story of the raising of Lazarus in chapter 11, John presents us, in the figure of Martha, with a poignant portrayal of contrasting human desire and emotion. When Jesus arrives, Martha’s full of reproach: she’s saying ‘I wanted my brother to survive.’ She’s feeling ‘Why didn’t you make it happen, Jesus?’ When Jesus then goes to the tomb, and it becomes clear he intends to restore Lazarus to life, Martha again protests – ‘But he’s already been there four days: have you any idea how he’s going to smell? Can you imagine in this climate what will have happened to him?’ You could forgive Jesus losing his temper here – he’s entitled to say, ‘Make up your mind! Do you want him to live, or do you want him to die? Or do you just want to be cross with me about both?’ But he doesn’t do that. Instead, he asks a question. ‘Do you want to see the glory of God or don’t you?’
To judge that this story has a happy ending, because Lazarus comes out of the tomb, is to miss the point. What we’re being offered here is a stark contrast between what it means to follow Jesus and what it means to opt out. Martha chooses to follow Jesus. But look how many tears she sheds on the way. First she says, ‘I pleaded for you to come. You came too late.’ Then she has an argument with Jesus about who he is and what resurrection means. Then she has a fight with him about whether to take away the stone. Three furious tussles – one, passionate, about the heart, the next, conceptual, about the head, the third, primal, about the gut.
It’s the gut we’re talking about tonight. In his chapter on John 11 in his book Water into Wine, Stephen Verney describes a story told him by a friend. ‘The boys in his village had caught two cats, tied their tails together, hung them over a clothes line and then watched them kill each other. He had been filled with such horror that it had remained with him for the rest of his life.’ Verney points out how most of us would concur with Martha’s impulse not to take away the stone. He goes on to comment, ‘If we were to open the memory of the whole human race, the cruelty would be more than we could bear.’ (120)
The raising of Lazarus takes place in the central chapter of John’s gospel, perhaps the most important book ever written. It’s not designed to be easy reading. It’s talking about a defining moment in the history of the world. We have to expect it’ll push us to confront a defining moment in each of our lives. A moment when we face up to our own stone, and whether it’s time to ask someone to take that stone away.
The Swedish film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and its two sequels, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, tell the story of Lisbeth Salander. Lisbeth’s a young woman who had a chaotic childhood with a violent father. Escaping torture and seeking to protect her mother, Lisbeth tried when a child to kill her father. Having failed, she’s placed under guardianship that continues into adulthood, while she pursues an unorthodox career of hacking and covert surveillance. But in a truly horrifying development, her new guardian turns out to be not a friend but an enemy. He expects, as the price of his compliance, to be at liberty to assault her on demand. Yet Lisbeth’s no powerless victim. In a scene that blends trauma and revenge, she appears to consent to his attack, only for it to transpire that she’s filmed the whole episode. She turns the tables on him, incapacitates him with a taser, straps him down, and tattoos on his chest words that no one who sees them in any doubt what kind of a man he is.
Later it transpires Lisbeth’s guardian is a member of a ring of influential people in Stockholm involved in human trafficking and exploitation. Because of a second attempt to kill her father, again out of self-protection, Lisbeth has to stand trial. Her guardian continues to use his power over her finances to silence her, and in this case to engineer a guilty verdict. For the second time, Lisbeth has to face the ghastly truth about her childhood and about her guardian, and this time she has to lay those details bare in open court. In a way that only happens in the movies, all the plot lines converge at the end of the third film and Lisbeth’s guardian is caught out not only by her, when she shows the video of her assault, but by journalists and finally the police, as the facts about the human trafficking ring finally come to light.
Lisbeth’s instincts are all about self-reliance. She’s a survivor who’s depended on her own resilience, an underground network of hackers, and her exceptional intelligence to outwit each challenge in front of her. Yet at crucial moments in the story, she has no choice but to revisit her painful past, ultimately in a humiliatingly public way. Understandably she puts up huge resistances to doing so: it’s no surprise that she’s deeply distrustful of relationships, with men in particular. It’s hard not to imagine she’s always going to find it difficult to build bridges of trust with almost anybody.
Lisbeth’s faced with a contemporary, vivid, and drastic version of Martha’s story. She wants to be free of the power her past has over her – of course she does. But understandably she’s very, very reluctant to do the one thing required to bring that about through legal means. Like Martha, she wants resurrection, but she doesn’t want to take away the stone. But what lies at the heart of Martha’s story, and of Lisbeth’s story, is that taking away the story becomes a matter of their very survival. Jesus is saying to Martha, ‘If you don’t take away the stone it’s not just that Lazarus can’t live – you can’t live either.’ Lisbeth is realising the same thing. This isn’t just about finding peace of mind, about slaying the dragon, ending the nightmares, healing the pain of the past. Her life can’t go on if she isn’t willing to take away the stone – and a lot of other lives will be in jeopardy too. This isn’t a decision made in the head or the heart – it’s made in the gut. It’s about the very core of her identity and will to live.
Whether we’ve witnessed a horrifying event, like those two cats tearing each other to shreds on that clothes line, or whether we have ourselves been subject to merciless trauma, like Lisbeth Salander, I’m willing to bet that every single one shivers as we hear Jesus’ words speaking into the lowest chamber of our heart today: ‘Take away the stone.’
Like Stephen Verney’s friend, Stieg Larsson, the author of the Dragon Tattoo novels that formed the basis of the films, was haunted by an event from his youth. In Larsson’s case, aged 15 he witnessed the collective sexual assault made by three of his friends on a young girl. For the rest of his short life, which ended at 54, Larsson was plagued by self-hatred for failing to intervene to help the girl. For him, writing the novels was an act of taking away the stone – going back to the worst day of his life, on which his inaction seared a blot on his character for which he never forgave himself. The novels are a fictionalised account of a Sweden neither he nor the Swedish public wanted to see or face up to – a land of far-right extremists, white supremacists and violent sexual predators. By taking away the stone, Stieg Larsson turned a curse into a blessing that gave survivors a voice and visibility and a portrayal as people with wit and initiative.
I want to invite you to spend the next week pondering these four words – ‘Take away the stone.’ As you do so, think first of all about where else in John’s gospel these words resonate. Like Lazarus, when Jesus rose from the dead, he probably didn’t take away his own stone. This tells us something important about taking away stones. It may be too much to ask us to take away our own stone. It may be it’s too hard a thing to do on your own. Lazarus didn’t do it. Neither did Martha. Someone else did it for them.
Then think about the whole gospel story – especially John’s gospel, the focus of our Lent Course and Stephen Verney’s book. You can read the whole gospel as the story of taking away the stone. Jesus is the one who, in his ministry, his life, his death, and his resurrection, takes away the stone that separates God and humankind. The cross is that ghastly thing that we don’t want to see but is revealed when God consents to take away the stone. The resurrection is the new life that becomes possible when we allow ourselves to face up to what the cross shows us – the depths of human estrangement, evil, and depravity. We try so hard to avoid facing up to what humans can be and do; what we can be – and do. Those boys hung those cats on the clothes line. Those adults hung Jesus on a bigger and uglier clothes line. It’s what people do. People like us.
But finally, take the big story of what God is doing in Jesus – of what it means to resist our horror and revulsion and face up to the most terrifying truth that we so earnestly avoid but can’t truthfully deny – and ponder what it means for you. John’s gospel is telling us an unpalatable truth – yes, there’s eternal, limitless, abundant life, we’re glad for that – but it’s only accessible if we let Jesus take away the stone. Ah. That’s harder to accept. Deep down it’s hard to disagree with. But it’s a disagreeable truth.
What does it mean to let Jesus take away the stone? It means allowing the truth that changes the world actually to change us, too. It means no longer letting the ugliness in our story damage the people around us because of our own unwillingness to name and face it. Sooner or later most of us face a conversation in which somebody says to us, how bad does it have to get and how much damage do you have to do to yourself and others before you face up to what lies behind the stone? Avoiding such a conversation can lead us to addiction, or other desperate efforts to gain control or achieve distraction.
For many people, letting Jesus take away the stone can mean entering a season of counselling or therapy. That entails inviting another person to accompany you as, like Martha, you look deep into the place you most fear to remember. It’s something you might do because, like Martha, you reluctantly realise refusing to take the stone away is damaging other people and blocking your way to life and to God. It’s something I’ve done myself. Yes it can be humiliating, yes it can be scary, yes it can be against deeply ingrained reflexes: but it may be God’s way of meeting you in the tomb and turning death to life. It’s not the only way: some people go into that tomb by revisiting a place of pain and grief, or even by daring to have a conversation with someone they’ve hated or harmed. For Stieg Larsson it was writing fictional accounts of disturbing violence. For Lisbeth Salander it was facing her attacker in court.
John’s gospel is not saying do something you’re not yet ready to do. Some wounds are so deep it’s hard to imagine how to treat them. This isn’t a strength test, or an invitation to endure further punishment. But this story is saying if you don’t remove the stone, you’ll forever be subject to what lies behind it. Abundant life lies in no longer being mesmerised or haunted by what’s behind that stone. The path to life doesn’t lie in endlessly avoiding or delaying facing things. It lies in allowing their power over you to be dismantled. In the end it’s time to take away the stone. We’re not asked to do it ourselves. We’re asked to let Jesus do it for us.
We’re not promised it’ll be easy. Instead, we’re asked a simple question. Do you want to see the glory of God or don’t you?