Unbind Them

April 2, 2017 – 5th Sunday in Lent
John 11.1-45

I want to tell you a story that my friend, Jane Larsen-Wigger, who is the pastor at Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church told me this week—and said I could share with you.

For about 15 years now the Crescent Hill congregation has had a connection with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a group of farm workers in Florida who have been at the center of the Fair Food campaign. Early on in their struggle for fair working conditions, they zeroed in on Taco Bell and YUM! Brands—which brought them to Louisville on quite a few occasions. The rallying cry then was “a penny a pound!”—that’s how much they were asking for: one penny a pound more for the tomatoes that were picked in the field. YUM! Brands was the first major corporation to make that concession and committed to only buying tomatoes from farms that would pay one penny a pound more than had been the going wage for tomato picking.

Over the years the Coalition—and the Fair Food campaign—has gotten a dozen more corporations to sign on. Next on their list is Wendy’s which is headquartered in Columbus, Ohio. So, a group of farm workers were through Louisville last week on their way to Columbus, and as Crescent Hill has done many times over the years, they prepared breakfast for the farm workers.

After breakfast, Lucas—one of the long-time leaders of the group—talked to the Crescent Hill folks to catch them up on the progress toward justice that has happened over the last 15 years. Speaking in Spanish, with someone translating into English, Lucas thanked the Crescent Hill members for their hospitality over the years—pointing out the place in their Fellowship hall where he had slept on a couple of occasions! He reminded them of the rallying call of a “Penny a Pound”—and how that victory is still secure. But that’s not all. He told them tomatoes don’t have to be heaped over the tops of the buckets any more—just even with the top of the bucket is enough. And there is now shade available in the fields—shade—so people can get a break from the hot Florida sun. And they are allowed such breaks—workers no longer have to worry about being fired for taking a five-minute break during the work day. And, to make sure the workers know their rights, groups like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers hold sessions informing the workers of how they can be expected to be treated. And representatives of the corporation are present and hear this reminder too. When the Coalition of Immokalee Workers was formed many tomato pickers worked in conditions akin to modern slavery. Lucas said that it used to be he was told by a shift boss to find him so many hands for the next day. Now he is instructed to find so many employees.  Jane said that Lucas had been telling the group at Crescent Hill all of this in Spanish, and at this point he stopped and said in English, to make sure everyone heard what all of this progress means, he proclaimed: “We are now human beings.”

Of course, people who pick tomatoes have always been human beings but they have not always been treated as human beings. And when you’re not treated like a human being it erodes your sense of yourself as a human being. A penny more a pound, shade, breaks during the work day, being referred to as employees, experiencing the accountability of their employers to treat them in these seemingly small, yet enormously significant ways that has set them free. “We are now human beings.”

There are many communities of people in our country who have not been treated as human beings. We have been thinking particularly this Lent about African Americans who were lynched in what James Cone refers to as the lynching era between about 1880 and 1940. During that time “white Christians lynched nearly five thousand black men and women.”[1] Lynchings were public events in which newspapers announced “the place, date and time of the expected hanging and burning of black victims.”[2] White women, men and children attended the lynchings. Postcards were made and sold of “black victims with white lynchers and onlookers smiling as they struck a pose for the camera.”[3]

To torture, lynch and burn another human being, one must deny the humanity of the other. James Cone writes that African Americans “affirmed their humanity and fought back against dehumanization” on “Friday and Saturday nights at juke joints and at churches on Sunday mornings and evening week nights…Both black religion and the blues offered sources of hope that there was more to life than what one encountered daily in the white man’s world.”[4]

Part of the question we are asking this Lent and through our New Beginnings projects is: How can we be part of repairing the damage that has been done to our sisters and brothers throughout our country’s history? The legacy of slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow, lynching, white flight, redlining, mass incarceration, the lack of public support for public education all continue to dehumanize and diminish communities of people of color, especially poor communities of people of color.

This story of Jesus and Lazarus fascinates me. There is so much that could be said about it. What I want to notice with you this morning is the end of the story. Jesus calls Lazarus back to life with a loud shout. The one who had been dead comes out of the tomb. But he comes out like a mummy—he’s still wrapped up and bound by the fabric in which his dead body had been wrapped as part of the preparation for burial. And Jesus says to those gathered around the tomb, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

It is Jesus who brings Lazarus back to life but his full restoration and his freedom and his capacity to become a human being again requires the rest of the community. In John’s gospel, being brought to life and being set free is happening in a literal, physical way. I keep thinking about this metaphorically: that this is our work too as a community—to unbind people and let them go.

And there are literal, physical ways in which we can be part of this work of unbinding and setting free. Reading with elementary age children who need the support of caring adults to be able to read at grade level and be successful in school and in life. Befriending people in our neighborhood who need the support and friendship of others and in whose lives we learn more about our own. Supporting first generation college students who encounter numerous challenges to being successful in school simply because they are the first in their family to go to college. And for those of us who are white, continuing to do our work to understand our complicity and to do our part to dismantle systemic racism.

And I suspect that when we are part of a community that is unbinding and setting others free, we will find that as others are set free, our own humanity is restored and we, too, are unbound and set free.

Lucas said, “We are now human beings.” I think those who employ tomato pickers and those who buy the tomatoes are also more human now because they no longer treat other human beings as less than human.

* * * * *

[1] James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 31.

[2] Ibid., 9.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 12.


Practicing Resurrection – John 11.1-53

April 6, 2014 – 5th Sunday in Lent

We hear a story from John again this morning. A reminder that in John’s gospel, Jesus calls God “Father” more than any of the other gospels. And in this gospel, Jesus’ use of “Father” is not a title of patriarchal domination but a name that John scholar Gail O’Day says the writer of John’s gospel uses “to highlight the theological possibilities of intimacy and love that rest at the heart of God.”[1] So I invite you to hear this name for God as a term of intimacy and love.

Reading: John 11.1-53

Once more in John’s gospel we have a story where meaning resonates at multiple levels and the people Jesus is talking to think he’s talking about one reality while he’s talking about another reality.

Jesus speaks to his disciples about Lazarus who has “fallen asleep”–that’s the literal meaning of the word but it is also a word used frequently as a euphemism for death. Jesus says he will go to “awaken” Lazarus. The disciples are confused why Jesus is going to wake Lazarus up from sleep. Unlike in many of the other stories, Jesus quickly clears up the confusion. “Lazarus is dead.”

Arriving at the home of Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha, Jesus tells Martha that her brother will rise again. Martha assumes Jesus is talking about a future resurrection of the dead which some sects of Judaism believed. Martha affirms that she believes this will be true for her brother. At some future point in time, God will raise those who have died to eternal life.

But that’s not what Jesus is talking about.

“I am the resurrection and the life” he says. “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

Most of the time when we hear about resurrection and eternal life, we also think of something in the future. But that’s not what Jesus is talking about. He doesn’t say “There will be a resurrection and eternal life.” He says, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

So what does that mean?

Gail O’Day says it means Jesus has something to do with the believer’s death and the believer’s life—our death and our life.

Those who believe (or “trust” is another way to translate that word) in Jesus and die, yet live. Those who live and believe (or trust) in Jesus, never die.

On the face of it, that seems crazy. We know that people, even people who trust in Jesus, do die. Even Lazarus, raised from the dead in this story, will die again. But here’s what it means: “For Jesus to be the resurrection means that physical death has no power over [us; our] future is determined by [our] faith in Jesus, not by [our] death. For Jesus to be the life means that [our] present is also determined by Jesus’ power for life, experienced as the gift of eternal life.”[2] Another way to say it is, “In life and in death, we belong to God.”[3]

First, life. Eternal life is not something waiting in the future. Eternal life is a life lived now “in the unending presence of God.” To have eternal life is to live life, as author Sara Miles says it, “liberated from human rules about who belongs and who has power and who deserves to be part of a family.”[4] “To have eternal life is to be given life as a child of God.”[5] It is to live life as God intends it–here and now. It’s a revolution of values and priorities, a reorienting of everything in our life to be rightly oriented to God and to one another.

Wendell Berry in his poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” writes of the values of eternal life.

“…every day do something

that won’t compute. Love [God].

Love the world. Work for nothing.

Take all that you have and be poor.

Love someone who does not deserve it.

Give your approval to all you cannot

understand. Praise ignorance, for what [humans

have] not encountered [we] have not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.[6]


Now the part about death. In life and in death we belong to God. This story in John is not just about Lazarus who has died. It is even more so about Jesus who will die. This story is the precipitation for the religious leaders who now seek Jesus’ death. It is about Jesus who freely walks into the grave and calls us to life. But in between the walking in and the calling out, Jesus dies. A real death.

Most of us don’t really want to talk about death. Our own or anyone else’s. Author Sara Miles who was previously a war reporter, writes, “Death and the fear of death, continue to drive so much on earth. They lie under all human violence, drive our sad struggles for domination, allow the manipulations of religion and empire to thrive. As a war reporter, surrounded by terror,” she writes, “I’d experienced the power death had to make me betray or refuse to help others. I’d seen people who were, in their souls, no more than walking dead: they were completely ruled by fear of the grave.” And yet, she writes, “I witnessed amazing sights…whenever a person left the fear of death behind, and rejected the temptations of power through violence…These people had a totally different kind of power, one which comes from believing that death doesn’t have the final word.”[7]

“For Jesus to be the resurrection means that physical death has no power over [us]; [our] future is determined by [our] faith in Jesus, not by [our] death.”[8] That doesn’t mean we’re not realistic about death. We are. We know that we will die and we know that people we love will die (and have already died). But we are not held captive by fear of death. Because we know we belong to God in both our living and in our dying. Nothing, in life or in death, will be able to separate us from the love of God. And so we are free to live our lives fully. Free to receive the abundant life that Jesus offers because we are not afraid.

There’s a prayer from the funeral liturgy that says, “Help us to live as those who are prepared to die. And when our days here are ended, enable us to die as those who go forth to live, so that living or dying our life may be in Jesus Christ our risen Lord.”[9]

Trusting in Jesus who is the resurrection and the life, we are raised into a new way of seeing and being and living.

Here is Wendell Berry’s Mad Farmer continuing his manifesto:

Listen to carrion [carrion is what is dead or decaying]–put your ear

close, and hear the faint chattering

of the songs that are to come.

Expect the end of the world. Laugh.

Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful

though you have considered all the facts.

As soon as the generals and the politicos

can predict the motions of your mind,

lose it. Leave it as a sign

to mark the false trail, the way

you didn’t go.

Be like the fox

who makes more tracks than necessary,

some in the wrong direction.

Practice resurrection.”[10]


Practice resurrection.

One of the practices of resurrection is gathering at this table where we remember that in life and in death we belong to God. That nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. “Neither depression, nor aging, nor cancer, nor AIDS, nor heart disease, neither our weariness of soul or of spirit, neither our lack of faith, nor our greatest fear, none of it need keep us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”[11]

At this table, we are welcomed by the One whose arms are open to us and who says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who trust in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and trusts in me will never die.”

* * *

[1] Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John” The New Interpreters Bible, Vol IX, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 496.
[2] Ibid., p689.
[3] Opening line of the PC(USA) “Brief Statement of Faith.”
[4] Sara Miles, Jesus Freak – feeding, healing, raising the dead, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010), 152.
[5] O’Day, p552.
[6] Wendell Berry “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” Collected Poems 1957-1982, (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984), 151.
[7] Miles, 125-126.
[8] O’Day, 689.
[9] Book of Common Worship, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), 916.
[10] Berry, 151-152.
[11] Jon Walton, “If You Had Been Here” sermon preached at Westminster Presbyterian Church, November 5, 2000.