A thirty-four year old man named Michael Sharp is dead. He entered into his own version of a cave of death several times during his short life, and each time he returned home alive. Until now. This time he did not come back. In early March, Michael made his way into the rebel-held jungles of the Congo, just as he has been doing for years -- first as a Mennonite mission worker, and when the funding ran out, as a UN Security Council Expert on peace-making. However, Sharp and his Swedish colleague, Zaita Catalan, along with their interpreter and motor bike drivers, went missing as they were investigating a relatively new rebellion in the Kasai region. As feared, on Monday it was announced that the bodies of Michael and Zaita had been found in a shallow grave. The others are still missing.
As you might imagine, Michael's family and friends here in the United States are devastated by this news. They are crushed by the thought that such a kind, compassionate, godly, peace-loving man - one who was described as courageous but not reckless - would be so callously killed. It feels unfair to his family, I'm sure. It might even raise questions about where God's protection was when Michael needed it.
I suspect that his family in rural Kansas can relate to the emotional cries of Martha and Mary in the story that Diane so powerfully told to us today. Yet unlike Mary and Martha, who receive the miracle of Jesus raising their brother from the dead, Michael's father, John, and other loved ones, must accept that no amount of prayer, pleading or begging will bring him back.
No, Michael Sharp is dead in this realm.
To be quite honest with you, I'm not sure why his death hit me so hard this week. I did not know Michael Sharp personally. However, much of his work took place under the same umbrella of the Congolese Protestant Church as does our Congo Mission Network. Somehow, it feels as if he is one of ours. Or, it could be that the news came on the same day that we also learned that our beloved Congo Mission partner, Dr. Mulumba, lost his battle with multiple myeloma. It could be any number of things stirring within me...but I think the reason Michael Sharp's story impacted me so deeply is because it reminds me of this week's story about the death and raising of Lazarus. While so very different in context and outcome, both lives seem to have served similar purposes.
You see, even though Michael Sharp was working for the United Nations, those who knew him insist that it was his faith in God that drove him to seek peace. It was the reason he was willing to make trip after trip into the jungle to speak to the rebels. He wanted to offer them a different way of living...to persuade them to see things from another perspective. And above all, I think he wanted to provide a reason for them to believe in God's truth of grace and peace through Christ.
To me, Sharp went into the jungle for the same reasons that John wrote this gospel... the same reason that Jesus raised Lazarus...the same reason the church exists...so people will come to believe that Jesus is the incarnation of God in this world...the giver of life and resurrection to us all.
When Michael Sharp went into the jungle, he knew he was risking his life. Yet, he was also living the gospel he professed. He felt he had a message of peace that needed to be shared. That said, Sharp used a unique way to reach the rebels - although not all that unlike Jesus' approach, which, by the way, also got him killed
Sharp was willing to meet the rebels where they were...in their jungle...among their culture. He went to them. More importantly though, in order to create a relationship with the rebels, Michael engaged them in story-telling! Yes, story-telling....but not just any random stories, and definitely not horrific war-stories. Instead it turns out that, just like the rest of us, the rebels liked to talk about the good old days. So, to build rapport, Michael encouraged them to share stories and reminisce about their past.
In doing so, he discovered that the memory held by most of the rebels was a classic narrative of exile. Just like the Israelites, the "past" that the rebels remembered never really existed in the way they remembered it. Still, creating the myth in their mind was a way of creating hope. So yes, the rebels dreamed of returning to homes they never really owned...regaining power they had never truly had...and controlling their enemy. Actually they are rebels...they wanted to destroy their enemy.
Clearly, Sharp wasn't going to encourage them in that fantasy...however he heard and validated their stories. Then as a strategy for peace, he would tap into the emotion behind the stories...a deep, deep sense of homesickness. Loneliness. Longing for a place to call home...a place to belong. Quite skillfully, Sharp used the rebels' own desire for power to create a new understanding of what power could look like...and in doing so, he led them away from violence toward peace.
According to an NPR article, Sharp would say to the older rebels, "You're over 50, it's too late for you to take over Rwanda. But your children are growing up uneducated in the bush. Don't you see that your children, who are the future of Rwanda, when they go back, they'll be slaves of those who are there! Because they are illiterate!" He used the word slave deliberately because for those who dream of ethnic domination, there could be no greater terror. If he could convince the rebels to put down weapons for the sake of their children's education, it would be a step toward peace. If those children ended up in Christian schools in the Congo, even better.
Admittedly, it might not be the most conventional way to lead people to Christ...but it did get some rebels to consider a new, less violent, way of living. Of course, Sharp knew that using this strategy of "getting to yes" (as NPR called it) would not resolve the 20-year conflict in the Congo; but he also believed that without these personal encounters and conversations, the war would never end. In his own curious way, Michael Sharp brought light into the darkness of the jungle...he showed them a way to peace instead of war...and he offered the rebels and their children life instead of death.
Current estimates are that more than 1600 rebels followed Michael Sharp out of the cave of death, to be "raised" if you will to experience new life. Because of Michael's faith...because of his gospel-revealing work...because God was working through him...because of a story about the Israelites in exile...because of the Spirit of God present in this thing called storytelling...all these rebels came to believe in a better way.
Friends, the theme of this Lenten season has been: The Story is Enough. On Sundays we've been telling the stories of Jesus through word, song and art. On Wednesday nights, at the Lenten Soup and Story Suppers we've been telling stories of our own lives as they relate to the scripture passages. The idea is that the stories of scripture really are enough...and when they are shared with others and woven into our own lives, they create belief.
In fact, all of the stories we've shared during this Lenten season have served that same purpose. The story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night. The Woman at the Well. The Healing of the Blind Man. And this, the story of the Raising of Lazarus. John offers all of them to his readers...and to all of us today...so that we, too, will come to believe that Jesus is the revelation of God on earth and that the God he reveals is a God of compassion, mercy, and love...a giver and restorer of life to all.
In fact, Jesus himself tells us that the reason Lazarus was allowed to die was so that those around him would come to believe...believe that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God...believe that he was the One sent by God, not to judge the world but to save it. This whole story of Lazarus was about the disciples' belief. Did they really believe that Jesus was who he said he was and that the healing, restoring, live-giving power of God was within him? To Jesus, it was imperative that the disciples believe because the journey they were about to take with him toward humiliation and death on a cross would certainly raise doubt.
I wonder if that is why there is an initial sense of confusion in this story. When news came of Lazarus' demise, Jesus interacted and spoke with the disciples in a mysterious way. I think it was a trust thing. It could be the reason we are sometimes left hanging with unanswered questions about why things are the way they are. Jesus is teaching us that, even when things don't make sense, disciples believe God has a plan.
There's disappointment in this story too. Martha is clearly disappointed that Jesus delayed his arrival. She genuinely believed her brother would not have died if Jesus had been there. Yet, by the time he does get to Bethany, Lazarus has been dead four days. Sure, Martha knows he will be resurrected in the end, but she wants him alive now. So, yes, she was frustrated. It may have even felt as if God was not listening. I know many of us have experienced that in our own lives, even if we are afraid to admit it. We have been disappointed or frustrated with God. Even so, Jesus demonstrates, for our belief, that God is eternally good and faithful, even in our momentary despair.
There's also deep grief in this story. Mary and Martha loved their brother. They depended on their brother. They missed him and needed him to be alive. Of course they were grieving his death. In fact, Jesus himself grieved - we're told he was deeply disturbed. He wept with sadness. Clearly, Jesus understood their pain and grief. He also understands ours and by his own life’s work, calls us to believe God is merciful and compassionate.
Friends, this story...and all these other stories that make up the gospel...have been given to us so that no matter what life throws at us...no matter what we are feeling...no matter who we are...or what lies the world tells us...that we will believe in the life-giving power of God incarnate in Jesus Christ, anyway.
Now, truth is, unless you believe in the Zombie Apocalypse...it is highly unlikely that anyone who has been dead and buried for four days will suddenly come out of the grave and walk again. Still, it doesn't mean we can't relate to this story of Lazarus. God may not breathe life into dead bodies...but God regularly breathes life into dead spirits. We need only be as bold as Mary and Martha...we need only to ask.
Friends, the power and authority of God that was in Jesus there at Bethany and raised Lazarus is the same power and authority of the same God who is with us now through Jesus Christ. This story is our story.
It is ours to know...to share...to live...and to believe.
Likewise...it is our work...the church's job...to tell the stories. Tell the gospel story...tell this particular story...tell our own stories...so folks around us may come to believe that ours is a God...
Who loves us to the point of sharing our pain and grief.
Embraces us just as we are...stranger...sinner...lost or afraid.
Who holds us close even in our anger, frustration or doubt.
And will enter the dead, stench-filled, ugly places of our lives, not to condemn us for them but to free us from them.
Who releases us from all that binds us; heals our brokenness; restores our relationship; and casts light into all darkness.
And who always, always, always, breathes life rather than death.
John wrote in his gospel: "Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that all may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name."
It's our turn now. Go tell and believe. To God's glory, Amen