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Unbind Him and Let Him Go! - John Bergen, March 29, 2020

Updated: Jul 29, 2020

John 11:1-44

Good morning and welcome to everyone, joining us from across our region and across the continent. I am so glad to be in prayer and worship with everyone this morning, remembering that wherever two or three are gathered, or in this case 84 screens, God sings with them.

Maybe this last week has been a week of settling for you, of finding routine. Or maybe the wheels have fallen off, and you’re just holding on. Maybe you’ve let go. Like every week when we gather, we come carrying a vast rainbow of experience, and we dwell here together knowing that Love can hold it all.

Most of us have been doing a lot of dwelling in the past couple weeks, stuck at home, or physically distanced from our communities. I have found myself spending more time on relationships and connection. That means more time to screw up a relationship, and more time to heal it and deepen it. I have also found myself deeply grieving, for people in our community and in my life who are sick, who have lost work, who are alone and scared, who are trapped in situations they cannot get out of and all they can do is wait. This grief has been hard to touch, hard to hold, and sometimes it seems to sit in front of me like a giant black hole of fear. Maybe you know what I’m talking about.

And so, this week, we are asked to read a story that begins with Jesus separated from a person he loves as that person is dying. When he decides to risk death and travel to see Lazarus, it is too late. He is confronted by first Martha, then Mary, and finally he cannot take any more. Like many of us these past few weeks, he breaks down and he weeps.

But the story does not end there. The writer of John takes us into this grief, and we meet Jesus in the heart of it, and when it seems as if the story must end here, we hear Jesus demand that the tomb be opened. And as the dead man walks from the tomb, returning to us, we hear this command: “Unbind him and let him go.”

What to do with a story of liberation from death in a world of pandemic?

Well, first off, this unbinding language is important: The early church often described resurrection as an act of decarceration. The tomb, death, was a prison cell, and Easter morning was an opening of prison doors. This was a visceral metaphor for them: Early Jesus-followers got locked up a lot, whether for civil disobedience or simply because they were poor or as scapegoats for pandemics.

The community looked back to the long line of ancestors who understood their plight: Moses killing an abuser and getting out of town, David running for his life from the cops, Jeremiah locked up for telling the truth, and ultimately the first Christian community: Three condemned criminals, dying on crosses, side by side. Lazarus, the first resurrected and reborn in the new world, is the quintessential disciple: locked up, and then unbound and set free.

So in preparation for this sermon, a month ago, I contacted friends who are incarcerated and asked them to exegete this text. Many are serving life-without-parole sentences, meaning that until the law is changed or the governor commutes their sentences they are sentenced to die in prison. Today, while many of us hunker down in our homes, these friends are still locked up in close quarters with thousands of others, many of whom have weakened immune systems, many of whom are elderly, all of whom are at risk because they cannot leave, cannot get good healthcare, will be forgotten and left to die.

And so the cry has come from people across the country: “Unbind them and let them go.” Family members, community organizations, faith communities, and even elected officials have demanded that people in jails, prisons, and immigrant detention centers be released, and for proper medical treatment to be given to those who are not released. And some cities, like Pittsburgh, have responded by releasing some prisoners.

But it seems unlikely that Governor Wolf will choose to release my friends before the coronavirus is so rampant on the inside that release is not viewed as a safe option. I am afraid for my friends, and in the past couple weeks I have wondered what to make of this story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, this teaser for resurrection. It has felt empty to me. I do not know how to explain it and so I will simply offer the words of Tanya Krout, age 60, and Cyd Berger, age 64, both incarcerated at SCI-Cambridge Springs. In a letter to me a week ago they wrote:

Even in death, Jesus has the power to resurrect, to breathe life back into what was hopeless and counted as a loss. Look at our lives. We were dead in sin and counted as unredeemable. We were removed from the world, thrown away behind walls, wire, and bars to be forgotten. “Lock them up and throw away the key!” Is the curse that has been spoken over us. We have become ‘throw-aways' having no value… we have become forgotten to mankind; dead to the world, but treasured vessels to God…. We are enslaved by a diseased system of superiority and greed but freed by our God.

I know we have not reached Holy Week yet, but I know that for many on this call it may feel like we are already in Good Friday. You may already see the outline of the tomb. Maybe, like Jesus gathered with his friends four days too late, you are weeping. Maybe you have not yet allowed yourself to weep, but you can feel a wailing in your soul.

I am not here to promise you that everything will be okay. Everything will not be okay. It is already not okay. Lazarus is dying, right now.

I can only promise you this: The story does not end there.

This week I have returned again and again to the wisdom of my friends who have spent years and decades in prison: That they can lock up your body, but they cannot cage your soul. That to be free, we must first imagine ourselves free while still within the confines of the tomb.

I find myself imagining Lazarus, dying, and at whatever point his soul or consciousness was set to join the greater cloud of witnesses, a voice says, “Wait. Just wait.” Waiting for four days, dreaming of who he could be if returned to the world. Practicing. Training himself for release. So that when Jesus called him out and his friends unbound him, he was already free.

We are living right now in a crisis of imagination, and of power. Our root crisis is not COVID. Here, in the tomb of this moment, we must begin to imagine ourselves free and to begin practicing this freedom.

Today we are living in a country where the unemployment rate will soon pass thirty percent. If ever there was a moment to begin imagining and practicing a world where everyone gives according to their ability and takes according to their need, it is now.

Today we are living in a country with over twice as many prison beds as hospital beds. If ever there was a moment to demand healthcare as a human right, if ever there was a moment, in the words of my friend Ghani Songster, to practice healing justice over hanging justice, it is now.

Today we are living in a world where most of our relationships, our conflicts, our decisions, must be made over a phone line or zoom link. If ever there was a moment to slow down and move at the speed of trust, to build deeply with those we do trust, to learn from those in our community who have lived in isolation for years and still survived, to fight for the freedom of those forced to live this way like Carmela and her family, it is now.

As I find myself moving into a place of radical imagination, I am grounded in these words from Jennet Griffith, 49 years old, incarcerated at SCI-Cambridge Springs:

Lazarus could not unbind himself. Lazarus had to be willing to allow others to help him transition into newness of life. The order in which sin and death came off was hand and foot, as if he was a prisoner unable to free himself.

We need each other in this act of imagining. We need each other to imagine new life amidst the weeping, to carve out windows of sunlight amidst the fear. So let’s imagine together, answering the question of what our world would look like if we were all unbound and let go. I invite you to take in these visions by closing your eyes, by listening to your breath, by letting your imagination expand beyond the confines of the room you are in.

From Charmaine Pfender, age 54, from Pittsburgh, incarcerated at SCI-Cambridge Springs:

I would not be in prison anymore, for sure. We would have forgiveness. I would like to believe if our feet were unbound and let go, there would be no stumbling blocks… A true reversal would happen if all were unbound - a new eden with life eternal for us again.

From Mark Williams, age 30 from Darby, incarcerated at SCI-Phoenix:

First, when I think of us as the human race being "bound," what comes to mind is how we bind ourselves and one another with our prejudices, our power structures, oppressive expectations, obliviousness to our connectedness, and all other forms of harm that we perpetrate against one another. So when I think of our world being "unbound and let go" I imagine our world being a just world. A world where harm doesn't exist because there's an inherent understanding (that's embraced) that we're all connected and what's best for one is best for all, when one is harmed we are all harmed. A world where we are not bound by ideas that create class warfare geared to rob children of this inherent knowledge. A world where no one feels the need to climb over their fellow man to reach some illusory "top" because all would know that our peak is only obtainable in harmony with one another. A world where no one could wake up in a cell and realize they've learned all the lessons they should have as a child but it doesn't matter because revelation is not enough for one to reach redemption… Some would say that some of the systems that are in place today are necessary, for without them, there would be chaos. I believe that if we were "unbound" from these conditions, ideas, and urges we experience in our world today, chaos wouldn't even be a word known to man. Unbound and let go, I see our world thriving in a way foreign to us today. A world where none of the isms exist, a place where I'd feel much better raising my children 😀?.

I will close with these words from writer Valarie Kaur:

This pandemic will test who we want to be, as individuals and as a people. Will we succumb to fear and self-interest? Or will we double-down on love?...

Is this the darkness of the tomb — or the darkness of the womb?

I believe this is a time to love without limit. This is a time to see no stranger. In doing so, we gather information for the kind of world we want, where no one is uninsured or disposable, where our policies and public institutions protect all of us.

And if panic or grief or rage seizes you suddenly, it's okay. It means you are alive to what is happening. The work is to breathe through it. It becomes a dance—to panic, then return to wisdom; to retreat then find the courage to show up with love anyway.

I spent all day in fear. But tonight, I got quiet enough to hear the wise woman in me, and she said, "Breathe, my love. Like any long labor, we are going to take this one breath at a time."


Photo Credit: Jeremy Yap on


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