In seminary, in a preaching class, I gave a sermon as Martha in this story. I began this story with how angry I was at Jesus and his absence at Lazarus's death. Knowing he could have healed my brother, he didn't even choose to be there to comfort him in his hour of need. Angry. The text reads:
When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’ (John 11:20-27, NRSV)
When I expanded what I thought Martha didn't say, I began by describing myself as pacing the roadway, waiting for Jesus to come into view. When I saw him, I ran toward him, dust caking my tears into mud. My momentum crashed me into our family friend just as he reached out his arms to embrace me, "Where were you?" I yelled through my tears.
My preaching professor, with whom I had more than one disagreement, told me that Marsha was too angry, that a congregation would never be able to handle that kind of rawness.
I thought he was wrong at the time, but took the criticism. However as I read the gospel today, that memory came flooding back and I know he was wrong. Most people only know rawness in grief and that rawness can be anger. The idea that our grief should look a certain way hurts many people all the time.
Rawness can be good. I spent several years of my life drinking milk straight from a cow, unpasteurized. Unpasteurized milk is called "raw milk" because it hasn't been cooked, as it were. Pasteurization heats the milk and kills any bacteria. (Some would say it also kills the flavor.) But the whole milk is delicious and brings a weight and taste that is rich and deep. For its proponents, raw=real.
My preaching professor wanted me to pasteurize Martha, to have her greet Jesus with a smile and gently say, "Oh, Jesus, if you had been here, our brother would not have died. Would you like some tea? And the neighbors brought a casserole."
I don't think so. Her brother DIED. And her family friend also happens to be THE SON OF GOD. WHO HAS PREVIOUSLY HEALED PEOPLE FROM SEEMINGLY DEADLY ILLNESSES.
My experience with grief is 1) Martha was raw and 2) Jesus could handle it. (Analysis of the verse "Jesus wept" might also indicate that the Lord was raw as well at the death of his friend and the weight of his ministry.) In this story, raw=real. If this is a tepid story of a dead man who was raised again, then la-di-da. It serves as a head's up for Jesus' resurrection.
If this is a raw story, full of grief stricken people who are angry, hurt, confused and then (whiplash) rejoicing, then there is an impact for us today. I think this story, along with Psalm 137, and Scripture as a whole calls us to unpasteurized faith. We're not called to boil the rawness out, but to be unfiltered with God with our full strength.
Professor, in grief, people are raw. The abyss they glimpse or feel is a twin to the possible heights of epiphany. We're not baptized into blandness, but into fully fatted goodness- life with Christ. The ability to be honest about anger, disappointment, grief or joy is the cream that comes to the top and woe to the pastor who attempts to skim that from Scripture or the lived faith.
It doesn't get more real than "Where were you".
Where were you?
Where were you!
If you had been here, my brother would not have died.
I don't think I can even begin to portray Martha as too angry. She got her brother back.
There are plenty of people who live with the rawness of "Where were you" with no perceived reply.
Only the heat of time cooks away that rawness.