Mar. 29, 2020 – sermon

Posted by on Sun, Mar 29, 2020 in Lent, Sermons

Mar. 29, 2020 – sermon

The Fifth Sunday in Lent

March 29, 2020

Our gospel today is about life and hope and promise, even though they must walk through grief and death and disappointment in order to get to it. We are surrounded by death and the fear of death these days, the stories, the rising count, and it becomes a companion to my day as I check the numbers of new cases, deaths and recoveries and as I write down the prayer requests you send in, both of which guide my prayers and lead me to seek  out glimpses of good news. We are in an onerously relevant place to enter this (rather lengthy) Gospel about the raising of Lazarus. If we read the very next handful of lines we would hear the Chief Priests and Pharisees plan to kill Jesus because of what he did in raising Lazarus. Death seems to accompany Jesus in today’s gospel as he walks on toward his own suffering and death. This will be Jesus’ most powerful sign, and a symbolic foreshadowing of his triumph over death itself. This is true irony; the authorities plan to kill Jesus because he gives life! Yet his crucifixion will serve to glorify him, his resurrection the revealing of eternal life.

Jesus has conversations with his disciples and then with Mary and Martha, through which we also enter this scene. The disciples try to prevent him from going to Judea because of the risk; some had already tried to stone him. They eventually follow Jesus anyway after Thomas’ ‘gung ho’ urging, ‘We’ll all go so we can die with him.’ This is a journey none of them especially want to take and yet it is only through such journeys that they will see God’s glory. Soon Jesus is speaking with Martha face to face as she jumps in blaming his chosen absence for her brother’s death. Like last week, Jesus ignores the blame question, saying her brother will rise. She takes it to mean the common Jewish belief in the general resurrection of the dead ‘on the last day.’ This is John’s technique of presenting a ‘misunderstanding’ as a way to clarify what Jesus is about, saying words we know as comfort from the burial rite; “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.” Asked if she believes this, Martha ignores his question and instead says she believes he is “the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” It is what she can manage in her grief and internal conflict over Jesus’ not being there to save her brother. As if to say, ‘My faith can go this far with you – but not all the way to what you are asking of me.’ Ever practical intelligent Martha seeks to integrate life and truth and faith.

Then we shift to Mary and the tone changes, she responds from her feelings and her love for Jesus and her brother. The mourners follow assuming she’s going to her brother’s tomb. Instead goes to Jesus and falls to her knees, overcome and weeping, saying exactly what Martha said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Now Jesus himself breaks down “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” and Jesus weeps himself. I consider this the most human of his moments in all of the gospel accounts. The two grieve together, hearts ache, tears flow, you can picture him pulling her up from his feet into an emotional embrace. The stone closing the tomb is like a door of death, a barrier between himself and his beloved friend on the other side – of course he weeps! The tangible reality is all around him in the sisters and the mourners and this place of burial. The smell of a four day old corpse furthers this real-life narrative, then the rock is moved and Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, speaks the words which call his dear friend from death to life, “Lazarus, come out!” Short of the resurrection, this moment is Jesus’ most powerful revealing his divine nature, on the heels of tears revealing his most human one.

If you were standing there and heard this, would you turn to look at the bizarre man calling out to a corpse, or would you turn and look expectantly at the open tomb for what will happen next? We can’t help but look to see if it happens, if Lazarus really does raise up from the dead and come out, right? In imagining our own glance at the tomb with some level of expectation, even if only the slightest bit, we recognize our own faith in Christ. Theologian Sandra Schneiders writes, “Eternal life conquers death without abolishing it” and “we are not asked not to weep, but only not to despair, for the one in whom you believe is our resurrection, because he is our life.” (Written That You Might Believe: Encountering Jesus in the Fourth Gospel, Herder & Herder 2003)

A friend of mine who had cancer told me the hardest thing was not to focus on the maybe-someday-soon cure but to live into the uncertainty of it. Neither cancer nor the Covid-19 virus is ‘fair’ or entirely predictable and we haven’t found a way to tame or eradicate either one. That’s the state we’re all in these days, no matter where you live or how much you earn, if you like or hate staying home, we’re all either on ‘pause’ like movie, or in fast-forward mode, and in our social physical distancing we discover that we are more interdependent than ever. It is most rare that we all have the same fears, the same ‘enemy,’ and ironic in the face of such political divisiveness. David Brooks in his March 19, 2020 New York Times article wrote, “The great paradox, of course, is that we had to be set apart in order to feel together. I’ve been writing about the social fabric for years now, but you really see it only after you’ve lost it…the absence of social connection is making everybody more ardent for it.”

I’ve always wondered about Jesus waiting until Lazarus was really dead, as in four days gone, and been a bit troubled by the grief it caused the family even as he knew what he was going to do. The experience we now have of this virus as a common enemy which both distances us and makes us appreciate all the more our need for human contact — is a little like Jesus and the Bethany family. Would it have revealed the glory of God if he’d showed up in time to heal him before he died? Raising the four-days-dead brother made them experience at a visceral level how powerful and inconceivable Jesus’ own ‘raising up’ on the cross would be, and that his resurrection was foreshadowed in raising Lazarus to come out of that tomb. They now know who he is.

When each met Jesus on the road in grief and anger, accusations of blame and tears they were laid bare to him. We see how in our pain and neediness, our weakness, disappointments, and brokenness we more profoundly embrace God and let God be in us. More powerfully and deeply than in our happy and successful times or when we think we’re the cause of our own good news.

That Jesus did this in full view of the community explains the witnesses who went and told the Chief Priests and Pharisees on him, and more importantly it tells us that we are more than mere individuals, we are a gathered body who grieve together, live together, and celebrate together. Right now people the across the country and beyond are setting aside their own yearning for normalcy and freedom for the greater good of the whole. We are sharing frustrations and fears and needs with others all around the world, and we are also discovering triumphs of the spirit in the creative ways we now connect – like this service, in making music and art, in scheduling much more time to be together (virtually) than just a month ago! One grocery store says they now have toilet paper, but they keep running out of yeast because people are rediscovering bread baking.

We all miss our usual social connections, hugging at the peace, picking up our grandchild or holding hands with a loved one in the hospital, and yet Brooks points out there’s also something deeper and more tenacious going on; “It’s an active commitment to the common good — the kind of thing needed in times like now. It starts with a belief in the infinite dignity of each human person but sees people embedded in webs of mutual obligation — to one another and to all creation. It celebrates the individual and the whole together, and to the nth degree. Solidarity is not a feeling; it’s an active virtue.”

It is out of this virtue that health care workers, food banks, and meal programs are so committed and self-sacrificing to the point of exhaustion and risk themselves. They do these things for the whole of us, for the common good, not for themselves. Will this help us heal some of our divisions? Will we get to keep this common experience, this solidarity, when it’s over? Independents and republicans and democrats and socialists, the whole lot of us, are at the tomb keeping our six foot distance, or watching on screens in self-isolation. Aren’t we all watching the open doorway of that tomb, hoping and praying and expecting, that something will happen when the incarnate Word speaks?


© 2020 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.

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