On Lent 5, we hear about Lazarus.
This year, we hear his story at a time when
Covid-19 has disrupted ordinary life.
For Holy Comforter,
congregational life was already disrupted.
In the recent past, we lost Fr. Bill and Deacon Linda.
Then Mother Kym was called to serve at Cathedral Ridge.
Now Jackson, who steers the ship,
is moving on to a new career.
Things as usual seem to be falling apart.
So what are we to think? What are we to expect?
Can we get through this?
If we do, what are we to hope for?
Can we patch back together some semblance
of our comfortingly familiar past?
This year we hear the story of Lazarus with uneasy hearts
and fretful minds.
His story falls at the end of Lent because in John
this is the tipping point.
Raising Lazarus is the last straw
that pushed Jesus’ opposition
over the edge into their murderous plot.
This is the point at which they realized
what a revolutionary change
Jesus was ushering into the world.
What do you suppose life was like
for Lazarus before he fell ill?
Scripture doesn’t say.
So it probably wasn’t remarkable.
It was probably typical – an ordinary life.
I once asked a friend, “How are you?”
He answered honestly. He said “Mixed.”
His life was somewhat afflicted but generally ok.
That’s how life usually is.
That’s probably how Lazarus’s life was.
Then he got seriously sick and life was a lot worse.
So his sisters sent word to Jesus.
They wanted him to come and heal their brother.
By “heal,” they meant restore Lazarus back
to his mixed life.
Sigmund Freud said the goal of psychoanalysis is
to cure mental illness
so the patient can resume "a life of ordinary misery.”
Mary and Martha wanted Jesus
to put Lazarus back the way he was.
That is what a lot of our religion is for.
We are used to life as it is,
settled into our “ordinary misery,”
and when that balance is threatened
we want Jesus to set things back the way they were.
We don’t harbor much hope that things can be better
than they have always been.
We are a bit like the righteous pagans
in Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Dante had the greatest respect for the virtues
of great pagans who lived before the time of Jesus.
The pagan poet Virgil was his first guide.
These people were good, even noble,
but in the Divine Comedy,
Dante consigned their souls to limbo
– neither the punishments of hell
nor the joys of paradise.
The righteous pagans had lived and died
without any concept of heaven,
no idea that union with God is possible,
no hope to behold the beauty of the divine and be lost
in wonder, love, and praise.
So Dante relegated them to limbo, the mixed state,
because they had failed to imagine anything better.
I don’t know where righteous pagans go when they die
and neither did Dante
but he was making this spiritual point:
It is nigh unto impossible to achieve
what we cannot first imagine.
If we cannot imagine that life might be utterly new,
if the best we hope for is the way things were,
then we erect a barrier to what Jesus wants to give us.
So Mary and Martha called Jesus to come quick
and set things back the way they were.
But he didn’t do it.
He waited for two days until Lazarus had died and all hope
to put things back the way they were was gone.
That’s when Jesus showed up with something better.
He replaced Lazarus’s ordinary life with a miracle.
What happened to Lazarus after that?
We don’t know for sure.
His name is not said again.
But there may be an answer – at least a theory.
No one knows who wrote the 4th Gospel.
Tradition gave it the name of John,
but it pretty clearly wasn’t John the Son of Zebedee.
We don’t know who wrote the 4th Gospel,
but there is a respectable group of scholars
who think it was Lazarus.
It may be that the mystical Gospel,
the loftiest poetry and the truest knowledge of Christ,
came from this man who had seen the other side.
We don’t know that.
But I cannot believe that Lazarus
resumed his ordinary life.
From that day forth, he knew the life giving power of Jesus
-- not as an idea, but an experience;
not a theory, but a fact.
Lazarus knew what Paul meant when he said,
“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.
The old has gone. The new has come.”
But is that what we want?
The self-help books and the psycho-pundits
on the talk shows
all have techniques to tinker a little with our lives
-- countless ways to make a little adjustment here
or there so we might, with luck and hard work,
make ourselves 3% happier --
but without changing anything too much.
On any given day, 3% happier may be
about as much as we think like we can stand.
So we pray for that, and many a time
that’s what Jesus gives us.
“I’ll have a grande grace, Pike Place, not bold,
with room for cream.”
But sometimes Jesus may have in mind a venti grace
with a triple shot of espresso and our cup won’t hold it.
We need a bigger cup, a braver imagination
– or failing that, a spirit open to welcome
what is yet to come, perhaps even embrace it.
Jesus wants better for us than we want for ourselves.
Jesus wants better for us than we can imagine,
but it’s natural for us to be afraid of it.
Room has to be made to hold so much grace.
The ordinary things that make is feel safe,
the things that give us our hints of well-being,
have to fall away to make room
“for the glory which is yet to be revealed.”
Holy Week is the story of that falling away.
It is a story of death – like the death of Lazarus
– the kind of death that opens the way to new life
– not to old life refurbished, buffed and refinished
– but utterly new life – a new creation.
This makes a difference for how we understand
what happens in our life all the time.
It changes how we understand a transition
in church ministry and leadership.
It changes how we understand what is happening
when the ordinary things that make is feel safe,
the things that give us our sense of well-being,
And that is all the time.
As Joni Mitchell so wisely said,
“Something’s lost and something’s gained
in living every day.”
When life is falling apart,
in big ways or in little ways,
how do we understand it?
It’s hard to lose the things that make us happy
-- jobs, homes, people, relationships.
Even though he knew about resurrection,
Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus
because the Lazarus who came out of the tomb
would not be the same man who went into it.
Even Jesus missed the old Lazarus.
So naturally, when we lose what we love, we grieve.
But Paul says we suffer but we do not suffer without hope.
“After you have suffered for a little while.,
the God of all grace . . . will himself restore you,
support, and strengthen and establish you.”
And Paul says,
“. . . (T)he sufferings of this present time are not worth
comparing to the glory about to be revealed . . . .”
Already, I see some new things stirring in our common life
during this social distancing,
people sharing poems and prayers,
people meeting on-line and getting to know each other
better than they did before.
It is possible we might be more for each other
in a few weeks than we were before.
That happened at my Church in Macon, Georgia
after a flood knocked out our water treatment plant
and we couldn’t use the tap water for three weeks.
I see interesting applicants for the redefined job
of parish administrator.
I don’t see them yet. I may never see them.
But I know there are candidates
for rector of Holy Comforter
whose resumes are arriving even now
at the diocesan office.
There is a Zen adage that goes,
“The barn has burned.
Now I can see the moon.”
That’s a new meaning for a barn burning.
When the barn is burning in our lives,
we frantically scramble to put out the fire.
But when the barn has burned, we look for the moon.
When Lazarus has died, we look for the resurrection.
When we lose the things that make us moderately happy,we look for the glory of Christ to make us ecstatic.