Friday, March 31, 2017


On Lent 5, we hear about Lazarus.
His story falls on Lent 5 because in John’s Gospel,
            this is the tipping point.
Raising Lazarus pushed Jesus’ opposition
            over the edge into a 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 asked a friend this week, “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 how Lazarus’ 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.
They wanted him to restore Lazarus from illness 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 restore the balance,    
            to put Lazarus back the way he was.

That is what a lot of our religion is for.
We have gotten 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 dramatically 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.
They were good. They were 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 see the beauty of the divine and be lost
                        in wonder, love, and praise.
So Dante relegated them to limbo, the mixed state,           
            because they 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 very hard 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 arrived 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
                        and brother of James.
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 imagine 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 does for us.
“I’ll have a Grande grace, Pike Place, not bold,
            with room for cream.”
But sometimes Jesus may have a venti grace in mind
            and our cup won’t hold it.
We need a different cup.

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 what is happening
            when the ordinary things that make is feel safe,       
            the things that give us our sense of well-being,
                        fall away.

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 we do not suffer without hope.
Peter says,
            “After you have suffered for a little while.,
             the God of all grace who has called you
                        to his eternal glory in Christ
                        will himself restore you, support, and strengthen
                        and establish you.”
Paul says,
            “. . . (T)he sufferings of this present time are not worth
             comparing to the glory about to be revealed . . . .”

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 do our best 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 happy,
            we look for the glory of Christ to make us ecstatic.