Love, Loss, Life

I am guessing that you, like me, are reading, hearing, seeing familiar things quite differently these days. Life is the same yet profoundly different. Things I took for granted feel different—for example, I find I am so much more grateful for grocery stores and the ease with which I can still access a surprisingly wide range of products, yet I am also now scared of grocery stores and feel the need to soak myself and whatever I get in my weekly trek to the store in bleach as soon as I get home. (The nurse in me has to say please don’t actually do that). The ground underneath our feet, while looking the same, is not. It has shifted. And I suspect we will never look at the world, at life, in the way we used to again. There is surprise in that for me. And grief. Letting go of what has been, letting go of my ideas of what the world should be, my ideas of life, is hard. So many of us have a long list of things we are letting go, are grieving many losses. Some are grieving actual deaths—but having to do so without gathering and comforting each other in person. Some are grieving the death of daily routines, of economic safety, of contact with other people, of what we thought was the certainty of tomorrow. Many of us are lamenting the state of our common life as citizens of this country in a time when politicians are urging older Americans to sacrifice themselves for the economy and the President is publicly musing about giving life saving ventilators to those states whose governors flatter him and withholding from those who do not. Grief is in the air.
And inserted into our current situation we have these two stories that I am guessing we have all heard many times; the valley of the dry bones from Ezekiel, and the story of the raising of Lazarus. But this week they just sound…different. Perhaps because it is easier now to conjure up the image of a valley full of bones, easier to smell the stench of Lazarus as he stumbles out of the tomb wrapped in filthy graveclothes. And yet even now, with COVID 19 in the air, with the sound of the rattling of dry bones in our ears and the smell of Lazarus in our nostrils, we are only two weeks away from Easter. Two weeks away from the celebration of the triumph of life, of love, of God over all our graves, all our deaths.
These readings crop up every 3 years on the 5th Sunday of Lent. And I believe it is the work of the Spirit that they are presented to us this morning. In the past I have read and pondered these Scripture passages, smiling as I turned them over in my mind, parsing them in a scholarly way, then putting them down and slinking away-trying to whistle past the graveyard. Preferring to look to the smell of Easter flowers than to stay put and breathe in the smell of Lazarus’ rags. To conjure up the sound of trumpets than sit enveloped in the brittle noise of rattling bones. It is a temptation- to speed past readings about death to get to the prize-Easter. It is tempting to go right from the shouts of Hosannah to the resurrection-skipping all the messy bits in between- the betraying, suffering, and dying. But this year, while we may want it more than ever, I do not think it is possible because the graveyard is all around us, a reality no amount of whistling will dispel. So perhaps today rather than needing to be encouraged to linger in the graveyard, we need this dress rehearsal for Easter; both in the image of flesh, sinews, and breath coming back into the dry bones, and in Lazarus staggering out of the tomb and squinting in the light. Perhaps we need this foretaste of what is to come-Jesus doing for his friend what God will do for him. We need this hint of the assurance that there is a power loose in the universe which is stronger than death, stronger even than our fear of death. A power that is able to call us out of all the stinking tombs of our lives, all our fears, griefs, and deaths.
Many of you have heard me say, heard others say, that the fact that God became human in Jesus, means, among many things, that nothing separates us from God—that God knows deep in God’s self what it is to be human. To know, among other things, grief and fear. And, for Jesus himself, these two emotions are all over this story. Going to Bethany was dangerous and he knew it. Bethany is just two miles from Jerusalem. And there he would be in easy reach of the people who had tried to stone him just two days before. But Jesus had escaped from them across the river Jordan and was in a safe place. And it was in that place of safety that he got word that his dear friend Lazarus was ill—really ill. For reasons that the Gospel writer John in his typically annoying fashion tries to explain but really aren’t clear, Jesus waits a few days. Perhaps it was, as John says, so he could show his power in raising Lazarus from the dead. Perhaps it was because he was busy where he was. Perhaps it was because he was weighing whether or not he could risk going that close to Jerusalem, because he was afraid for himself, for his disciples. Whatever the reason, by the time he got there Lazarus had been dead three days and his sisters, Mary and Martha, are a little mad at him. “Lord, if you had been here he would not have died.” Yeah, we join in. That’s right. Where were you? If you had been here all of this wouldn’t be happening. We thought you were supposed to offer some protection against suffering and death.
But instead of that we have Jesus showing up after the suffering and dying, even after the funeral. “Come and see” someone said, in the manner of a funeral director—“come and see so you will know it is real. So you can accept what has happened.” For Jesus it was clearly quite real but there was no accepting it. “LAZARUS COME OUT”, he bellowed into the darkness of the tomb and out staggered Lazarus- still all bandaged up. And Jesus turns to those gathered and says, “unbind him and let him go”. Fascinating. That the One who had just raised this man from the dead, who could clearly have unwrapped the grave clothes himself or just waved his hand and they would have fallen away, looks to the crowd to do this. Almost as if he expects the gathered community to participate in the miracle of new life. Almost as if he expects us to cooperate with God in all God’s work of unbinding, freeing, healing, consoling, and re-birthing. As if a gathered community, whether it is in person or virtual, has power in itself. The power of connection—a shared power that helps calm our fear, helps push and pull us out of the darkness of our tombs into the light.
And I believe that to be true. And yet. And yet. This year of all years I want a God who will cut my losses, cushion my failures. Who will stop the devastation and desolation all around me. Who will show up with a cure for COVID 19, who will cast out the demons in our political life, who will calm the storm of inner fear. This year I want a God who will grant me some safety. A God who will rescue me from death. Even better, who will delete death from the human experience and find another way to operate. Of course, what that would offer me, us, is what it offered Lazarus; return to life as it is, with all its suffering, pain, and dying, rather than a triumph over it. Resuscitation rather than resurrection.
Instead of a safe God, instead of a God who resuscitates us what we have is a God who resurrects us from the dead, putting an end to it by working through it instead of around it—creating life in the midst of grief, creating love in the midst of loss, creating community in the midst of separation, creating faith in the midst of despair-resurrecting us from our big and little deaths, showing us by his own example that the only road to Easter morning runs smack through Good Friday and that it is a road he has walked before. He knows the way through and he will walk with us every terrifying, blessed step of the road.
“I am resurrection and life” Jesus says to grieving Martha. Not “I will be” but “I am”—right here, right now. Resurrection and life for anyone willing to believe it just might be true. It is not a safe story. It is not told to a safe and comfortable world. But it is a strong story, with power to lead us through the graveyard and out the other side.

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