sermon preached at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Medina, WA
by Josh Hosler, Associate for Christian Formation
The Fifth Sunday in Lent/ April 10, 2011
My great-grandfather, Samuel Lichtenberger Hosler, lived to the age of 96. I remember visiting him and my great-grandmother a number of times at their home in Sedona, Arizona. He was the first person I knew who died, and my family traveled from Idaho to Arizona for the funeral.
When we arrived at the funeral home, his casket was open. My Granny took my brother and me up to see Great-Grandpa lying there in his best suit. I looked him up and down, and then I announced, loudly, with all the self-confidence of a precocious 8-year-old, “He looks like plastic.”
Now, in general, I don’t remember my Granny being all that understanding about children’s capacity for bluntness. But she must have been in the zone that day, because she smiled and said, “You’re right! He sure does.”
I went on. “His hair is too neat. He never combed it like that.”
So Granny reached into the casket and messed up his sparse white hair a bit.
But I wasn’t finished yet. “Where are his glasses?”
They were in the pocket of his suit jacket. Granny took them out and put them on him. “Is that better?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” I said. “But he still looks like plastic.”
It used to be commonly believed that the souls of the dead waited for the resurrection, lying in patient silence until the end of time, when Jesus would call us all out of our graves at once. In more recent centuries we have developed the idea of the dead immediately going to heaven, as if heaven were a faraway place we could be teleported to, zillions of light-years away, but on the same timeline. Indeed, I remember saying to my parents, “I bet Great-Grandpa is sitting down right now at a big banquet table in heaven for his welcome dinner.” Either way, when someone dies, we can see that our loved one just isn’t there anymore and isn’t coming back. We don’t see resurrection happening … or do we?
Today’s Scripture readings are all about death and resurrection. The Psalmist feels dead. He is waiting like a body in the grave for the Lord to redeem his people. For him, redemption and resurrection will come with forgiveness.
The famous Ezekiel story of the dry bones is a vision—an unusually vivid, waking dream. God asks, “Can these bones live?” And the prophet’s answer is very wise: “Oh Lord, you know.” Ezekiel understands that we can never assume we know where there is hope and where there is not; who is worth saving and who is a lost cause. Let us always leave that judgment to God, who is always about to do a new thing.
So, then, on to the really new thing that God is doing in Jesus. In our Gospel reading, Jesus’ disciples are playing their usual game of treating metaphors literally and getting very confused as a result. In this case, the subject is a dead man, not an entire dead nation, so we can hardly blame Jesus’ friends for planting themselves firmly in literalism and refusing to budge. After all, death is so undeniable when it stares us in the face. It can seem indecent, nightmarish … too real to bear. Jesus tries to explain Lazarus’ death to them in metaphor, first telling them that this disease isn’t fatal, and then telling them he’s only sleeping. Finally, when it’s clear that the disciples don’t get it, he gives in: “OK, OK! Lazarus is dead. Is that what you want to hear?”
They’re already annoyed with him, because Jesus has been quite unhelpful. Everyone knows he can cure the sick. Why, then, did Jesus wait for two extra days to come to Bethany? I can understand Martha and Mary, in their grief, trying to shame him: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Those of us who have lost a loved one, especially one who was still young, may have prayed something very similar: “Lord, where were you? Why didn’t you keep this from happening?”
Martha deals with her grief in a very human way: “Everyone says to me that my brother is in a better place, that he will lie in wait patiently and then be called out of his grave at the end of time. But it doesn’t help. Today is the day I miss him. Today is the day I want him back. What are you going to do about this today?”
“But today is what it’s all about,” Jesus replies. “I am the resurrection and the life today, in your life, not just at the end of time. Do you believe this?”
Then Mary shows up, and Jesus gets emotional. We hear that he becomes “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” The original Greek words, etaraxen and embrimOmenos, carry connotations of angry indignation as well. Is Jesus angry with his friends for not understanding? Is he angry with death? Is he angry with the whole situation?
And then, on the way to the tomb, Jesus begins to cry. At the reality that his friend Lazarus is truly dead and was laid to rest four days ago, Jesus becomes angry, frustrated, offended, and sad all at once—just as any of us might. But why? If he’s trying so hard to be reassuring, why isn’t Jesus himself reassured? I wonder if he knows what might happen as a result of this miracle—what plots it will set in motion. I wonder if he knows that his own entombment is not far away.
“Roll away the stone,” Jesus commands. Now in her usual way, Martha jumps in here with a practical consideration: “Jesus, there’s a decaying corpse in there! Are you sure about this?”
But this is the same Jesus who has touched lepers and chatted with Samaritan women; he’s the last person to worry about becoming unclean. He’s doing away with all the purity codes that divide us and enslave us. “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see?” There it is again: sometimes you have to believe something to see it. That’s how Stone Chorlton put it in our Lenten reflections booklet.
And then Jesus prays out loud, and this is what I hear in his prayer: “God, I know you always hear me. But I thank you anyway for hearing me. I know you’re always with me, yet still, I invite you to come in. I know that Lazarus is held in your eternal embrace and that death is nothing to fear. But my friends are still stuck in literalism, and they could use a little convincing … Lazarus, come out!”
And Lazarus comes out. And Jesus’ next command to the people is this: “Unbind him. Unbind him and let him go.”
God is always doing a new thing. Don’t see it yet? Let’s take a quick glance back at the scope of John’s Gospel.
1) Jesus has turned water into wine.
2) He has healed a dying boy.
3) He has made a lame man walk.
4) He has fed 5000 people on five loaves of bread and two fish.
5) He has walked on water.
6) He has given sight to a man born blind.
7) He has brought Lazarus from the grave.
These are the seven miracles John built his Gospel on, all the while acknowledging that this is only a small sampling. In the last verse of the Gospel, he writes, “There are many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”
Do you see? We’re not just talking about whatever works the man Jesus happened to accomplish in 30 short years in Palestine. Every time we hear the Gospel read, Jesus is reaching into our own lives, shaking us loose from dry literalism and doubt. We don’t need to wait for the resurrection. Despite all of human nature, we don’t need to worry about death at all. Not even in death is there a place where Christ is not—even if we can’t see it right now. And as for our beloved dead, we, too, can unbind them and let them go.
In the meantime, Jesus’ other miracles point us to millions of little resurrections we can see!
1) A dead party comes to life.
2) An illness passes, or an injury heals.
3) We think life has passed us by, and then new opportunities and renewed abilities surprise us and excite us.
4) We don’t think there will be anyone to help us, and then there is.
5) We don’t think there will be enough to go around, and then somehow there is.
6) We discover perspectives and ideas and light we never could have imagined before!
7) Resurrection is happening today, all over the world, wherever people love and care for each other. Because that is God’s Kingdom, always breaking into the world.
In next week’s story, the people will proclaim Jesus king—a new kind of king—a king with no army, no palace, no money—but a king who possesses everything in the universe because he trusts God completely.
Don’t miss the next chapters. Come next Sunday, and then join us for all of Holy Week! This is the Christian story, our family story, the reason we’re all here in the first place. This is high drama, and it is Good News. It is Good News for my great-grandfather and all our beloved dead. But it is also Good News for us. Christ is the king of the living. Jesus is the resurrection and the life today! Amen.