First I just want to say what an embarasment of riches we have in the readings today! Firstly there is the story from Ezekiel of the dry bones coming to life – it is fantastic. Then there is the Psalm, where the latin starts ‘De profundis’ – ‘Out of the Depths have I called to you’. It is a wonderful psalm of desperation in the face of the divine.
Then there is the Gospel in which Lazarus is resurrected – and wonderful story.
It is all about coming back to life from death. We are interested in this idea in our culture, there are movies, like Alien Ressurection – where a profitable movie franchise is resurrected because it can still make money. Then a few years ago there was the story where Superman died, was laid in a tomb and three days later was resurrected – sound familiar?
I love the biblical stories of resurrection. I was once preaching in a class at seminary about an old testament story that led into the concept of resurrection and I quoted the lines from ‘The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe’ about Aslan’s resurrection and began to cry. I also remember last Easter being deeply affected by the resurrection story, even though I am not exactly sure what happens in it. I know it exites me and moves me at the same time.
We are going to look at this story of resurrection therefore – and we will do so by looking at it from the perspective of some of the characters Jesus meets in it.
Lazarus is sick.
I was there when the brought the news. Jesus seemed to take it well. He rocked back from the table for a moment, as though hit in the chest, composed himself, leaned forward again and mumbled something; something about it being for the best, not leading to death.
We couldn’t go back there, we all knew that. The Jews wanted Jesus dead, they were just looking for an excuse. We couldn’t go back. Lazarus would be fine… that’s what we told ourselves, and tried to tell him. But he was in one of his distant moods. He is insufferable when he is like that. Totally unreasonable and impractical.
One minute he says it’s nothing, then he seems very dark – Lazarus is just asleep, he says… so if it is just sleep, what is the worry? It will take two days to get there, and it’s dangerous as it is – if he’s just asleep why bother?
Over the last day he has been darker still – he is getting impatient with us – him impatient with us. He knows we would follow him to Rome and back if we had to, we would do anything he asked – just please, don’t let him ask this – to go to see a sick friend the week before passover when the Authorities are stretched and looking for any excuse to snap. There is so much tension around Jerusalem, all it needs is for him to shoot his mouth off about the similarity between their faces and gravestones and we are all in trouble.
Don’t talk in code Master, what is going on?
And we’re going.
Great – well I suppose we may as well go and join him then – hope there is some space beside him in the tomb.
Thomas – So negative, so little faith, wouldn’t you love to have him around in a crisis – ‘we’re all going to die’. Locked in, unable, unwilling to reach outside of himself, to grasp life, so afraid of losing his life, that he might as well not have it.
What kind of friend is he really? Two days would have been all. Two days from there to here, and that would have been walking, if he were really a friend he could have made more of an effort – found some camels, ridden on a donkey, got here in time.
I have to speak to him, ‘I am sure he would have survived if you had (tried) to be here.
I don’t care for this. I do all I can, I nurse Lazarus, hoping for some help, wanting just a little support, not even a miracle, but just an effort from those around me. I thought I, we deserved more than this.
Yes, yes, he will rise again at the last. What’s that? You are the resurrection? Oh what now? More riddles.
You are the messiah, the one coming into the world.
Four days, he is dead four days, you would expect better from a friend. Mary can talk to him. She was always his favourite.
Martha – So concerned that things should be done properly – so taken up with all that there is to do. Crying inside for love, for a kind look, for affirmation.
‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’
Where were you?
I listened to every word you ever said. Your eyes are so warm, you made me believe anything was possible – you made me believe our lives could change, Perhaps the Romans could be defeated, we could have our faith, our country back. Or perhaps I believed that you could just make things better here – in Bethany – for us. But where were you – I believed everything you said.
Mary – so trusting, innocent, but what could she see of what was really to happen. A limited perspective, and a fragile heart.
Then there is Jesus – taken up in their grief – perhaps he dies a little in side as he sees their pain.
Four days: be in no doubt he is dead. There is a stench.
Personalities locked in on themselves,
Needing so much to be loved,
Trusting to the last, only for trust to be shattered,
An inability to see anything beyond the immediate – desperate situation.
Living, but dead. What kinds of tomb do we build for ourselves? How do we stifle life?
Lazarus is dead.
When you hear this story – what do you immediately think?
Raised from the dead – how ridiculous.
It’s all just smoke and mirrors, just special effects. Never really happened.
They were ignorant people. You cannot come back from the dead. Perhaps you could wake from a coma – perhaps you could, but not back from the dead.
They don’t have the grasp of medicine and science we have today.
We can tend to be a little chronologically snobbish – we can look at their lives from the enlightened perspective of the 21st Century. But we must be careful when we do so – they weren’t so ignorant. They knew what death was. The hallmarks appear throughout the story. Four days, in the heat of the Near East. They knew what death was.
We are invited to suspend our disbelief along with the first century Gospel readers and be amazed. The story does not work unless it is fantastical, unless it is impossible. The story requires that Lazarus is dead otherwise it is not worth telling, and so whatever the facts we must listen to the story – the rules of physics haven’t changed, and neither have the rules of narrative.
And why would we want to rob the story of its power!
Surely there is the possibility of new life, new chances, even in the most desperate of situations.
When faced with the flaws within ourselves, the decisions we have taken, the personalities we have, the ways in which we limit ourselves every day, the ways in which our society forces us to adopt roles, to lie to others as well as ourselves; there are so many ways to be dead. So, when we are offered the chance of life, new life, resurrection, Surely we should grasp it with both hands.
Lazarus come out!
When I was rereading an earlier sermon on this Gospel reading, from 9 years ago I realised that I had been preaching to myself – that very line: Lazarus, come out! Was for me. I was not out in relation to my own sexuality. Hiding something like that is a kind of death – we need to be resurrected.
I also remember a woman at my last parish whose husband was an alcoholic – he began recovery and it was almost a miracle. She told me ‘I have my husband back.’ It was almost as though he had risen from the dead.
Then there are the miracles of medicine – such as when Combination Therapy began for HIV/Aids patients. It was called the ‘Lazarus effect’ because they almost looked dead on their beds, and then would get up and recover amazingly.
There are many ways to be dead.
I want to end by showing you some paintings that Kristen did when she was at college. They were responses to the old paintings of founders of the college up on the walls. They are all paintings of Lazarus coming back to life. You will have to ask Kristen what she meant as she painted them, but my response was to see a kind of communal resurrection.
It is possible to look back at people who have gone before us in a community and see them as the life of the place, and also to see that in their death some of the vitality of the community has passed on also – but Kristen’s paintings – responding to the founders who had passed on made me think about the way in which communities can come back to life also.
We have a past that we must be thankful for – but we need the resurrection life of Christ flowing through our community and making us new again today.
Let us live.
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