Fifth Sunday in Lent (2017)- St. George’s Episcopal Church

00-grave-clothes-of-lazarus.png“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
One of the interesting things about being Chaplain at St. George’s School is pastoring an ecumenically diverse community. Yes, we are an Episcopal school, but in fact, only about 15% of our student body consider themselves Episcopalians. Most of our school is comprised of Methodists and Baptists, Pentecostals and Presbyterians, Jews and Atheists. And while most of the time this rich tapestry of religious perspectives offers a wonderful opportunity to hear the full range of ideas, beliefs, and viewpoints on any given topic, there is, of course, some challenge that comes with being the facilitator of such discussion and the task of somehow offering a word that can cut through it all to bring unity can be daunting.
That said, in the midst of our diversity, I do try to retain some sense of a distinct Episcopal identity at the school, especially in our liturgical worship. I think I’ve made it quite clear that we won’t be celebrating Christmas in the season of Advent, we won’t be singing any hallelujah songs in Lent, and Easter doesn’t come until after Holy Week! All things in their time. But then I sat down to write today’s reflection and found my neat and orderly system of worship completely called into question! Here we are in the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Easter still two weeks away, talking about…resurrection! In the first reading we heard that iconic image of the Valley of Dry Bones receiving new life breathed back into it; in the second reading we heard St. Paul proclaiming that those with the Spirit of Christ within will be raised just as Christ was; and in the gospel not only did we hear the story of a dead man coming back to life, we hear Jesus announce the very heart of the gospel, “I am the resurrection and the life!” So what do we do with these readings? How do we receive them in the season of Lent? It seems to me that someone must have had a reason for designing the lectionary in this way. Perhaps it is to remind us that even in darkness there is a little glimmer of light, as I suspect we’ll find that even in Easter light, there may be a shadow of darkness.
Lent is a season of penitence, inner reflection, and preparation. In Lent, we muster the courage to look deep within ourselves in order to sift through the muck and mire of our spirits to somehow make room for the reigning presence of Christ. Lent is a spring cleaning. It’s the do-the-laundry, put away the toys, washes-the dishes rush before the in-laws come over. It’s the scrubbing of forgotten places under dishwashers, behind toilets, and the bottom of produce drawers. Lent is the season of sanitation. And yet, if you’re like me, in all that cleaning, it’s easy to sometimes get lost in the middle of it. I can’t tell you how many times in my intention to accomplish some new home improvement project my wife walks in with wide eyes wondering why I have decided to destroy the living room.
It’s easy to do. Sometimes we get so caught up in bringing things to order that it becomes difficult to see if there is even an order to which to bring. And while I have used a somewhat comical picture to demonstrate this place of drifting aimlessly, the reality is that at times the darkness we encounter within us can feel absolutely overwhelming. And while some of us have chosen to encounter that darkness for only a season of 40 days or so, there are also others of us whom have been chosen by that darkness, for which no sight of escape exists. It is in that darkness that today’s readings come to us.
If you ever have an opportunity, I highly recommend taking a course on the Gospel of John. While it stands beside its counterparts, Matthew, Mark, and Luke telling the story of that Jewish Rabbi that would come to be known as the Son of God, the imagery and language of John invites the reader into a deeper intimacy with the story. Interestingly, there is a discussion among scholars as to who actually wrote John’s gospel, and while tradition has claimed the apostle John, son of Zebedee, as its author, certainty alludes us. Most scholars agree that whoever wrote the gospel was probably the one whom the book identifies as “the one whom Jesus loved.” But who is this “one whom Jesus loved?” The appearance of the mysterious character only seems to arise in the second half of the book at the Last Supper. The character then appears at the foot of the cross, at the entrance of the tomb, and in the last chapter in Jesus’ final conversation with his disciples. Some side with tradition calling the mysterious person John the apostle. Some have said that the person was a young child who grew up to be another John, author of the letters. If you have read or seen The da Vinci Code you’ll remember that some have also claimed the person was Jesus’ secret wife, Mary Magdalene. Still others have argued that the one whom Jesus loved was none other than the focus of today’s gospel reading, Lazarus, who was specifically called the one whom Jesus loved by his sisters Mary and Martha in verse three. This last theory is especially interesting and you should ask me about it sometime.
But perhaps my favorite theory is that the nameless person is you. And me. The one whom Jesus loved is the reader, whoever is on this journey to know Christ. According to this theory, the author specifically makes space for the reader to enter the story not only as a spectator, but as a participant. The Gospel of John is not only a story witnessed historically by a particular number of people, it is a story continually unfolding in our own lives. Whatever the answer to the riddle of the gospel’s author, it is certainly clear that at the very least the author was intentional about telling a story in which the reader could find themselves. So when we approach the story of the death and resurrection of Lazarus, when we hear the utter despair of his sisters, the wailing of the community, the confusion of the disciples, we encounter that same darkness that we all know too well in our own lives. We encounter again the parent, child, spouse lost too early in life. We encounter again the isolation of our own depression or anxiety. We encounter my grandmother in the darkness of her Alzheimer’s. We shout out together in that valley of dry bones with the words of the Psalmist, “Out of the depths have I called to you, O LORD; LORD, hear my voice…My soul waits for the LORD, more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.” We are invited to recognize our own pain in the pain of Lazarus’ death.
Here, in the depths of despair, I am tempted to jump to the end of the story. I am tempted to jump to the part where Mary and Martha embrace the brother they thought they had lost. But since when have we ever had the luxury of fast forwarding through our own periods of darkness? Darkness cannot be skipped. Pain doesn’t disappear in a moment. No, we have to sit in it. We have to wait, wondering whether healing is even possible, clinging to a vague flutter of light that may be hope, or may just be something else. “My soul waits for the LORD, in his word is my hope.”
This waiting is what I personally find to be so angering about the Lazarus story. John’s author writes, “having heard that Lazarus was ill, Jesus stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” What was Jesus thinking? How could he abandon us in our darkness? How could he leave me in my despair? It is under those circumstances that the sisters seemingly and understandably attempt to guilt trip Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” My soul waits for the LORD, more than watchmen for the morning.
Lent is waiting. Lent is questioning. Lent is sitting in our own darkness. And while I’d love to be able to say that Easter is here, Easter comes in its own time. And yet what I can say, is that Easter does come. I don’t mean to say that we eventually come along to Easter. No, I mean that Easter comes. Easter comes to us, seeking us out and finding us in our darkness and despair. Easter comes to us, and sits beside us sharing in our grief. The power of this Lazarus story is not a magic trick of raising a corpse. The power is that Jesus came to Lazarus’ family and met them in their despair, weeping along side of them, experiencing their pain, honoring their confusion, and then having shared the intimacy of seemingly meaninglessness, brings resurrection.
The reason we speak of resurrection today, two weeks before Easter, is that resurrection finds us while we are still in Lent. Often it doesn’t come all at once, but finds us a little bit at a time, in our waiting—in our darkness. Resurrection doesn’t require us to solve our problems. It doesn’t require us to heal ourselves. It meets us right where we are, lost in our circumstances, unsure which direction is up. Resurrection weeps with us before it celebrates with us. So today, on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, the Resurrection we encounter is not that of Easter, its the Resurrection that meets us in our despair.
Today as we sit with Martha and Mary in the thick of Lent, mourning the loss of their brother, weeping in our own pain and struggle, may we embrace the presence of Resurrection weeping with us. And may we begin to listen to Jesus as he speaks to us: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Amen.