Live and Let Die
Following is the transcript of a sermon delivered on February 18, 2018. No audio is available.
Scripture: John 11:1-44
…and then what?
I find myself coming back again and again to the end of this story, which increasingly feels like a cliffhanger the more I ponder it. Lazarus was raised from the dead, and then what? What happened to Lazarus after that? What was the rest of his life like, what did he do with this ‘second chance’ he had been given, was he even happy to have been brought back to life?
Had he made peace with his impending death, and so did this feel like an unwelcome intrusion on his eternal rest? Did he feel like a pawn in some larger emotional system, where it was all about Martha Martha Martha! Was his personality restored, his memories, his hopes and dreams, or was he simply now an animate body? Jewish belief at the time stated that the soul lingered near the body after death for three days, and Jesus waited until the fourth day to raise Lazarus, so had his soul already peaced out?
If we think back, or think ahead, depending on how you look at it, to Jesus’ own resurrection, we remember that he still had his wounds- it was all his disciples could touch, in fact…so was post-resurrection Lazarus still diseased with whatever had killed him in the first place?
Was he restored to pain, fatigue, and suffering, or was he healed as well as resurrected? The story doesn’t give us any answers. I find myself really wishing that there were a Paul Harvey episode on this: “You know what the Good News is, in a minute, you’re going to hear the REST of the story!”
We do have a couple nuggets of information that appear in the following chapter…the Pharisees decided to kill Lazarus. When I read that, I was saddened. You see, if they succeeded, Mary and Martha and all of Lazarus’ friends and family would then have to endure the grief of his death twice.
Is it possible that the more compassionate course of action would have been to let Lazarus lie, to hold Mary and Martha’s hands through their grief, to share stories of Lazarus’ life- there’s a Jewish saying upon someone’s death, “may their memory be a blessing”.
At this point in my reading and thinking, I started to feel a little hrmmmm about Jesus’s choice to raise Lazarus. And I know that the author of John’s gospel frames it as something done to Glorify God, and we heard in last week’s sermon about how instead of staying too long in self-pity in times of suffering, we can look to God to find some way to make meaning of our experiences, to incorporate our suffering into the narrative of our lives in a way that helps us toward our best self, toward a meaningful and rich existence.
But I also wonder if this story is one of the moments where in the midst of all his miraculous divinity, we are starkly reminded of Jesus’ humanity. It is in this story that we have the shortest and perhaps most poignant verse of the bible, “Jesus wept”.
Grieving the loss of his friend, and moved by the grief of others, Jesus restores Lazarus to life. How many of us, if given the chance, in the sharpest moments of our grief, would bring a lost loved one back from the dead? In those moments, in the ‘bargaining’ phases of our grief, would we really stop and think about what this would mean for our future suffering, or theirs?
I’m reminded of a story in Harry Potter- the final book, The Deathly Hallows. The story is told as a folklore that exists within the Harry Potter universe, called the Tale of the Three Brothers. In this story, there is an artifact called the resurrection stone, that has the power to bring someone back from the dead.
The original steward, shall we say, of this stone, uses it to resurrect his dead wife and child. However, pulled from their eternal sleep they are not at peace, and the man finds that he cannot touch them; their resurrection has only brought more pain, and prolonged the slow, tender easing of our grief that can only come with time. Ok here come a couple spoilers so feel free to cover your ears and hum softly if you need to.
Centuries later, Dumbledore, now the steward of this stone, attempts to use it to bring back his little sister, whose death he feels responsible for. Instead of working on forgiving himself for the mistakes of his youth, for his own sins and choices, he seeks a resurrection that will make that forgiveness unnecessary. As it turns out, the stone is set in a cursed ring and all that happens is that Dumbledore’s hand essentially turns necrotic and sets in motion his own impending death…how’s that for ironic?
Harry, on the other hand, now steward of the stone (which has been removed from its accursed setting), uses it to call forth the spectres of his parents, to help him face a death that he hopes will save the lives of much of the wizarding (and muggle) world.
As I compare these two stories, I think about the various things in our own lives that we continually resurrect, or try to resurrect, that we perhaps ought to let die. These are things that perhaps keep us from doing the work necessary to become our best selves. I’m thinking of thought patterns, habits, relationships, or patterns in relationships, arguments, the way we frame or approach certain situations…
I’m sure many if not all of us have heard the sage advice to avoid bringing up the past when having an argument with a loved one.
I’m sure many if not all of us have felt the familiar twinge of pain when our loved one repeats an old mistake, or says that thing they know really gets our goat and we asked them not to say anymore, or snarks at us for forgetting to pick up the milk on the way home but...but…how about that time when they knew you weren’t going to be able to take the dog for a walk, they knew you were swamped with work, and they went out for drinks with their coworkers after work and then got dinner and when you got home that night the dog had pooped on the new carpet… and it feels so deliciously and righteously indignant at the time…but does it ever really help?
Does it ever do anything other than prolong or renew the pain of the past argument, or mistake? Maybe that’s why we’re advised to remain in the present, to talk about our feelings in that moment, to stay with the issue at hand, to feel the grief that Lazarus has died, and work with that grief, in the moment, with friends and loved ones.
There might be ways of framing situations that we desperately cling to because it gives us a sense of control, or helps keep our anguish at bay, or keeps us from having to confront something that will be hard for us.
In the wake of the recent school shooting in Florida, the 18th that has happened this year, I think about the ‘mental health’ narrative that tends to pop up in opposition to the gun control narratives. Nevermind that it stigmatizes the millions of Americans who live with mental illness, nevermind that folks who are mentally ill are far more likely to be victims of violence than to commit violent acts themselves, nevermind that we only seem to deploy the ‘mental illness’ narrative when the perpetrator is white, nevermind that at the same time that politicians take to their twitter soapboxes to respond to gun violence by saying ‘we need to address mental health in America’ they defund programs that would actually aid the mentally ill.
I think there’s more than a distaste for gun control that is driving this narrative…I think that the thought that someone of ‘sound mind’ could intentionally commit such heinous acts of violence, that this could happen so frequently, is too painful for some to accept. Living in a world where sane people commit such horror is too much to bear, and so we fall into the narrative that such horror can only come from a brain that has some kind of sickness.
I think its time that we as a nation lay this narrative to rest, even if it means experiencing all that grief and confusion and anger we had been using it to help keep at bay.
During lent, we often think about giving up things that we like, but that we know aren’t necessarily good for us. I’ve given up chocolate in the past, this year I’m giving up butter. I know folks who have given up gossiping or unnecessary spending/shopping.
These aren’t always inherently bad for us, but they’re things that tempt us, and that could easily get out of hand and become bad for us if we were to always give in to the temptation. They’re things that keep us from our better selves, they may keep us from taking care of our bodies, from being good neighbors, from stewarding our wealth, God’s wealth, responsibly.
They’re often pretty concrete things, these Lenten fasts. I’d challenge us to think more abstractly, to look more at the big picture, at the things that we’ve hung onto thus far, for comfort or out of habit or emotional impulse, at the things that perhaps we should let go of…the things we should perhaps let die, to release us into new life.
I also want to think a little about the things that we can bring to new life, that we can infuse with renewed energy in a way that brings us to new life, with God, each other, and ourselves. Our gospel story this morning doesn’t mention Jesus’ forthcoming death and resurrection as explicitly as it did in the story about Jesus upturning the temple tables, in which we were graced with many parenthetical statements, theological asides, if you will.
But since we know that Easter is on its way (just look at your pew cards for more information on our upcoming Easter offerings), since we know that Jesus dies and is resurrected, we can’t help but read Lazarus’s experience as a bit of a biblical spoiler. We hear of one resurrection and we think of another.
And even if you didn’t read it that way, let’s pretend for the sake of this sermon that you did. Because I want to contrast Jesus’ resurrection with that of Lazarus. Lazarus’ resurrection restores him to his mortal life. He will die again, his family and friends will grieve again, we don’t know if the Pharisees succeed in murdering him or if he lives to a ripe old age and dies peacefully in his sleep…but Lazarus resurrection hasn’t overcome death, it’s just…postponed it.
And maybe Lazarus went on to serve the community, using this second life to live boldly and abundantly. Who knows? But nevertheless, it wasn’t the same kind of resurrection that we see with Jesus.
Jesus’ resurrection is a resurrection of the soul, a passage from eternal rest into eternal life in very visible way. We all have a bit of doubting Thomas in u, I think; we’re sensory beings, we live empirically by what we perceive around us… perhaps we needed to see Jesus’ body, to touch his wounds, to hear his voice, in order to truly understand the truth of our soul’s journey, that death doesn’t get the last word.
What are the things in our life that, when looked at with a view toward living in Christ, are things whose resurrection brings us closer to God, closer to our neighbors, closer to our best selves?
The first thing that comes to mind for me is friendships that we’ve let fall to the side, not because of any conflict or disconnect, but just because of time, the tempo of a busy life, or simply focusing on other relationships for a time. How much life can a resurrected friendship bring us, that moment of reaching out and drawing someone closer, of infusing new energy into a relationship, of extending the love we hope to receive?
What if we all took 10 minutes sometime during the week to reach out to an old friend, to say we’ve been thinking of them, to ask them how they are, and to listen to their response? It doesn’t even have to be that involved, it could be as simple as tagging a friend in that really funny meme that you know they’ll simultaneously get a chuckle and a warm feeling from knowing that you thought of them.
We might want to resurrect some healthy boundaries that we had set with our jobs, our families, the media we consume, that we’ve perhaps let slip a bit over time. Reexamining what boundaries we need in our lives and resetting them can open us up to a deeper sense of calm, to new ideas, to new self-discoveries, to healthier relationships.
We can resurrect a specific spiritual practice that we fell out of habit with, or resurrect the fact of just having a spiritual practice, whatever it might be. As Kent mentioned last week, Lent is also an opportunity to take something on, to add something to our lives.
This Lent, as we think about what needs pruning, what we need to let die, what we need to let go of or let burn away, let’s also think about what we can call into new or renewed life; what in our lives can benefit from a little resurrection, to bring us into new life with God, our neighbors, and ourselves.
This season of Lent, let’s really Live and Let Die. Amen.