Let him go

Fifth Sunday in Lent, 29 March 2020, St. David’s Episcopal Church , DeWitt, NY, Dan Handschy

Lent 5A (RCL); Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45

     I have to admit I’m finding it a little difficult to write sermons in this time.  There is a lot that looks bleak, and we all need a word of hope.  There are voices coming from every direction, some saying it’s dire now, and will get worse; others saying things will soon be better and we can go back to life as normal.  How are we supposed to respond?

     I think this pandemic is forcing us to realize that some things in the way we have organized the world will need to change.  We talk about ‘vulnerable populations’ as if they were something other than us.  And yet we know that if anyone has this virus, we’re all in danger of getting it.  We are far more connected than we like to think; we are not the rugged individuals we imagine ourselves, responsible only for our own well-being.  Now, we have to figure out how to reorganize society to make this so.

     Our Gospel reading for today is very confusing, but it may help us figure out how to think and live differently.  First of all, why does Jesus delay two days, when he knows Lazarus is dying?  And then, why does he grandstand when he prays – I know you always hear me, but I’ve said this for the crowds standing by?  We’ve had more than enough of delay and grandstanding.

     Both sisters, Mary and Martha, say to Jesus, with more than a hint of accusation in their voices, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  I think we’re feeling the same.  Why is God allowing this delay?  Why don’t people get how serious this is?  Lord, if you had been here, things could have been different.

     So, for me, it raises the question, “What would things look like if Jesus were here?  What would be different?”  We could spend a whole lot of time on that question!

     When Martha comes to where Jesus is, she asks, she accuses, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Jesus replies, “Your brother will rise again.”  She says, “I know he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.”  This is one of those classic examples of misdirection in John’s Gospel.  Jesus says one thing, and she hears another.  Jesus tells her, “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?”  She replies, “Yes, Lord, I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the One coming into the world.”

     Again, she answers a question he didn’t ask.  She sees things in the standard way – the Messiah is coming, and everything will be all right.  He told her that the resurrection is already here, and it doesn’t look like she thought it would look.  It doesn’t look like we thought it would look.

     John wants to drive that point home.  When Lazarus comes out of the tomb, John tells us “the dead man came out.”  Lazarus is still the dead man.  And, he was wrapped in his grave cloths.  When Jesus was raised from the dead, the disciple whom he loved went into the tomb, and saw the grave cloths all neatly folded up.  Lazarus’ is the resuscitation of a corpse.  Jesus’ is a resurrection from the dead.

     What does that mean for us?  Mary and Martha want things to go back to the way they were before.  They want the resurrection to look the old order restored.  John is telling us the old order has already passed away.  Jesus’ resurrection is something new.  When Mary Magdalene encounters the risen Jesus in the Garden, he tells her, “Don’t hold on to me, for I have not yet embarked to my father and your father, my God and your God.”  (I guess Jesus understood social distancing).  The resurrection looks like a journey toward God, not a return to old hopes.

     What are the grave cloths we need to take off of Lazarus to see what God has in store for us?  What does a new and fuller life look like?  What does it mean that if we live and believe in Jesus, we will never die?  What does it mean to say that when so many are dying?  And, we ask like the sisters, why were you not here?

     John wants to redirect our attention away from a return to the way we think things are supposed to be, and toward something unexpected.  For John the resurrection is not just the restoration of biological life, the resuscitation of a corpse.  Resurrection is instead a fullness of life.  John’s favorite phrase for it is, “the life of the ages.”  We tend to translate that eternal life, and think it means living forever.  What it meant in John’s time and Jesus’ was living a life in the coming age that God intended for all the world.

     We’re seeing some of what it is not.  It is not the hoarding of scarce resources, whether that be toilet paper or personal protective equipment for our medical workers.  It does not mean manipulating a crisis for one’s own interest, whether that be profit or political points.  It does not mean going about our business as if nothing were wrong, and not seeing the impact of our actions on others.  These are the grave cloths about which Jesus says, “Unbind him and let him go.”

     So, the opposite looks like resurrection – making sure everyone has what they need; living our lives as if everyone else’s life depended on what we do; accepting with huge gratitude what others, even those invisible others we would rather not see, do for us.  The resurrection looks like the whole Body restored to full life.  Our Diocesan vision statement is “A world healed by love.”  I think that pretty well captures what I’m struggling to picture for you.

     In the Apostles’ Creed, we say that we believe in the resurrection of the Body, and I think the pun is intended.  Not just this physical body, but the whole Body, the Body of Christ intimately interconnected, overlaid with a stunning network of relationships, joints, sinews, connective tissue, organs; nurses, doctors, grocery store workers, truckers, musicians, waiters and waitresses, that whole glorious Body raised to newness of life.  That is the life of the ages.

     Jesus says to Martha, “I AM the resurrection and the life.”  The life we have in Jesus is a faint foretaste of that resurrection life.  The community we share with one another is the sign of that resurrection to the world.  And, oh, are we hungry for that now.  When we can get back together and sing ‘Alleluia,’ we will now more powerfully than we have ever known the resurrection of the Body.  That is the hope of Easter.  That is the life of Jesus in our midst.  Pray we hear Jesus’ words, “Unbind him and let him go.”