Scripture for the Fifth Sunday in Lent
March 29, 2020
read by Bill Reid
I have always read the story of Lazarus as a foreshadowing of the resurrection of Jesus, which of course it is, but today it also seems like a direct reflection on our lives as a people who are living through a pandemic.
Death has always been a part of life, but today it feels more real for many of us. Today it’s not something that we can pretend only touches a few. At this particular moment, illness and suffering are impossible to ignore.
In the story of Lazarus, a deadly illness takes the life of a beloved brother, and his friends and family mourn that loss deeply. Mary and Martha are fortunate to have family and friends to comfort them in the wake of their brother’s death, but that comfort could not extinguish their feelings of anger and anxiety, betrayal and despair. You might notice that Mary isolates herself following her brother's death as so many who mourn do. She expresses impatience with those around her, particularly Jesus, and her sense of powerlessness and sadness practically jump off of the page. She is propelled forward by the intensity of her grief as she falls at Jesus' feet, but she doesn't do so humbly or with adoration necessarily. Her words are more accusatory, and I can fairly imagine her saying them in anger: “Lord, if only You had been here, my brother would still be alive.” Death and illness do this to us; shakes us to our core and ignites a storm of feelings.
Just as Mary and Martha struggle to understand why Jesus would allow such a thing to happen, we too struggle to manage in the wake of loss. COVID-19, in particular, has changed all of our lives. We all are experiencing one form of loss or another. Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of this global crisis is the fact that we can only comfort one another from a distance. As one journalist has described it: “At a moment of profound dread and uncertainty, people are being cut off from soothing human contact. Hugs, handshakes, and other social rituals are now tinged with danger” (Ed Yong, The Atlantic).
And there are many who are at an even greater risk of becoming overwhelmed by the side affects of self-distancing. People with anxiety or depression must work even harder than usual to maintain some semblance of balance. Elderly people, many of whom are already lonely, are being asked to distance themselves even further. And according to organizations that work to eliminate domestic violence, incidents of violence in the home - including child abuse - are likely to spike as people are forced to shelter in places that are unsafe.
So what does this story of resurrection have to say to us today? How can this Gospel reading help us in our hour of need? Much of the story of Lazarus holds symbolic meaning. The gospel writer has Jesus waiting to come to help until the fourth day, which is likely a nod to the three days that he would eventually spend in his own tomb. Jesus berates the disciples, including Mary and Martha, for not understanding what he is talking about when he speaks of sleep and death and darkness and light. Again, this mirrors what is yet to come as many would misunderstand his journey to the cross and would assume that in dying he had failed.
This passage clearly points to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, and to the reactions of those who witness it, but it’s too easy to simply suggest that we read this passage and find in it hope for new life. I really want to do that. I want to grasp onto hope. Personally, I’d like to imagine myself, and those I love, in the role of the one who is healed and given another chance. I’d like to cast us all as Lazarus. But I can’t. My connection to Mary is more true. Right now, in the midst of the current catastrophe, I relate more fully to the one who stayed behind at the house when she heard that Jesus was nearby. I see myself in the one whose grief could not be contained.
Perhaps that’s why I find more comfort in the simple words “Jesus wept” than in the dazzling spectacle of Lazarus' resurrection. The passage says that “when Jesus saw Mary’s profound grief, and the moaning and weeping of her companions, he was deeply moved by their pain in his spirit, and was intensely troubled.” In that moment Jesus felt Mary’s agony, and perhaps because of her, was able to connect with his own. Could it be that the raising of Lazarus was not only meant to emphasize the power of Jesus to resurrect, but also to underscore his own human vulnerability? Could the purpose of this story be to show us that Jesus feels the very pain that we feel? When he said to his disciples "For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe" could he have been referring to his expectation that they recognize his emotional truth as much as they recognize his divine purpose?
We seek life, but we accept death, believing that God is present to us in both. This is the promise of the Lazarus story. "I am the resurrection and the life" said Jesus. "Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live". And so we believe. We believe that Jesus weeps with us even as he offers us a promise that we live surrounded by the love of God even beyond death.
The complicated array of emotions that we all are feeling this week may have pushed us to the edge, but perhaps we can find comfort in knowing that the One sent by God has felt the very same things and so we can rest more fully in the knowledge that we are not alone. Amen.
Reflection on the Passage
by Pastor Patty Fox
A Musical Offering
by Caitlin Graham and Luke Harrigan
May it come soon
to the hungry
to the weeping
to those who thirst for your justice,
to those who have waited centuries
for a truly human life.
Grant us the patience to smooth the way
on which your Kingdom comes to us.
Grant us hope
that we may not weary
in proclaiming and working for it,
despite so many conflicts,
threats and shortcomings.
Grant us a clear vision
that in the hour of our history
we may see the horizon,
and know the way
on which your Kingdom comes to us
Windows into Worship, ed. Ron Ingamelis, YMCA, 1989
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