Lent 5, March 29, 2020
St. Martin, North Vancouver
“Lord, if you had been here…”
Let us pray: Lord, be with the sick and those who minister to them. Be with the fearful and those who seek to calm their fears. Be with the grieving and those who offer comfort. When we do not feel your presence, be with us anyway. Amen.
There are times when the assigned Bible readings for the day are a comfort, and there are times when they are decidedly uncomfortable. At this time, our daily lives are governed by risk assessments: What is safe? What is needed? In the midst of all this, the Church brings Scriptures which point us towards the events of Holy Week. Towards crucifixion and resurrection. We are called both to face the reality of death and embrace the assurance that life goes beyond what humans can understand from this side of heaven. God is with us through it all. Our Holy Book reminds us.
Both the Hebrew Scriptures from Ezekiel 37 and the gospel from John 11 deal with existential questions of suffering and death and where God is at those times. The prophet Ezekiel is shown a vision of restoration after the death of a nation. Israel has been torn apart by political and religious conflict, by arrogance and injustice, by war and conquest. The people are scattered and grieving and wondering why this all happened in their lifetime. They have little faith in the God who led them to the promised land so long ago and whom they had promised to serve. Scattered and in hiding, they have no hope for the future. “Mortal, can these bones live?” the prophet is asked by his Creator. He answers humbly, “O Lord God, only you know.” The people may not have felt the presence of their God, but He is not about to give up on them. God will call them out of their graves of fear and despair and give them the Spirit of hope within them for life.
The story from John’s gospel introduces us to others who are fearful and in the shadow of death. First there is the family of the sick man, Lazarus. They have asked Jesus nicely to come and heal him, reminding him of the love he bears for them all. But the expected help doesn’t arrive in time and Lazarus dies. Where was Jesus when they needed him?
Then there are the disciples of Jesus. They are aware that the area around Jerusalem is becoming a danger zone. Bethany, where Lazarus is sick, is only a few hours walk from the capital. There the Jewish authorities are preparing for the Passover and the probable arrest of them and their teacher. Is Jesus hanging back because Lazarus is contagious, or because the greater contagion is the fear of the religious leaders which will bring events to a passionate conclusion? The disciples don’t know, and they have to make their own risk assessments when Jesus announces that he is going to Bethany after all when he gets word that Lazarus has died. One of them (Thomas) remarks, “Let us also go, that we may die with him”. A pessimistic view, but a courageous choice, given the circumstances.
In the face of danger, we too are each making choices day by day. What is safe? What is needful? How do we balance the two? We draw on the best information available to us, and then weigh it with our inner convictions. Ezekiel chooses to speak out to hostile audiences because his ministry compels him to share his vision from the Lord, though he doesn’t understand how it is possible. Lazarus’ sisters and friends have to decide whether they will continue to believe in Jesus, even though he seemingly wasn’t there for them when they needed him most. The disciples didn’t understand what was going to happen next but they knew they were entering dangerous territory. Their leader might not be able to protect them from the consequences. What happens when the Lord that you follow doesn’t seem near enough to keep us safe?
Each morning doctors and nurses, emergency responders and caregivers, community workers and food service providers have to make decisions about the risks to which they will expose themselves and their loved ones. For the vast majority, this is not a matter of a job: it is a ministry. For the sake of others, they are continuing to step forward and serve. Even for those who have faith in a higher power, it is an ongoing struggle to conquer anxiety and fear and the heartache of being in the midst of others who are suffering. The needs are great. Death is near. I give thanks for the individuals and the groups that can draw strength from their belief in a loving God and encourage each other. I have been told that at the beginning of each shift at the Lynn Valley Care Centre, the staff gather for a prayer together.
There are those who do not believe in the power of life over death, and those who are too busy praying with their hands to stop and meditate. Here is what we can do as Christians. We can be their intercessors to raise them up to God’s light. Not with a prayer to convert them, except in the conviction of love, but to ask for them to be guarded round with wisdom and peace and courage. We can pray that out of the darkest situations, they will find a lifting of their hearts and spirits that gives them the power to continue. And that in turn, there will be others who will minister to them. I really believe it Is alright if they do not recognize the presence of Jesus by name. He is there anyway. If they are helping in love, they will meet him.
Jesus says, “I am resurrection and I am life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and every one who lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:25). Jesus isn’t saying that the human body won’t wear out or succumb to illness. Lazarus dies. And just because Lazarus gets raised from the dead once doesn’t mean that he goes on forever being immortal. We would have noticed. He is called back to serve for a time at the command of his Lord, and then presumably is allowed to cross that bridge between earth and heaven again. And what a joyful homecoming, with the sure knowledge of the eternal life that awaits him!
Jesus doesn’t avoid death himself. He cries out in his abandonment on the cross, in solidarity with all those who feel alone. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Yet like the poet who wrote the psalm that questioned whether God was listening, Jesus directs his prayer outwards in search of the divinity he does not understand. Even if he cannot feel God outside of himself in that moment, death cannot have dominion over the love that will empower him to rise again.
No one is alone. The glory of God is that love is not bounded by time or distance or sickness.
Jesus demonstrates that he didn’t come to take away death but to put it in its rightful place. We can face the danger zone of our fears confident that the Lord is with each of us, even when the empty tomb is the only sign. Amen.