17 April 2014

Raising Lazarus: A Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A

Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who is calling us out of the grave. Amen.

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It's hard not to hear the accusation in these words from Mary and Martha. It's even harder not to find the same tone on our own lips when we turn on the news or get the proverbial late-night phone call. Last week, we have heard the story of Christ healing a man born blind, but it doesn't match up with the world in which we live. Throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus making the blind see, the mute speak, the lame walk, and to bring those on the verge of death back to health. But these stories make us wonder – why do we still see so much loss and suffering in the world? We know surely that Death still has us within its firm, cold grip.

Nearly a year ago, I attended a funeral – my first funeral serving as a worship assistant instead of sitting in the pews. The deceased was a parishioner who had finally lost a five year long battle with cancer. She developed a brain tumor, and as a result, she spent her last several years alive unable to care for herself, unable to speak, and plagued by seizures. Even after chemotherapy briefly rid her body of cancerous cells, the symptoms remained. Throughout, her husband remained by her side, caring for her and hoping. Hoping that the doctors were wrong. Hoping that his wife would come back to him.

Hoping that she would be able to speak to him one last time. Hoping that the one who healed the sick would intervene, to save his wife. That the Divine Physician would show up. Hoping, in short, for a miracle.

That miracle unfortunately never arrived. And so, as we stood in our small sanctuary, singing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” I wondered, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this woman from dying?” “Lord, if you had been there.”

It's a familiar story to all of us because we have all felt that sting of loss. To be frank, we have all been angry with God because of Death's sting. Philosophers and theologians call this the “Problem of Evil,” but we know it more personally as tears shed by hospital beds and at grave sides.

We know it as the sting we feel any time a parent has to bury a child. Any time we say farewell to a loved one taken while they're still so young. Any time we watch time ravage the mind and body of a parent. The sting that we feel any time we spend late nights and early mornings in emergency rooms, praying. Any time we spend months and years in the chemotherapy clinic or the Alzheimer's ward, praying. Any time that we are reminded how helpless we are and that hope is so far removed, no matter how much we pray. It's a sting that taunts us and reminds us that no matter how hard we pray and no matter how good our intentions are, evil does exist and Death still has a say in our world. We have been told by some who quote St. Paul that God works all things for good and that surely tragedy is just part of some greater, mysterious plan. But I wonder.

I wonder if, for the sake of our own comfort, we aren't trying to turn God into some sort of chess master who, through a series of cunning – even maniacal – moves arrives at a predetermined end point. Some unknown mystery that requires divine omniscience to understand.

Instead, in today's Gospel lesson, we see Christ not playing a game against Death but flipping over the board at the last moment. We don't see a chess match but a miracle – a divine in-breaking that suddenly defies the very laws of nature itself. Not some secret, but a visible and proclaimed enactment of the Will of God. We see a dramatic reversal. When it comes to the will of God, we don't hope for a calculated strategy played out piece by piece in secret, but a sudden, spectacular, startling shift.

Brothers and sisters, the solution to the Problem of Evil is not to deny that Death is evil or to claim that Death is a secret tool for Good, but to affirm the overwhelming goodness of the Resurrection. To hope for something that is so completely Good that it overpowers all evil. Something that wipes away all tears. We hope for nothing less than a loud voice to echo through the tombs and call us into new life.

We hope for dry bones to rise up in the desert. We hope for the Lord's voice, which called Lazarus out of the grave, to do the same for us. We hope not that Death is secretly a tool for good but that Death might be no more. We hope for empty tombs and a new, everlasting life.

More than that, we hope that the One who is the Resurrection and the Life will bring us into a restored creation. Even when Death seems to have won, we hope. Even when evil seems to triumph, we hope. Even when war, famine, and plague ravage the world, we hope. For a dramatic reversal. A sudden turn. A glorious surprise.

It is, after all, this belief in the power of the Resurrection that defines our faith. The entire season of Lent builds up to one climax, foreshadowed in the story of Lazarus: just when it seems like it is too late – when all is lost – something happens. Something so completely unexpected as to overturn the established order. It's no coincidence that St. John places this narrative just before Christ enters Jerusalem. Everything has been leading up to this point, and just when it seems like all has gone astray, the unexpected happens. The single most certain thing in life, Death itself, is defeated. In the story of Lazarus, we see the prototype of this defeat, and it gives us hope.

And so when we pray, “Deliver us from evil,” this is what we mean: There is a loud voice,and it will call us from Death into everlasting life. Amen.

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