Service of Light – July 11, 2021
Ezekiel 37:1-14 and John 11:17-45
I’ve said this before, but for many of us, it has been an extremely challenging pandemic with loss and change. And now, as things are opening back up for us, we are entering into a liminal space – living between what was, for the last 18 months, and what will be; and we aren’t sure what “will be” looks like. It’s important to acknowledge and recognize that some things will never be the same. Friends and family have died; Jobs may have been lost or put on hold, most all of them certainly changed or adapted in some way. Some people experienced isolation; some parents struggled with on-line schooling with their kids, while trying to navigate their own jobs from home. There has been racial awakening and political tension in our country. It’s been a very strange season of our lives.
So today is designed to help us mark this strange season, this pandemic that we haven’t fully moved out of yet. There are people still contracting Covid-19 across the world, but yet, we are taking off our masks and gathering again. We may have numbed our feelings just to get through the last year and a half, and if you’re like me, you may feel a little lost, trying to manage the transition.
Our scripture readings today, the valley of the dry bones and the raising of Lazarus are, for me, powerful stories of new life, of transformation and of great hope in the face of chaos and death.
Let’s look at Jesus’ presence in the Lazarus story. It is marked by waiting and weeping. We’ve certainly been waiting, and perhaps not patiently this last 18 months; so let’s think about patience. What would it look like to wait with patience? What would it look like to acknowledge the suffering and pain around us? To not deny reality. To not try to numb it.
There’s a story of an orphanage amid a warzone. The children have lost everything, are afraid, and have trouble going to sleep. One of the adults gets a loaf of bread and goes around tearing off a piece for each child saying: ‘Hold onto this. We fed you tonight. We will feed you tomorrow. Go to sleep.’ It is hard to go to sleep when we face all that we have lost, when we feel our fears and only see our suffering. Look back. What the ways you have been provided for? How has God met you? How have you received love and provision? Hold onto that. It’s like Abraham looking up at the stars each night, remembering God who kept coming, listening to his questions and groaning with compassion and continued promise.
Today we hear Jesus calling to Lazarus to “come out” of the tomb. Jan Richardson writes, “When we suffer an agonizing loss, something of us goes into the grave. As we wrestle with our grief, we will be visited by questions about what new life waits for us. We will find ourselves faced with a choice: will we gather the graveclothes more tightly around ourselves, or will we respond to the voice of Christ, who stands at the threshold and calls us to come out?
The choosing is not to be rushed. We need to give the weeping and wailing their due, the tears and the anger their place. It is only in reckoning with death—including the death that has taken place within us—that we can begin to discern what new life lies beyond the tomb of our heart.
Notice that Jesus does not go into the tomb to pull Lazarus out. He does not enter his realm to haul him to this side of living. Lazarus has to choose whether he will loose himself from the hold of the grave: its hold on him, his hold on it. Only when Lazarus takes a deep and deciding breath, rises, returns back across the boundary between the living and the dead: only then does Jesus say to the crowd, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Not until Lazarus makes his choice does the unwinding of the shroud begin, and the graveclothes fall away”.
And notice also that Jesus is not the one who unbound Lazarus. He asked the people around him to unbind him and let him go. So, what Jesus did was call the community to deal with the messy rags that bound death. The community was called to tend to the rags that kept others from living a resurrected life.
And notice also that Jesus wept. When Jesus weeps, he honors the complexity of our gains and losses, our sorrows and joys. Raising Lazarus would not bring back the past. It would not cancel out the pain of his final illness, the memory of saying goodbye to a life he loved, or the gaping absence his sisters felt when he died. We can’t numb the dark without also numbing the light. When we take the edge off things that are painful or hurt or are uncomfortable, we also take the spark out of what is good and exciting and joyful. Whatever joys awaited his family in the future would be layered joys, joys stripped of an earlier innocence. Joys shaped by the sorrows, fears, and losses they’d just endured. In Lazarus’s case, his future would be nothing like his past. Forever afterwards, he’d be known in his village as the ‘One Who Returned’. Perhaps that bizarre fact would make him a hero. Perhaps it would make him a pariah. Either way, life would be new and strange and scary. Jesus’s tears honor the reality of human change: he grieves because things will never be the same again.
Jan Richardson also writes: “I think a lot about mending, about repair, about the ways in which something that has been shattered—a heart, or a life—can become whole again. People in grief sometimes encounter (or carry in ourselves) a bias toward believing that making a life after a terrible loss means putting ourselves back together the way we were, with no visible trace of the rending that occurred.
As both an artist and as someone who’s engaged in the ongoing practice of my own repair, I am much more interested in forms of mending and restoration that leave evidence of what has gone before. Those breakages, fissures, shatterings that come to us: even as I wish they didn’t happen, I am learning how their lines and edges become part of a new path, a map, a work of art in progress, one that bears witness not only to what has befallen us but also to the imagination and wild grace by which our scars are becoming part of our wholeness”.
I love that, thank you, Jan. It reminds me of Kintsugi, which is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by mending the areas of breakage with a gold filling. As a philosophy, it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise. You embrace the flaws or imperfections.
On this day, as we keep company with Lazarus and hear the voice of Christ calling to us, what will we choose? What might we need to let go of, to loose ourselves from, so that we can move with freedom into the life to which Christ calls us?
Debi Thomas has written “In the story of Lazarus, it is shared lament that leads to transformation. It’s because Jesus experiences the devastation of death that he recognizes the immediate need to restore life. It is his shattering that leads to resurrection. Perhaps Jesus’s tears can provoke us in similar ways. What breaks our hearts? What splits us open in sorrow? What enrages us to the point of breakdown? Can we mobilize into those very spaces, even now as the coronavirus changes our world? Can we work for transformation in our places of devastation? Can our sorrow lead us to justice?
I hope that Jesus’s tears can keep us tender, open, humble, generous, and brave. I hope his honest expression of sorrow will give us the permission, the company, and the impetus we need, not only to do the work of grief and healing, but to move with powerful compassion into a world that sorely needs our empathy and our love. We serve a God who calls us to life. Our journey is not to the grave, but through it. The Lord who weeps is also the Lord who resurrects.
Some questions to take with you this week. In your daily living, what patterns are life-giving and help you notice the presence of God? Which habits keep you bound? What helps you hear the voice of Christ who stands at the threshold between death and life? What will help you choose to come forth, and to help someone else do the same? Are there people who can help with the unbinding?
May you find the presence of God in every detail of your life. Amen.