Unbound and Set Free

Lent is almost over. We have walked the journey toward the cross this year with a Sunday-by-Sunday tour of the Gospel according to John. We have heard inspirational stories of how Jesus’ ministry revealed who he was and shed light on the glory of God. We have listened in as those who encountered Jesus came to believe that he is the Messiah, the Son of God, the resurrection and the life.

Jesus’ followers and reputation grew as he journeyed to the cross. His coming into the world had created Samaritan believers, blind believers, Judean believers, and even elite believers. But the tension was mounting between Jesus and his enemies. Those closest to him, those scattered believers along the way must have been asking if Jesus was so radical that he would be put to death? And given his teachings and actions, would he be raised? The gospel story today raises these questions with a heightened sense of urgency.

Death and resurrection are the themes that permeate more than the gospel this day as we heard about images of forgiveness and redemption certified by resurrection and new life.

  • Ezekiel is both witness and participant of the restoration of a long dead Israel as God prepares for the return to the Promised Land.
  • The Psalmist waits and sings for The Lord to redeem him and all those who wait in pain, Israel, you and me… for the forgiveness and redemption of the Lord.
  • But today, we wait in hope because we have been given the gift of the Spirit and examples of the past in our book of faith that assures us God keeps God’s promises.

The Gospel readings from John this Lent direct us on our journey to the biggest promise of all. Today’s story about Lazarus echoes and expands on the story of the Samaritan woman at the well. For her, the challenge was seeing Jesus as the source of living water as compared to ordinary water. For Mary and Martha, the challenge is to see Jesus as the source of living life as compared to ordinary life. For you and I, the challenge is to step out of the busyness of our lives, to pause, take a breath, listen and look at these stories and where else God is present in our journey this Lent.

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Mary, Martha and Lazarus had known the abundant love of God through their friendship with Jesus. But abundance turned to scarcity when Jesus was not there in their time of need. They felt scared and alone as their brother lay dying and Jesus delayed his return. But their feelings of abandonment were replaced with joy when Jesus returned and called Lazarus from the tomb. But joy that is disconnected from what happens to us in daily life is hollow joy. Because it is when we are honest with ourselves (and God) about the hurts and fears we have, that we can truly experience God with us. All of us have all dealt with the loss of a loved one and we will all experience times of despair and sorrow. But being honest about these feelings with ourselves (and God) opens us to the wonderful news of Easter.

This honesty is important because we cannot bind-up and bury these feelings, or hide them behind a mask. These actions or ignoring our grief and pain are disconnected to who we are and whose we are. In today’s story of Lazarus, we get a preview of Easter, a look at whose we are, and the promise of resurrection. The story reminds us that no matter what happens to us, God is with us always, loves us no matter what, and gives us life when we are dead. 

Our journey to Easter has taken us today, and will continue on a path to and through a cemetery. It is not a path that avoids the realities of life, no matter how painful, but rather strengthens and sustains us to deal with the realities of life as we journey together.

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Lent is a time of preparation for Easter, but we can never know the full impact of the resurrection unless we are honest about the times in our lives when we struggle without hope. Days we struggle to see the path ahead, feel abandoned by God, and think that maybe we just can’t go on. My father-in-law Stan died a year ago on Maundy Thursday, a distracted Lenten journey for those who loved him and a Holy Week that I will never forget.  

For our family the sting of death was and still is sharp. The anguish felt by Mary and Martha and their haunting words have been on our hearts as well…

  • God how could you?
  • Why did you allow our loved one to die?
  • You God could have prevented this death and our beloved would still be with us.

And the question, I mean the BIG question cries out:

  • Why do bad things happen to good people?  And we lament about gut wrenching grief visiting the homes of God’s faithful.

Of course people throughout time have wrestled with these questions… the bold and brave speaking the words, the timid and terrified keeping them locked-up in broken hearts. The result of this questioning is never satisfying as death does its work creating doubt. Death is like rain, which scripture says falls on the just and the jerks, the terrorized and the terrorist, the saint and the sinner. No answer can answer the question “why” satisfactorily, no one can prevent the pain and anguish experienced at the death of a loved one.

No one it seems… even Jesus. But Jesus, God with us, in the flesh who walked and experienced our shared human existence, cries. The fact that Jesus wept after Lazarus died is for me a greater indication of God’s love and grace than any of the words he spoke to Mary and Martha about eternal life. For me it’s because of a experiencing a death in Holy Week, one that stopped at Good Friday, where for days pain and suffering hung in the dark air and the light of the resurrection was clouded out.

A death in Holy Week numbed me to the liturgical calendar, to what I believed, and to any theological understanding about Easter. Last year our walk toward the cross stopped in the valley and the shadow of death seemed like it would never go away. Our Easter experience was dulled, we went through the motions but the hymns rang falsely, the flowers were funeral arrangements and not bouquets of life springing forth.

The very real pain of death is not something we can question away, for there are no answers…

  • It is not something that we can take something for, although many are drawn to the distraction and fleeting satisfaction found in drugs or alcohol.
  • It is not something that one can hide, or run from, although many do disconnect, get wrapped-up in themselves and retreat in tomb-like ways.

Last week we drove to Massachusetts for an anniversary Mass said for my father-in-law. As we drove into town, Kay asked if I wanted to stop at the cemetery that we would drive by. Neither of us had seen the tombstone since it had been installed and so we stopped.

Now my mother-in-law has for years taken care of the various family plots in several cemeteries, planting flowers and making sure that they are well maintained. As we looked at the plot admiring the dark green granite, we noticed a Christmas kissing ball hanging on a wrought iron shepherds hook. The evergreens had turned brown and the red and gold decorations seemed very out of place for April.

It was obvious that she had not been to the cemetery in some time. Because she had visited the cemetery daily in the past, the scene at that cemetery was an indication that she had unbound some, even if just a little of her grief, let go of her beloved Stan, even if just a little in light of the promise of the resurrection.

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Death points to the promise of resurrection, and eventually in spite of our grief, we will find comfort and hope again in that promise. The good news of resurrection sounds hollow if the pain of loss is not hallowed. It takes time, holy time, different for each person, but God is there, sharing time, grief, and tears.

Death, for all of its sting does not have the final say. Jesus calls us out of the tombs of our daily lives, and through the waters of baptism puts our sins to death, frees us from everything that binds, and gives us new life for tomorrow and for all time. Having Jesus at our tombs also means that we must follow him to his, a reminder that the path to Easter goes to and through a cemetery. Amen.

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