From the Archives of Fr. Metzler’s Homilies: 5th Sunday of Lent, Cycle A

Raised Up, the Breath of Hope

Ezekiel 37:12-14   Romans 8:8-11   John 11:3-45

We are so near to Jerusalem. To Jerusalem, and Calvary, and the cross. In fact, today’s gospel story told at the tomb of Lazarus says we are “two miles away,” in this place of death and mourning, at the grave and with those who gather nearby, troubled in spirit: the family and friends of Lazarus, including Jesus. And we are, in church time, only two weeks away from the empty tomb. How fitting, then – and how challenging – to read this Gospel of the raising of Lazarus, set firmly within, even entangled with all the hope and confusion and the controversy that swirl around Jesus as we approach this Holy Week to come.

But first, there is his own grief over the death of his friend. In this story, there is so much of the human experience of loss: receiving word of a loved one’s illness and need; decision-making and complications to be considered; frustrations, questioning, and lack of understanding on the part of those closest to us; grief and mourning by loved ones and the community encircling them. Our swirling thoughts of ‘what might have been’; courage, anger, and weeping; and finally the loss, the death; the trust of Mary and Martha, even in the face of physical reality. We do not hear a single word from Lazarus or know of his response to his extraordinary experience. We see only release, glory, and Jesus’ own gratitude to God.

We hear the words of Jesus, “Unbind him, and let him go. We are all held back in one way or another and bound by the old habits that the fear of dying has taught us so well,  How many of us have known the feel of those strips of cloth, the grave’s apparel, that wraps us up in a leaden existence and makes us long for release, for the light of day and the feel of fresh air in our lungs? What are the ‘strips of cloth’ that bind us, the addictions and fears, and the feelings of hopelessness and loss? Perhaps grief, anxiety, financial troubles, hatred, resentment, or a lack of faith has put us in our own tomb of despair.

Jesus stood outside that tomb and called out, “Lazarus, come out!” God is still speaking to us today, calling us out from our tombs of despair, denial, and death to new life, right now, right here. What are those tombs for you and I? What is the tomb for our parish community? In what ways  are you part of the unbinding, when God is trying to release the bonds, when God is trying to bring new life in the face of death? How are you ‘unbinding’ and ‘letting go’ those who have been put into such places of death?

In a world where the dead have returned to life, the word ‘trouble’ loses much of its meaning. Perhaps there are some in our congregation today, standing around and watching, formulating their judgments and deciding what they’ll believe and how much they’ll believe it, or maybe they’re moving to the center of what’s happening, pulling back the ‘stuff’ of death, the things that surround death, and releasing the new life that God has granted, the new life that lies just beneath the surface of what appears bleak and beyond hope. Perhaps there are some among us who are calculating the costs and the possible unpleasantness of giving ourselves over to the power of God, even, ironically, to healing and new life.

Martha’s great profession of faith is also an powerful moment in this beautiful and complex story. How do we move from just saying what we believe to giving our selves and our lives over to transformation and the new life that God brings? How often, in fact, we do say we believe but live as if we do not? Where does our religious imagination fail us, stop, refuse to move to places of new life and possibility? What does the world tell us about “real life” and how does that contrast with a gospel vision of being truly alive? What do we think we need to do in order to achieve or accomplish new life, as if it were our doing, and not God’s?

It is not easy to convey a sense of wonder, let alone resurrection wonder, to another. It’s the very nature of wonder to catch us off guard, to circumvent expectations and assumptions. Wonder can’t be packaged, and it can’t be worked up. It requires some sense of being there and some sense of engagement.

How and when have we been Lazarus in this story? Perhaps just as important: how and when have we been part of the crowd, which moves around in the background, trying to figure out what’s going on, drawing conclusions, not wanting to miss anything, helping to release the dead man…and then going back to our lives, transformed, believing, experiencing new life – or being critical, suspicious, cynical?

If you live in the dark a long time and the sun comes out, you do not cross into it whistling. There’s an initial up-rush of relief at first, then–for me, anyway–a profound dislocation. My old assumptions about how the world works are buried, yet my new ones aren’t yet operational.

There’s been a death of sorts, but without a few days in hell, no resurrection is possible. Where do you stand? Oblivious to death? In that initial numbness of denial? In the Hell of awaiting and facing it?

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