The Rev. Canon Barbara T. Duncan, D.Min.
In the Name of God who calls us into being; Jesus the Christ who unbinds us from sin; and the Holy Spirit, the life-giving breath of God. Amen.
“Lazarus, come forth!” – three strong and powerful words calling Lazarus from the grave. A dead man rising to life! A person called by name. Those are empowering words of hope for all of us who live as people of the resurrection. To be called by name and raised from the dead are the promises of our Lord who said to Mary and Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” Why? Because “I am the resurrection and the life.”
As Christians, we hear and understand, “I am resurrection.” We have the biblical stories of those who encountered Jesus after his crucifixion and the resurrection. The celebration of the Easter story has hammered that home to us even though there are skeptics and people who would say otherwise. Sometimes we forget the second part of his proclamation, “I am life.”
Soon, Jesus would face his own death. Coming to the tomb of his friend Lazarus was obviously difficult. It was reported that, “Jesus wept.” It was natural that he would grieve the loss of his friend. He was not there at the death of Lazarus to say his own good-byes. There were Lazarus’ sisters and friends, filled with grief, hovering around each other for some measure of consolation. To further add to Jesus’ grief, was his own impending death on the cross. For it would only be the power of Almighty God that would call him from his grave and to life. It was to this power that now he appealed so that those who were there would understand what he was about to do.
“I am the resurrection and the life” were words that Martha both understood and believed. She knew and accepted the promise of life after the physical death of the human body. What was it that gave her hope in Jesus bringing Lazarus to life again? After all, Lazarus had been in his grave four days: the body organs had given out. The stench of body decay unbearable. How was it that with such a metamorphosis of the physical body, there was hope of a resurrection? Yet, this is what Jesus was offering Martha, Mary, the gathered friends and acquaintances, and to us. Who among us has not stood by the graveside of a loved one, or watched the horror of people around the world being killed by the hundreds for no reason other than living, buried in mass graves, or watched the terminally ill full of pain and suffering and not questioned God’s presence? Ask most people at these times if God is present, their response is an unqualified “no.”
Death is inevitable for each of us. It is not biased towards age, race or gender. We know not the day or hour that it will come. Intellectually, we know this, but the heart and spirit seem to have a more difficult time accepting it. When the death of family or friends touch our lives we grieve as did Jesus and his friends some people longer than others. Sometimes we even want to accept some responsibility with the self-blaming words, “if only.”
“If only” I had taken her to the doctor
“If only” I had said ‘no’ to borrowing the car
“If only” I had arrived earlier
In a climate that says we must have it all together, we find that with death, we don’t. We have no control over death. That’s part of our fear. It brings hopelessness and despair. That is why we use every avenue available to us to delay it. The healing profession has sometimes bought time. There have been many medical advances in recent years the AZT cocktail for people with AIDS; medicines to help those at risk of heart attacks; transplants of organs to replace those that no longer function and many, many others. Sooner or later they cease functioning. They are not cures but they buy us time. The reality is that death still comes it comes to everyone.
We all want more time because of our uncertainty of what lies beyond this life and if God is really going to be there. The late Bishop Quintin Primo, who was ill for many years, shared in one of his lighter moments that he knew that heaven was his home, but that he wasn’t homesick yet.
Most of us are not yet “homesick.” Yet, the resurrection of Jesus is our only hint of what we can expect.
In a book about her husband, Catherine Marshall cites a touching story of a young terminally ill son asking his mother what death was like, if it hurt.
“Kenneth,” she said, ” you remember when you were a tiny boy how you used to play so hard all day that when night came you would be too tired to even undress, and you would tumble into mother’s bed and fall asleep?
That was not your bed, it was not where you belonged.
And you would stay there a little while. In the morning, much to your surprise, you would wake up and find yourself in your own bed in your own room
You were there because someone had loved you and taken care of you.
Your father had come- with big strong arms- and carried you away.
Kenneth, death is just like that.
We wake up some morning to find ourselves in the other room – our own room where we belong because the Lord Jesus loved us”.
The child’s shining face looked at his mother’s and told her that he understood. He never questioned again. Several weeks later, he fell asleep just as his mother had said. The power of death did not destroy his mother though she grieved the loss of her son.
Ezekiel faced this same sense of loss and despair after the fall of Jerusalem. He had been living in exile and trying to persuade Israel to obey and trust God and not the passing things of this world. He was dealing with a people of deep spiritual poverty. And so it was that the Lord brought him into the valley full of bones – a bleak place of the human spirit. There was no smell, no breath, no movement, bones bleached of all color and the ravages of lost hope. When God questioned Ezekiel about those bones living again, Ezekiel acknowledged that the power belonged to God to turn the situation around.
God then sent Ezekiel to prophesy to the people of Israel of the spiritual resurrection that they were going to receive. These dried up, parched bones would be called forth. God’ spirit would live once again in them and they would be placed in their own land. God said it God did it! God was and is in charge and at work.
God does love each one of us. He calls us again and again to faithfulness and obedience. Lest we become dried up as the people of Israel, It serves us well to remember the Ten Commandments. They are the Laws of God to guide us through this earthly life in harmony with God and each other. They give us that life that Jesus offers here and now. We do not have hard decisions to make if we have internalized God’s laws and the life and teachings of Jesus. Our baptismal Covenant provides the roadmap for Christians who are exiled into a culture of me first. The culture reflects manipulation of others for power, stepping on another’s neck so that we can rise to the top first, seeing others as inferior to ourselves rather than seeking Christ in everyone. Ezekiel reminds us to be vigilant of who we are and whose we are to avoid drying up spiritually.
Our lives are as one of the symbols of the Easter season the lovely, fragile butterfly which alights from flower to flower taking the best of the nectar and pollinating other flowers. It is one of nature’s ways of assuring that life will come forth anew. Like the butterfly in the cocoon, God tells us that we were known while we were yet in the womb. Like the beautiful monarch, we too have come forth to a life filled with hope and promise. Jesus offers us that. Jesus offers us joy and inner peace. We are called to share this life-giving News to those who have no hope whose spiritual bones have dried up. The glorious season of our lives, here and now, will pass. We will pass on to see the “glory of God.”
At the time of death, the processional anthem borrows these words of Christ, “I am resurrection and I am the life. He who believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.” Jesus walks into the very face of death and commands us to come forth.
The Church will begin next Sunday on its journey with Christ towards Calvary. We will share in the agony of the cross, and on Easter Sunday, share in the joy of the Resurrection. We need not fear death of this body. God is in charge and at work. Because Jesus lives, we will live also. That is our hope that is God’s promise.