April 2, 2017

Lent5

Lent 5 - Year A

A Sermon Preached by The Rev Ian M Delinger

 

Let’s ask the question:  Did Lazarus want to be resurrected? Lazarus is clearly a good friend of Jesus. The shortest line in the Bible comes from this passage, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). So, Jesus is upset. Lazarus’ sisters are upset about the death of their brother. There is clearly a pastoral ministry being demonstrated by this story. It’s a pretty extreme way of demonstrating pastoral ministry! One that cannot be replicated in the ministry of the followers of Christ after His own Death and Resurrection. But it is a demonstration of pastoral ministry, indeed.

 

But did Lazarus want to be resurrected? Was it a good experience for him? For his sisters? For Jesus? His sisters didn’t want him to die. And certainly, mourning the loss of loves ones should not be dismissed or underestimated. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ, God-made-man is one thing. That conquering of death so that we might have life is central to our faith. But the raising to life of others has implications beyond what the Bible actually delves into.

 

The raising of Lazarus reminds me of a film when I was a freshman in college. Has anyone seen the film or read the Stephen King novel “Pet Sematary”? I don’t do horror films, right? But somehow or another, a friend of mine convinced me that the new film “Pet Sematary” wouldn’t be that bad. After all, Stephen King wrote the novella on which “Stand By Me” was based, and I enjoyed that as a teenager. AND there’s a cat on the movie poster, and I like cats. Well, if you’ve seen the film, you’ll understand why we had to roam the campus until midnight before I was able to go back to my room and attempt to sleep!

 

In “Pet Sematary”, the family cat gets run over. And the main character buries the cat in an ancient burial ground, and it comes back to life. While the family is initially delighted, this is NOT good news! Then, his son gets hit by a truck (they live on a busy road), and he buries his son in the same cemetery, and then…buries his wife…who gets killed by the resurrected son. Even though this is not going well for the main character, or his family, or his neighbor, he buries his wife in the cemetery. I’m not sure where the County Coroner and the regulations concerning the burial of bodily remains in the State of Maine are in this story, but their absence is clearly required in order for this morbid tale to be told. There is no full resolution to the film…just the cold, corpse-like hand of his wife grabbing his shoulder.

 

In order to keep our focus on the miracle that Jesus performs, the developers of the Revised Common Lectionary leave out John 12:9-11. As with other people healed by Jesus’ miracles, Lazarus becomes famous, and the authorities plot to kill him. We never find out if the Chief Priests fulfill their plot to kill Lazarus, but surely this had a profound impact on Lazarus’ life until his natural and second death. And what about the Dry Bones? Did they want to be brought back to life? This story is fraught with complications for what happened next!

 

I don’t want to appear humorously flippant – there are real issues that we need to consider when studying these stories. I know that these readings are to point us to the Resurrection of Jesus. It is the Resurrection that gives us the hope of Eternal Life, that death is not the end. But in our Gospel reading, Jesus didn’t let Lazarus die and enjoy what is on the other side! A much more powerful story would be fore Lazarus to tell his sisters what a Life in Christ Jesus, after death, is like.

 

The Church of England’s Funerals Working Group was tasked with finding ways to improve funerals ministry. One of those ways is to foster what Funerals Czar Sandra Millar terms “death-confident congregations”. To achieve that, we drew from the Dying Matters Movement. That consortium of death and palliative care organizations started what are called Death Cafés. The Church of England’s version of that is called GraveTalk. The purpose of GraveTalk is to gather people together in a café-style environment to talk about death and dying. There is a set of 52 cards which offer open-ended questions along 5 themes: Life, Death, society, Funerals and Grief. It’s for people of all ages, and it’s not a bereavement support group. Being death-confident starts with understanding how you feel about your own death. Here in the US, there is a similar movement called Death Over Dinner.

 

I led two groups of students in GraveTalk to emphasize how understanding one’s death isn’t just for old people. I got a lot of push back during that process. The Dean of Students didn’t want me to offer a GraveTalk session during the UK’s Death Matters Awareness Week because it was during finals, and talking about death will cause stressed students to commit suicide. In fact, and evidenced by empirical data, talking about death does not increase incidents of suicidal ideation, particularly in people who are not prone to suicidal ideation. Some students who I was trying to recruit told me that students wouldn’t talk about death because “it’s not for them”…like death was a trendy commercial product for old people.

 

The two groups of students who engaged in the conversation were fantastic! Not only did they engage in the exercise, they were truthful, honest, humorous, genuine…and this was all on film! If you want to see the videos produced, you can find them on my YouTube Channel.

 

What I found interesting was that the conversations about death put death “out there”. In the group of nursing students I managed to sneak a session with, under the radar of the Dean of Students (nursing students…she didn’t want me to talk about death with nursing students!!!), their contributions tended to be about a fictional older patient. I continually had to bring the conversation back to their own personal deaths. We got there eventually.

 

Somewhere along the historical timeline that leads to today, we Christians lost our confidence in the promise of Eternal Life. The general attitudes toward death today do not match our theology. As we move toward Easter and the Season of Easter, we become more aware of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, foreshadowed in today’s Old Testament and Gospel readings. That should be our confidence in living a life without the fear of death.

 

Mary and Martha are angry at Jesus for not being with them in order to prevent the death of their brother. And Jesus delayed His visit to Bethany. This story is to prove the Divine Power and Authority of the Man Jesus. But such acts do not come without consequences. Death in the Ancient Near East was not remote and sterilized like it is today. Death was frequent, and occurred among all age groups. This does not mean that people didn’t grieve the loss of their loved ones. Of course they did. But there were different attitudes toward death than we have now. The body would have been prepared for burial by the family or people who knew the deceased, just as we will hear about in the coming weeks when we focus on the Resurrection of Jesus. I would imagine that the average 1C Jew was death-confident. Jesus’ promise of Eternal Life gave the 1C Jew more confidence that there is

something beyond this material world. We should have that confidence, too.

 

When talking to people about the challenges of talking about death, dying and funerals, the response is always, “People don’t like talking about it. Death is a morbid topic.” My response would always be, “Yes, by definition, talking about death is morbid.”

 

Most people don’t like talking about death, dying and funerals. And most people haven’t given serious thought to their own death and funeral. These are truly topics you should have with your family so that they know what your wishes are. I know some of you have made arrangements to be laid to rest in the Memorial Garden. That’s a good start. But there are issues around resuscitation, life support, assisted suicide, and so much more. These don’t have to be depressing conversations. They can be a part of enjoying life because you don’t have to worry about death. Bring in the Christian theology, and you find yourself at the end of dinner enjoying life more because you don’t fear death.

 

So, let’s go back to the Gospel. In hindsight, did Lazarus want to be brought back to life? Was the rest of his post-resurrection life the collateral damage of the mission of the Son of Man? Lazarus isn’t a saint, but perhaps, since the remainder of his life was under threat, he should be.

 

Paul is very explicit about our need to be confident about our life in Christ after death:

 

If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through His Spirit that dwells in you.

 

Have faith that Jesus will resurrect you on the last day. But in the meantime, let the promise of Everlasting Life guide your days here on earth. God gave you life so that you might live it; God sent His Son so that you may not fear death. It’s in the Collect of the Day:

 

Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

© 2017 St. Stephen's Episcopal Church
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