The Rev. Melanie L. McCarley
My last church held a weekly Bible Study. Among the participants was Ethlyn McDonald, who would arrive each week dressed neatly in her pearls and cardigan. Ethlyn was exacting, not only in dress, but also in life and words. Words mattered to Ethlyn, and more often than not she would focus on the meaning and use of particular words in the Scriptures. One which mattered deeply to her was the word “die”. I remember her saying to me “Do not say I “passed away”, “was called back to God”, “left this life” or was “called home.” You say “I died. If I didn’t die, if I’m not dead, I can’t be resurrected. Call it like it is. When I die, you tell everyone that I’m dead.”
This has stuck with me all these years--the importance of speaking clearly about the reality of death. As a society, we aren’t comfortable talking about death--more often than not, the service of the “Burial of the Dead” as listed in The Book of Common Prayer is amended to “A Celebration of Life”. Frequently I hear people say: “I don’t want people to be sad at my funeral.” I’ve heard of funerals with BBQ’s, parties and balloons--and I find myself wondering if perhaps this is not a bit of denial.
Compare this to the Gospel story today, known to us as the “Raising of Lazarus”. The brother of Martha and Mary, Lazarus was a friend of Jesus. He becomes ill and dies before the Messiah can arrive to heal him. By the time Jesus makes his way to the village of Bethany, Lazarus has been in the tomb four days. He’s met first by Martha and then by Mary, both of whom say (I suspect, with something of a hint of accusation) “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus goes to the tomb, and here we come to one of the most fascinating moments in the Gospel. Jesus stands before the tomb of his friend and weeps.
This has caused more than one person to wonder why--if Jesus knew that soon everyone would receive the promise of the resurrection and the hope of eternal life--why would he now break down in tears? Why not rejoice and proclaim--soon, Lazarus will be with me in Heaven? Instead, he cries.
The best explanation I’ve heard of this is that Jesus cries because he realizes the reality of death--the enormity of suffering, pain, loss and grief. Jesus, here, stands with us in our loss. Jesus knows that Death is the greatest of all the “principalities and powers” that we face. St. Paul called Death our greatest enemy. In this, he got it right. Jesus wept because he stands with us in our loss. The Son of God is not in the business of sugar-coating grief.
Dan Clendenon, observes that oftentimes it’s the agnostics and atheists among us who realize, with perhaps more clarity than ourselves, the appalling nature of death. Atheist turned agnostic, Julian Barnes explored his grief in his book Levels of Life when his wife of thirty years died--thirty-seven days from diagnosis to death. Barnes recollects that there seem to be two lessons. First, when you put two people together and one is taken away, “what is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there. This might not be mathematically possible, but it’s emotionally possible.” And second, the grief we bear is proportionate to the love we shared. A friend wrote to Barnes after his wife’s death, “The thing is--nature is so exact, it hurts exactly as much as it is worth, so in a way one relishes the pain. If it didn’t matter, it wouldn’t matter.”
Then there is Christopher Hitchens who in his book Mortality is brutally honest about what it feels like to die, writing of feelings of impotence, oppression, resignation, unbearable physical pain, humiliation and vulnerability. He calls the bluff of the cliché that “whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” That’s a dangerous and pretentious illusion, he says. He meditates on the poetry of TS Eliot: “I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,/ And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker;/ And I am afraid.”*
This is what brings us back to Jesus, standing before the tomb of Lazarus. Martha (ever to the point) says: “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.” If you’re a King James aficionado, it says quite simply “He stinketh.”
And here he reminds Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they take away the stone. And Jesus cries with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man comes out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth and Jesus says to those standing there, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
During this season of Lent, we give death its due. We face its horrors head on. But bear this in mind--in our Christian vocabulary, death does not speak the final word--death does not have the last say. And this is the point of the raising of Lazarus. Ultimately, this miracle is a statement that God is more powerful than death. Lazarus, it should be noted, was not resurrected--he was resuscitated. He would die again. Resurrection, Eternal Life, we believe, is the final word of God.
Ethlyn McDonald, believed words mattered--they were statements of faith. Well into her nineties, Ethlyn was working in her son’s business. One day she caught pneumonia. I remember rushing to the hospital ER. Looking at her, I held her hand to say a prayer and Ethlyn, still wearing her pearls, looked into my eyes and said to me. “I love you.” It was the last thing she ever said to me.
Ethlyn would be the first to tell you that the road to Easter runs through a cemetery. If you want to experience the astounding hope and grace of Easter, you’re only going to get there by traveling through Good Friday. There is no other road.
Beyond all else, today’s story is one which is anchored in God’s love--a love which has the power to conquer death. Today’s lesson ends with the words “Many…who … had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.” But, if you read on, immediately following this is “But some of them went to the pharisees and told them what he had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do…”. Which leads directly to the plot to kill Jesus. This lesson takes us by the hand ushering us to Holy Week--when we shall experience, perhaps more deeply than any other time, not only the reality of death--but the grand immensity of God’s love as well. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
*“Remembering Death, Confessing Life Jesus Raises Lazarus” Dan Clendenon, April 6, 2014