Sermon for Lent 5
The Rev. Steven Paulikas
March 29, 2020
All Saints’ Church
At this point, most of us have been stuck in our homes for almost two weeks. We are watching and waiting with caution and fear as this disease continues to sweep across the country and the world. Our city has been transformed into a ghost town as hospitals are crowded with the sick. If you’re like me, you wake up every morning and have a moment before you realize with a sinking feeling what is going on.
There is a particular cruelty to the way in which we are isolated at a time when we most need one another. In an unsettling time like this, I would look to the love and support of our church community in person for spiritual sustenance. Instead, Fr. Spencer and I are looking out over an empty church this morning, and it’s hard not to become dispirited. It feels like we are all trapped in our individual cells, deprived of the comforts we would usually turn to in a time of trouble.
For me, among the challenges and tragedies of this time, there is also a spiritual clarity emerging. I’m hearing prayers and reading Scripture and seeing new things. Hearing todays’ passage from the Gospel of John is just one of those moments. We traditionally hear the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead late in the Lenten season as we approach Easter. I had always heard the raising of Lazarus as a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own resurrection. This text was meant to prepare us for our feast in two weeks.
But this year, there truly is no need for the timetable of the calendar. We are living in the reality of this story right now. Each and every one of us is a figure in this Gospel passage today. Maybe you feel like the disciples as they watched Jesus wander about. It seems like they were always a few steps behind the game, as if life were happening faster than they could comprehend it. Or maybe you are like friends of Mary and Martha, who came and consoled them at the death of their brother. Rarely in recent memory have I received so many calls, texts, and emails from friends and family checking up on me. Or maybe you feel like Mary. Once Jesus arrived at her home, she was simply too exhausted even to go out and meet him. But she didn’t need to, because her sister Martha had plenty of energy, which she used to confront Jesus. Maybe you feel like her right now—energized with anger at the absurdity of this situation. When Jesus comes to her, Martha doesn’t mince words, stating the obvious: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” There is plenty of need right now for some holy indignation at those who should have been there for us when they had the chance.
But in reality, the one the world as a whole most resembles right now is Lazarus. His sickness came out of nowhere and was unexpected. There was a very small window of time in which he could have been healed, but that window closed shut. By the time Jesus arrived in Bethany, Lazarus was lying alone in a makeshift tomb, wrapped in bands of cloth.
Right now, the world has been placed in a state of suspended animation. We have all been sent to our individual cells and told not to come out. It feels confining, disturbing. It can feel a little bit like we are trapped. And for those who are sick and suffering, the confinement is, of course, even greater. This virus is such that those afflicted with it must contend with their sickness alone, in quarantine, for fear of infecting others. I think that we all have a taste for what it must feel like to be Lazarus right now.
This is what I mean when I say it feels like we are living inside the Gospel right now. Or maybe it feels like the Gospel is living inside us. The story of Lazarus expresses the grief, the uncertainty, the fear, the frustrated expectation of our current situation.
The Gospel is alive at all times. But at times like this, we can see it living and moving in new and different ways. The Good News for us this morning is that Lazarus’ story does not end in the tomb. Against all expectations and to the astonishment of all, Jesus raises his friend from the dead and releases him from his confinement. At Jesus’ command, fear and sorrow and even death are banished, and Lazarus steps out into a new world, filled with the life that God has given him.
Friends, this day will come for us too. I believe Jesus truly did raise Lazarus from the tomb. If I believe that, then I must also believe that he will throw open the doors of our current confinement. This is a time for faith—not blind or misguided faith placed in the powers and principalities of this world, but faith in the God of life, who comforts us in time of need and holds before us the promise of a liberated world.
There have been times in the past few weeks when I’ve felt like each and every one of the people in the Lazarus story. I have been confused like the disciples. I’ve been pastoral like the villagers. I’ve been exhausted like Mary and I’ve been angry like Martha. But like all things in the upside down world of the Gospel, it has been when I’ve felt like Lazarus that I have felt God’s presence most with me.
Christians believe we must die to ourselves in order to be resurrected in God’s likeness. This is not a one-time deal, but rather a continuous event that stretches a lifetime. In order to show us the way, Jesus himself died on a cross. But on the third day, his own tomb was discovered empty. For us, the sorrow of today never has the last word. Even out of the depths, we cry with the Psalmist out to God, who hears our prayer and promises the life of the resurrection.
God never promises that we will be spared the depths. God never promises we will be spared the confinement of the current day. What God promises is far greater than this—a new life on the other side of this one.
In the moments when it is possible to contemplate the future, it is become more obvious with each passing day that the world will not be the same after this crisis is over. Once we finally do emerge from our confinement, we will be stepping out into a brave new time. History is accelerating right now so that what would normally take years to unfold is happening in the matter of weeks. Right now, we will support the sick and the healers and lift up those who are losing their jobs. We will comfort one another in our isolation and keep vigil for the future. But we will never lose sight of the future God has prepared for us. And when it comes, we will be ready—ready to step out into the resurrection light, to the honor and glory of God.
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