Monday, November 2, 2009

Raising Lazarus: The Baptismal Call

Scripture appointed for All Saints Day include Wisdom 3:1-9, Revelation 21:1-6a, and John 11:32-44.

What a Gospel to hear on a day of baptism! Let’s not be hasty judging how good a fit it is; let’s suspend judgment, and consider.

It is said that there was no more dangerous man, in the eyes of Jesus’s adversaries, than Lazarus. He was a walking advertisement of the power of God that is in Jesus Christ. Legend has it that he was later assassinated by the same defenders of the status quo who arranged the death of Jesus. A happier outcome is claimed by the Eastern Orthodox, who say that Lazarus traveled to Cyprus and became a bishop there, where you can visit his tomb. His second tomb.

And in the Eastern church, Lazarus has a remarkable place of honor in that each year the day before Palm Sunday is known as Lazarus Saturday. Scripture and hymns on that day focus on the resurrection of Lazarus as a foreshadowing of the resurrection of Christ and a promise of the general resurrection. It may be just hours away from the start of Holy Week’s solemnities, but on Lazarus Saturday the church sings hymns of resurrection.

The Church of England remembers the raising of Lazarus each year on July 29th. On that same day the American church observes the feast day of his sisters, Mary and Martha of Bethany, but not Lazarus. Go figure.

What is the value of his story? What do you make of it? Why the early Christians kept telling his story is clear, as the Eastern church tells us: his resurrection is one of the earliest signs of the breaking-in of the kingdom of God, the reordering of creation to better express the mind of the Creator, the making-new of all things, the turning of the status quo onto its head, the first installment of all that is to come.

But if your rational mind struggles with the bottom line of this story, let the other side of your brain appreciate two things that are going on here.

One is how, within a story of only a dozen verses, the full humanity of Jesus and the unfiltered power of God reside in the one person of Jesus like yin and yan, proclaiming the whole story of who Jesus is: in anguish over his friend Lazarus, Jesus weeps, and, the tears still dropping, he demonstrates pure faith, claims the Creator’s indwelling to fill the void, orders the stone to be moved, and calls Lazarus into new life. Consider how this story is graphic theology, declaring who Jesus Christ is, very God and very human, no resurrection without those tears.

And consider how this graveside story announces good news. No one stands by the grave of someone beloved without experiencing an upheaval within, a reversal of those controllings we practice to live our lives. Lazarus’s story is trying to tell us that if we stand in Christ, nothing, not even death, can silence the call of God, or stand in the way of our answering that call.

When exposed to the power of God that is in Jesus Christ, nothing in this life can long separate us from God or from becoming the people God gives us to be. Neither anxiety nor alienation, not a fear of death nor a fear of life, puts us beyond the reach of God’s call to us, or beyond the freedom to respond.

As Paul sings in one of his letters, nothing shall separate us from the love of God that we find, and that finds us, in Jesus Christ our Lord. It’s essential to remember that such words of faith did not come from times of armchair preaching and easy listening. They came out of the cauldron of wrenching change and the upheaval of the old order. Times of reversal, hard times, send us into premature tombs where we get all wrapped up in our burial shrouds, and right there on the thresholds of our tombs, the Christ calls us out, each by name.

The Shona people of Zimbabwe have many names for God. One is Chipindikure, “the One who turns things upside down.” It comes from the word kupinduka, “to be uprooted.” God is present in and above the unwanted and unplanned changes that happen to us throughout our lives, calls us to come out into new life, calls us to be open to what is truly happening in us, and to cooperate with the constant grace that God is giving us in Jesus Christ.

A good Gospel for a day of baptism. A day when the church celebrates all the saints, all the Lazaruses and Marys and Marthas who through their own struggles, in their own experience, have come to know and love and serve God in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit.

The greatest of our windows, the rose window, the background for every baptism here, attempts to show the communion of saints. In eight radiating petals, 24 of the innumerable just men and women made complete are shown. St. Elizabeth of Hungary is there, St. Benedict of Nursia, St. Joan of Arc…can you imagine serving on the committee that decided who’d be in that window? And we know who 23 of them are, but not who the 24th is.

Is it Saint Sebastian? Saint Julia? Saint Constance?

How can I not end with their stories?

Constance, Mother Superior of the Sisters of St. Mary in Memphis, Tennessee, led her sisters in organizing relief during the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1878. Thirty thousand residents fled the city in terror, leaving twenty thousand to face the illness. From Boston came Sister Clare of St. Margaret’s House, from Hoboken New Jersey came a parish priest, both volunteers to work with Constance and a second parish priest (this one from Grace and St. Lazarus Church, Memphis) and three physicians and several volunteer nurses from New York, turning the Episcopal cathedral into a makeshift hospital. Most of that team, including Constance, would be among the victims. The collect for her day, September 9, says that she and her companions “loved not their own lives, even unto death…”

Julia Chester Emery, missionary, remembered in the church’s calendar on January 9, was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts, in 1852. At the age of 24, she took charge of the Episcopal Church’s national Woman’s Auxiliary of the Board of Missions, and served her entire 40-year career in that role, helping the church recognize its call to proclaim the Gospel both at home and overseas. Visiting every diocese and missionary district within the United States and traveling around the world, even to remote areas of China, Japan, and the Philippines, she developed networks of women sharing a vision and commitment to mission, education, and leadership. Creation of the United Thank Offering is among Julia’s legacy to the 20th and 21st centuries.

Sebastian, 3rd-century Roman soldier from what is now Provence, appointed as a captain of the Praetorian Guard under the emperor Diocletian, who had an infamous appetite for persecuting Christians. Discovering he had one in his own Praetorian Guard, Diocletian ordered Sebastian to be tied to a stake and shot with arrows. I guess it didn’t help his case that the imperial jailer, whom Sebastian had introduced to Jesus Christ, released all his prisoners when he accepted the Lordship of Christ. You can’t run an empire that way—but, given the likely injustices inside imperial jails, that was a perfect way for the Kingdom of God to break in.

And the legend says that though he was left for dead, the saint’s body was claimed by a Christian widow named Irene, whose husband had been brought to faith through Sebastian. She found that the arrows had not killed him. She is said to have nursed him back to life. Rather than go underground and keep a low profile, Sebastian, when he heard that Diocletian was to pass by in the street, went to the doorstep and, in a valedictory last hurrah, loudly berated the emperor when he passed by. That story has a rather tough ending, giving Sebastian the distinction of having been martyred twice.

All the saints followed one whom they and we call the Prince of Peace, but the peace they knew was the tensile strength and precious integrity of gold tried in the furnace of life. They were tested, and they shone forth, their courage and compassion running like sparks through stubble, creating a brilliant path.

While we want for our Constance and Julia and Sebastian the brilliance without the brutality, we go deeper and want for them the Christ who will always know just when and how to call them out into new life, who will save them from self-preoccupation and free them to answer the call of God to become precisely the people God gives them to be.