Saturday, April 12, 2014

Raising Lazarus

Scripture for the 5th Sunday in Lent includes Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45

Monday, I noticed a little clump of snowdrops blooming, at the base of the maple in our front yard.

Tuesday, I saw several white fists hugging the earth at the center of the Christmas rose in our front garden. By Wednesday, these buds were opening, persuaded apparently that the sun was to be trusted. I guess hellebores don’t mind the calendar too precisely (but, to give it all the credit it’s due, Diana reminds me that it did bloom at Christmas).

Meanwhile, out back, the Lenten rose hellebore has set its pink buds, but they’re so tight that they a week or so to catch up with the season. I know that feeling.

Wednesday, the first crocuses bloomed in that south-facing garden, just a handful.

Thursday, the purple, gold, and white had spread, and those crocuses were feeding the first phalanx of bees. Now, that was the crowning proof that winter has released its grip. What a surprise, and what a pleasure, to see those bees.

A lot can happen in four days. When Jesus arrived in Bethany, his old friend Lazarus had lain in his tomb that long. St. John’s purpose in that detail-- four days-- seems to convey the conventional expectation that a body would be in rapid decay by then. Such is the arithmetic when the mind is set on the flesh.

I would much prefer to set my mind on the front garden, to see what four days can accomplish. There’s grassroots training in the mathematics of resurrection, encouraging us to rehearse for Holy Week, when three or four great days will persuade us that death has released its grip on life.

It’s right in keeping with Jesus Christ that right from the start of this great Lazarus story
St. John tells, Jesus seems persuaded that death will not get the final say. Mary and Martha, sisters of Lazarus, had sent messengers to Jesus, urging his quick return to do something about this pending loss that would leave them bereft—and would grieve Jesus too, for everyone knew that these two men were close friends.

But Jesus does not react. He stays two days longer where he and the disciples have been on a mission that exposed them to an angry crowd ready to stone Jesus for blasphemy. Most of us would have jumped to the opportunity to escape such danger—who would blame him for backing down, when a good friend is at the point of death?

But it’s in keeping with Jesus that he’s persuaded that death will not have the final say over him. He stays until his work is done. Then, as he sets out for Bethany where the home of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary had been his frequent sanctuary of shelter and renewal and rest, he announces, “Lazarus is dead; let us go to him,” as if those two clauses weren’t at all as contradictory as they sound to us.

From John the Gospel writer, John our patron saint, here is another long story in our Lenten cavalcade of long Gospels in which Jesus goes one-on-one, with increasingly wondrous results.

First was the Samaritan woman he met at the well, overturning ancient cultural prohibitions that were meant to keep men and women separate, unequal, alienated. But his mission is to work the works of God, and with her he manifested a reconciling love that made her an apostle to the people of Samaria.

Last Sunday, Jesus encountered the man born blind. With him, our Lord’s mission is to work the works of God by both restoring his sight and by dismantling a nasty theology that blamed the sinner for his own suffering, and blamed God for running a universe based on getting even.

Today, the next step in the ladder rising toward his own passion, his own death and resurrection, we hear this rehearsal for Easter, Jesus betting the store on his trust that death will not have the final say.

There is much to appreciate in this gritty story. Martha, known for her embrace of the active life, for her conviction that acts of generous care can keep death at bay at least a while, it’s Martha who runs to meet Jesus on the road and scolds him for being too late to prevent her brother’s death—but if he will hurry and bombard heaven with his prayer, who knows what will happen?

“Your brother will rise again,” Jesus declare to her. “I think I know what you mean,” replies Martha, “At the last, when all is said and done, and God makes right all ancient wrong, and the just rise to their reward, Lazarus will be among them. But what about now?”

“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Though she says she does, am I imagining it, or is she muttering to herself, “For heaven sake, there he goes again, rhapsodizing the way I hear Mary do when she speaks of him…” So Martha runs back to the house to pull Mary away from her praying, and says to her, “the Teacher is here and is calling for you.” Which is to say, “Get it through to him, will you, that we need some action here! Use your contemplative language to say what my activist soul does not know how to say.”

When Mary does, she uses her sister’s exact language (“Lord, if you had been here, this wouldn’t have happened…”) though I hear her words as gentler, and her words dissolve into her tears, the deeper vocabulary of the contemplative way.

Her tears disturb Jesus. He could have said to Mary, “Mary, hear your own words: if I had come sooner, this grace wouldn’t have happened either, this astonishing confrontation between life and death that we’re about to have…” Instead, he goes with her beyond language into spirit, and joins her in weeping.

And he becomes even more disturbed, says John. Jesus goes to the tomb. “It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’”

Martha, the activist, protests this ultimate action. Fear grips even her.

Is it even clutching his vocal cords as he dares to speak the Word of life? “Lazarus, come out!” He bets the whole store, the very kingdom itself, as he who is the Word of God evokes, from the other side of death, the response of faith. By the terms of this story, the dead are not beyond the gracious reach of God.

It is said that the raising of Lazarus accelerated the growing campaign to do away with Jesus. The reported return to life of a dead man embarrassed the authorities, threatened the authorities. Lazarus had long been in their crosshairs, too: the kind of radical justice that Jesus stood for, Lazarus had stood for. And now here he was, standing again—explain that however you will—they just couldn’t shake free from this fellow.

In the next chapter of John’s Gospel, it is a few days later. Jesus the itinerant preacher goes away for a few days, then returns to Bethany, where the sisters Martha and Mary prepare a dinner for Jesus. Lazarus is at the table, among the disciples. It is then that Mary anoints Jesus with costly perfume, which hindsight would show to be in preparation for his death. It is then that Judas Iscariot turns on them all, complaining that the perfume should have been sold to feed the poor (as if he cared about the poor… he kept the money box and used to steal what was in it, so we’re told).

And it is then that we are told that great crowds of people come, not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. And it is on account of Lazarus that many people are believing in Jesus.

And it is then, the next day, that Jesus and his disciples come to Jerusalem, and those crowds take branches of palm trees and go to meet him, shouting Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—the King of Israel!

The voice of Wendell Berry’s musing farmer could be the voice of Lazarus:

“However long I’ve stayed away,
coming home is resurrection. The man
who has been gone comes back to his place
as he would come naked and cold
into his own clothes… The dead,
too, denying their graves, haunt
the places they were known in and knew…
To the place we parted from in sorrow
we return in joy; the beautiful shore,
eternal morning, unclouded day.”

Wendell Berry
Leavings 2008, No. 10, in his collection Leavings (Counterpoint, 2010)