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The Day of Pentecost! The Birthday of the Church. Our Birthday Party Picture (above),

Death…: March 26, 2023

The Fifth Sunday in Lent:
Ezekiel 37:1-14
Romans 8:6-11
John 11:1-45

I remember one day, as a theological student-in-training and hospital volunteer, being called in to be with someone. My guess was and is that there had been a falling out within the family, and participation in their own (grown) child’s funeral was not going to happen. So my role was to escort the parent to the morgue (I got us lost at least once), and to retrieve and prepare the body for a viewing. It involved working with an intimidating hydraulic lift. It involved working with the lifeless body of this person’s loved one.

At one point I turned to the security guard that was accompanying me, and I made a comment about how she probably saw and dealt with some heavy, even dangerous stuff in the emergency room. She turned to me and said that we chaplains had to deal with things that she and most other people would rather avoid. We were together in this moment, and appreciative of the partnership. Neither of us could have done it on our own.

The hospital had previously said “we’ll show you the morgue, just in case. But don’t worry, you’ll never actually have to do anything there.” (That was wrong.) They also said “whenever possible, keep families away from the morgue.”

“Though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.”

“If you have to,” the hospital had said, “let them see the body through the closed circuit camera system. If you really have to, open the curtain so they can look through the window. Whatever you do, keep them outside the room. It’s not like the TV. Those cop shows have the nice-looking morgues.”

“Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to [Jesus], ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.'”

I tried the camera; you couldn’t see anything through the snow storm of fuzz. I pulled aside the curtain; it was a clearer view, but also somehow unsatisfactory. Unnatural.

“Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.'”

And so we did what we were told to avoid: welcome the parent into the room, to stand beside, hold, and kiss their loved one.

“When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved…. Jesus began to weep.”

I was (as perhaps I’m wired) somewhat nervous with the outpouring of emotion. The unpredictability of the situation. The clutching of the body. And yet, the previously withdrawn, gruff family member somehow opened up; made eye contact; talked. And talked, and talked. And a burden was lifted.

“The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.'”

The death was real. The loss was profound. The family situation pitiful. But somehow by going to, rather than avoiding the reality of this death, and the reality of the body, this parent was ‘unbound’ and ‘let go’ and newly receptive to help, and to healing. A healing that exists alongside the reality of sickness and death in a way we struggle to understand.

It’s sometimes confusing what we Christians are to do about death. I mean, it’s even right there in the gospel reading: “He has fallen asleep.” But then, “Lazarus is dead.” It’s a complicated thing, this… We don’t want to be too accepting of death, because our faith is premised on its defeat. But we also see the harm of denial. Of euphemisms. Or of not being honest about our feelings. But what else comes out in the story? Jesus was “greatly disturbed.” Jesus wept. And so our honest response, whatever that might be, I believe is affirmed, and held as precious in God’s eyes.

Jesus says: “everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” And yet the Gospel book this story comes from ends with Jesus talking to Peter about how he is going to die… Or think about the conversation Jesus has with Martha: “I know that [my brother] will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” And Jesus responds: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” Martha gives the correct, traditional, answer reflecting her and her people’s worldview and ultimate hope (that the Christian faith shares). Resurrection on the last day. But Jesus offers a slightly different angle. He points not to a far off day, but to himself. To eyes that can be opened, from time to time, to recognize the fullness of life and sacredness that is available in the present moment. True life that rises out of belief in him.

It’s a ‘spiritual’ life, not because it’s the opposite of a bodily life, but because it’s animated — lively, energized — by the spirit of God. The Spirit, that Paul says, raised Jesus from the dead. With Martha we look and hope for the day when all the dead will be raised, but we are also called to look for and live in the Spirit right now. It’s the same Spirit that swept over the face of the waters at creation, and breathed into the first human being’s nostrils. The same Spirit that descended on the heads of those gathered, like tongues of flame. The Spirit who renews life by inspiring “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

So my message for you (and for me) is to take heart. Take heart because Jesus said “Lazarus, come out.” But also take heart, because Jesus wept. Through miracles and through tears we are people of hope. Not by denying death, but by affirming the Spirit that cannot be quenched by it. As Christians we are people who wait (and not just because the Church moves in centuries.) We wait for Jesus to come back and set things right. We’ve had a taste of the resurrection — his — but we wait for the renewal of everyone, and all creation. ‘Now, but not yet.’ Easter, but… not without Lent. And that’s OK; it’s just the way it is.

But we do not lose hope. We’re called to be different, and that difference arises out of our practice of following what Jesus said: “do this in remembrance of me.” It’s quite literally one of the things he said to do, specifically, in this ambiguous time of ‘now, but not yet.’ It’s quite literally a meal that forces us to take seriously the reality of death: his. And in doing so, realize that the place that we thought was farthest from God (betrayal, pain, death), is actually the place where God goes to find us. And save us.

So in our prayers at the altar, have your eyes, and ears, open to the Spirit. We Anglicans are said to live by the principle “lex orandi, lex credendi” (what we pray is what we believe). So in a few minutes, in our prayer from Southern Africa, we’ll hear “Send your Spirit on us now that by these gifts we may feed on Christ with eyes wide open and hearts on fire.” That is true life. Life that you, and I, and our world, probably deeply need.

Or in our more familiar Canadian prayers: “Send your Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts, that all who eat and drink at this table may be one body and one holy people…” A unity in this life that our world sorely needs.

“Unite us to your Son in his sacrifice, that we, made acceptable in him, may be sanctified by the Holy Spirit.”

Or maybe the best one, in a prayer we don’t use quite as much: “Pour out your Spirit upon the whole earth and make it your new creation.”

Let us pray:
God of all consolation,
your Son comforted the grieving Martha and Mary,
for your breath alone brings life to dry bones and weary souls.
Pour out your Spirit upon us,
so that we may face despair and death
with the hope of the resurrection and faith in the One
who called Lazarus forth from the grave. Amen.
[Revised Common Lectionary Prayers, 2002, alt.]

© 2023 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter