Living Like Lazarus 11-1-15

I had lunch this week with Father Jack Denny from Our Mother of Good Counsel. I don’t have his picture up here because he died. He’s a great guy, very much alive and we have fun talking with each other. I told him the story I told you last week in my sermon about fights with the Catholic guys in my neighborhood growing up. He told me that some feast days get superseded by Sunday mass, but that All Saints Day is a feast day that happens on November 1st, even if it falls on a Sunday.

All Saints Day seemed like a Catholic thing to me growing up. We didn’t have statues of saints or martyrs in my church, certainly. But our way of remembering all the saints and sinners who have died has really grown on me. It feels like a day of recognizing God’s grace for all of us who are such strange mixtures of sinners and saints.

John 11:32-44 When Mary got to Jesus, she fell at his feet and said, “If you had been here, Lazarus never would have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the other mourners as well, he was troubled in spirit, moved by the deepest emotions. “Where have you laid him?” Jesus asked.  “Come and see,” they said. And Jesus wept. The people in the crowd began to remark, “See how much he loved him!” Others said, “He made the blind person see; why couldn’t he have done something to prevent Lazarus’ death?” Jesus was again deeply moved.  They approached the tomb, which was a cave with a stone in front of it. Take away the stone,” Jesus directed. Martha said, “Rabbi, it has been four days now.  By this time there will be a stench.” Jesus replied, “Didn’t I assure you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” So they took the stone away. Jesus raised his eyes to heaven and said, “Abba, thank you for having heard me. I know that you always hear me; but I have said this for the sake of the crowd, that they might believe that you sent me!” Then Jesus called out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus came out of the tomb, still bound hand and foot with linen strips, his face wrapped in a cloth.  Jesus told the crowd, “Untie him and let him go free.”

November 1, 2015

Living Like Lazarus

The closest I ever came to dying (that I know of) happened when I was 15 years old. I was on a 10 day mission trip to Haiti organized by the United Methodist Church. Our group of about 12 church people had a profound experience over the Christmas holidays. We visited a leper colony, a tuberculosis hospital, and a profoundly poverty stricken Porto Prince, the capital of the country.

For the last evening of our trip, we rented a couple of tap-tap’s, the brightly colored taxis, built on the back of pick-up trucks to go on the mountain. We prayed for the city as we watched whole sections blink out, as rationed electricity came and went to different neighborhoods. We boarded the tap-taps for the trip down the mountain, moved by all we had experienced. But as we wound down the mountain, we began to smell a burning smell and the cab started to speed around the curves in the road.

A man on the top of the tap-tap tried to get down into the lower section and fell into the street behind us. We all gathered into the front of the truck next to cab, praying the Lord’s Prayer aloud. We veered into a retaining wall that kept us from flying off the side of the mountain and the driver eased the truck back into the other side of the road, a sudden stop to a wild ride. We were really glad to be alive for our flight back to the United States the next day.

I guess technically, that was not a near-death experience like the ones you hear about where people see a light and start down a tunnel, or hover over their bodies and have to decide whether to go back to it or not. But I found myself thinking about this experience as I reflected on this passage about the raising of Lazarus.

 

I was wondering, you see, what it was like for Lazarus after he came back from being dead for 4 days. How did he live and what was his attitude toward life? Often, people who have had near death experiences report that their lives change significantly after their experience. You can imagine what that’s like.

Sometimes, they have a realization of how precious life is and decide to live each moment more fully, because life is short. They decide they will tell people more often that they love them, while they have the chance. They decide they will do what gives them joy, and to give others joy, because that is what life is for.

Yesterday, I went to a funeral, a hard funeral. Douglass Charles Vandegrift, son of my colleague and friend, Rev. Sharon Vandegrift, was 25 years old when he died last weekend. They found him dead outside a party he had gone to. They haven’t specified exactly how he died.

I knew I had to go to the funeral, but I didn’t know what I was going to say, just that I had to give Sharon a hug. There are no words to say to a mother who has lost her child at such a young age. The only thing you can do is be there for her, to give her a hug and be there.

I wrote her a card in which I used the words of Stephen Levine from his book, ¨Who Dies.” He wrote, “The death of a child is a fire in the mind. The mind burns with alternatives that never come to pass, with fantasies of remarkable recuperations, with dreams of adult accomplishments. If we let this fire burn compassionately within us the grief of the mind, the fantasies, the burning of the spirit, begin slowly to melt away and the child comes more into our heart. Our anguish can be used to open more fully, to enter as completely as we can into this final sharing. And then, as Rabindranath Tagore wrote in the final lines of his poem, “The End,” “Dear Auntie will come with presents and will ask, ‘Where is our baby, sister?’ And Mother, you will tell her softly, ‘He is in the pupils of my eyes. He is in my bones and in my soul.”

 

There’s too many people dying too young in some of our communities today. And I guarantee you that their families and friends would not be reassured if I went to them and said, “Everything is going to be ok, because Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.” A lot of these young people think the church is totally useless and irrelevant in their lives.

What I want to tell them is that their skepticism about the church is quite understandable. And the truth is that the resurrection of Lazarus and even Jesus were highly improbable. That is the whole point of their importance and their significance. The living power of God to challenge the finality of death is the most radical note struck by early Christianity. Whatever you believe about death, there’s a basic truth that comes into sharp relief when you have a near death experience – that life is short, and that eternal life begins not when you die, but when you start to live. So start your eternal life today.

 

There’s all kinds of ways to have a near death experience. It could be a car accident; it could be having a close friend or a friend’s child die. It could be getting baptized; it could be losing a job or a friend or getting sick. You have probably had a near death experience that could motivate you to decide to begin living your promised eternal life right now, today. Any one of those experiences could be the impetus for deciding that life matters, that you’re going to live a resurrection life – a life fully lived, unafraid of death.

That’s what happened to Lazarus. He had experienced death. He knew what it was like to be in a tomb for days. And he knew what it was like to get out of that tomb. And if we’re paying attention, we know what it’s like too – to live entombed, hopeless and numbed. I imagine for the rest of his life Lazarus lived a life filled with gratitude to his friend Jesus, a life filled with love and hope every day.

I invite you this morning to come to the table of joy, to come to the altar of life, to eat and drink surrounded by all the saints, a great cloud of witnesses, all encouraging us to not wait until we die to find eternal life, because eternal life begins now – as we give up our fear of death, because God in Christ has conquered death for all time.