Beyond Denial & Despair March 29th 2020
Based on John 11:1-44
Greetings dear children of God, of Mount Paul United Church, in diaspora!
Peace be with you on this last Sunday of Lent. Oh, so many changes since we last met on March 1st on the first Sunday of Lent! I hope you are all keeping healthy in the midst of this health care crisis. I’m sure it is difficult to be distanced from people who love you and whom you love. I encourage you to use this time to reach out with your hearts in prayer, when you cannot reach out your hands. There are those (though fewer now) who are still in denial about the seriousness of the pandemic, and others who are feeling a sense of despair. There is place beyond those seeming opposites – a creative, spirit-centered place. As we go into these next few weeks approaching the Easter season, I invite you to that place. I offer this reflection from a few years ago, and I hope some of it will resonate with you. The story of the raising of Lazarus is rich with contemplative opportunities. I invite you to read the gospel passage now, if you haven’t already…
Several years ago, I sat in a hospital room with the parents of a young boy who had accidentally drown. The child’s body lay on a stretcher beside us. I asked the father if there was anything I could do to help. He looked at me and said, “Go wake him up.” Wow! My heart sank. Talk about having to face my humanity, my finitude. I am not God. I cannot do that.
We can resuscitate sometimes, but no matter how fervent our prayers, how heartfelt our pleas, eventually everyone dies, even in our death-defying, death-denying culture. That is still hard to accept.
So what do we do with this story? Does it give a sense of ultimate comfort, or a sense of failure? What does it mean to believe in `the resurrection and the life’?
Resurrection literally means to restore to life, but as we near the apex of the Christian year, the celebration of Easter, we do well to remember that Jesus was experienced in a new way, a different way than before his death. So resurrection carries a sense of transformation with it.
In this story there is a three-fold process for new life for Lazarus. It involves the Divine – Jesus prays, calling on God, the Divine mystery, `the Resurrection and the Life’. It involves a willingness on the part of the one `entombed’ Lazarus to respond to the call, and it involves the community to help unbind and set free.
Coming Forth, a lovely poem by Joy Cowley of New Zealand, expresses well the response from the one entombed. She writes:
Jesus, I don’t know how many times you’ve called me out of my tomb.
My life has been full of deaths, some small, some not so little
and before I knew it, I was wrapped in a shroud
and buried deep in a cave, no strength to roll away the stone.
Each time, I thought, “This is it. The sun will not rise tomorrow.”
And hope died in the darkness. Then always, you came by.
First, there was your voice, the way you said my name
as though you’ve always known it, and then, as the stone was moved,
there was the light that warmed my heart.
“Come forth!” you called. “Come forth!”
And I was up on my feet, and out of there, as wobbly as a newborn child
but filled to the brim with life.
How do you do it, Lord? How do you always know?
Your smile lights up the morning. “I know all about tombs,” you say.
“You forget, dear one, that this is why I was born.”
Come and See by Joy Cowley. (Pleroma Press, New Zealand). Used by permission.
In the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, he calls Lazarus to live again, but he also calls the community to unbind him and let him go. Because of this, I believe the story is not about showing a neat trick that God can do. It is a story, as are all of Jesus teaching, to show us what we can do.
In all our humanity, frailty and doubt, we have a part to play in unbinding those who need new life, including ourselves.
Sometimes this happens by speaking an affirmation and sometimes by issuing a challenge – showing someone where their own strength lies, showing them how they have bound themselves.
Often the most restrictive grave bindings are one’s we cannot see. Several years ago, I had a wonderful conversation with my son Aaron, who was living in Halifax at the time. Aaron has no formal training as a counselor, but he has a keen mind and a big heart. He told me about some work he was doing with a young woman whose mother told her she wasn’t good at anything. `So now’, said Aaron, `even when she succeeds at something she feels like she’s betraying her mother, because her mother told her she was no good.’ `Her mom was her god, the one person who would give her attention, safety and nourishment as a little child. But what a price to pay.’
This is a young woman that needs to be unbound; someone who needs to know that she is loved and worthy, successful or not. She needs to let go of the stinkin’ thinkin’ that has kept her trapped. I am glad for her that Aaron was there, unbinding those grave clothes.
As I said, unbinding sometimes means giving someone a helping hand, and sometimes it means reminding them, as my dad would say, that the helping hand is at the end of their own arm.
One day when I was in ministry at Sicamous United Church, I got a phone call from a young man with a complex tale of woe. Ultimately, he wanted `the church’ to pay for a hotel room for himself and his girlfriend for the night. He also mentioned they were hungry and trying to get home to Quebec, after a failed job offer at the coast. I let him know that the church did not have the means to offer hotel rooms, but I would willingly give him some food vouchers to the local grocery story. That wasn’t’ good enough for him. I told him that unfortunately Sicamous did not have a free shelter, but Salmon Arm did.
He was adamant that he was not going back to Salmon Arm to a shelter full of losers, creeps and drug-addicts. He’d been raised right. I assured him, he would be perfectly safe there, and if his girlfriend was uncomfortable, the women’s shelter in town would take very good care of her.
The man got increasingly angry, and tried to use shame and guilt to get what he wanted. I stood my ground, and again offered the options I’d earlier suggested. Apparently someone else gave him funds for a hotel for the night, and he got the food vouchers the next day when he came to the Thrift Shop. I went home feeling shaky inside. Indeed I want to be compassionate, but I surely am not obligated to finance a stranger because I’m at a church. I went home and sent a message to my son, who has hitch-hiked across the country a couple times. Aaron wrote back:
“You have to accept that some people have a horrific sense of entitlement. And that you have tried to give everything reasonably possible. Some people will always want the upgraded accommodations, and for free to boot, Momma. Your compassion is commendable but try not to let it harm you when others are making bad decisions.
Your son was raised pretty good and doesn’t think he’s too good for the shelters. Did Jesus go (complain) to the temple for not putting him up in nice digs?”
I encourage you this week to keep your eyes and your heart open for an opportunity to collaborate with God, to help unbind the grave cloths of someone (maybe even yourself) who has been entombed for too long. Amen.
Blessings from Juanita & Jim