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The Reverend Matt Gaventa
March 29, 2020
A Reading from the Gospel of John
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So, the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, 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. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “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?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So, the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” 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.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So, they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 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.”
This is such a big story. John writes these big stories — not a lot of quick one-hit parables. The Gospel of John comes off like a series of novellas stapled together, and this Lazarus story is the biggest of them all. It’s the last piece of the puzzle before Jerusalem. It’s the last straw before Holy Week. It’s the story that sets the Jewish leadership firmly on the path to Jesus’s arrest and crucifixion. Even its geography, in Bethany, itself the last stop on the way to the holy city. This story is right on the brink, and John packs in everything. Jesus’s friend Lazarus is sick, and then dead, and so now Jesus’s powers will be put to the strongest possible test and among his own friends and family. It’s a story full of tension and urgency and brutality and anxiety and hopefulness and jubilation and despair. And grief. The more I read this story the more I see the grief. I see the grief at every turn.
One of the ways we talk about grief is by using the model proposed by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross — many of you will be familiar with her work already. In 1969 she proposed an understanding of grief based on the progression through five stages, sometimes circularly: Denial, Anger, Depression, Bargaining, and Acceptance. Of course, I’m not a psychiatrist and I can’t speak to the clinical accuracy of her model. I don’t know how well it describes the world. But in living with this text over the past two weeks I have been struck by how closely Jesus and his friends follow these five stages as they begin to mourn for Lazarus. Jesus himself starts the entire thing in denial. Mary and Martha send a message to Jesus saying that Lazarus is ill, and despite seeming not to have any other appointments, Jesus’s answer is: No, he’s going to be fine. Whatever he’s got, it’s not fatal. Pretty clearly Jesus just doesn’t want to be true. Not with Lazarus. Not this. This is fine. He’s going to be fine. Really, it’s fine.
The disciples are in denial too, of course, even after Jesus realizes that Lazarus has actually died. “If he’s fallen asleep, Lord, he’ll be alright,” they say, plainly disinterested in hearing the real news. But by time they get to Bethany, the grief has moved along a bit, and Martha is angry. She runs to confront him on the road, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” Martha is livid, at this Savior who took his sweet time, and understandably. But inside the house, Mary has found her way to Depression. She is weeping. Her visitors are weeping. She falls at his feet. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” So now we are ready to bargain. Jesus himself is ready to bargain. Jesus is ready to go the tomb. Jesus is ready to demand satisfaction. Jesus is ready to do whatever it takes. Anything it takes. Whatever it takes to make this grief go away.
In a widely-circulated piece this week — I think I saw a few of you even post this to Facebook — the Harvard Business Review spoke with David Kessler, one of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s longtime collaborators. They spoke, of course, about the moment we are in, the discomfort of it, the anxiety of it, the strangeness of it. “People are feeling any number of things right now,” the interviewer asks. “Is it right to call some of what they’re feeling grief?” To which Kessler immediately replies, “Yes, and we’re feeling a number of different kinds of grief. The loss or normalcy. The economic toll. The loss of connection. We’re also feeling anticipatory grief. There’s a storm coming. There’s something bad out there. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. I don’t think we’ve [ever] collectively lost our sense of general safety like this. We are grieving on a micro and a macro level.” I wonder what it would be if we could begin to imagine this. That everybody we know. Everybody we encounter. In this very strange, particular moment. That everybody is in a sudden and acutely traumatic amount of grief.
Of course, some of that grief is for literal matters of life and death. I have reached the part of the story of this virus where it is friends who are hospitalized and friends of friends who are dead, and I know that as the numbers continue that that circle will just get smaller and smaller and smaller, as it may for you. And of course, we all grieve for the first responders working today in a level of trauma I cannot imagine, and for those unprivileged who ride out this storm in the most brutal conditions. But this virus also has a different kind of toll. We don’t just have to grieve the big things. After all, we should be in the sanctuary right now. The choir should be in the chancel. Some of the kids should be in Bridge to Worship. Some of the other ones should be scurrying under the pews. We should all go out from here into the courtyard, and we should enjoy the fellowship of a beautiful March Sunday, and Liz Wright should be handing out cookies, and Cathy Morgan should be there selling coffee and chocolate. We should have one more week to buy Easter lilies. We should have one more week to sign up for the Church Retreat.
And you should be living your lives. You should be seeing your friends. You should be seeing your families. There should be trips to the park and nights on the town and sleepovers and playdates. There should be baseball games, and concerts, and band practice, and high school plays. You should be going to parties. You should be going to weddings. You should be there for the birth of new grandbabies. You should be there for the last moments with beloved grandparents. None of this is fair or right. None of this is what should be. And I want to acknowledge that in a story this big there is room for all different kinds of grief, and yours is okay no matter how small it is. In fact, I’d like to just take a few moments quietly so that in your own heart and in your own spirit you can name whatever it is you need to grieve right now. Let’s just take a moment. What do you need to grieve? Hold it in your hearts.
So, Jesus goes to the tomb. The last stage of grief for Kubler-Ross is supposed to be acceptance, accepting things you can’t change, but when you’re the son of God acceptance has got to look a little different. So, Jesus is not content simply to visit the grave. “Take away the stone,” he says. “Lazarus, come out!” he says. And when Lazarus emerges, tied up with the burial cloth around his hand and feet, “Unbind him, and let him go!” Jesus says. Something happens here that doesn’t fit into our normal understanding of grief. There’s not a lot of room in Kubler-Ross for resurrection. But maybe it suffices just to know that there’s something else beyond. David Kessler himself has argued for a sixth stage to the cycle, he calls this stage Meaning. It’s the stage of grief where you have the capacity to reflect and learn and process. The stage of grief where it no longer determines you. The stage of grief where you can name it. The stage where you can understand it. The stage where you can live your life. That stage where Jesus walks up to grief itself and says: Unbind him. And let him go. I don’t know if “Meaning” is quite the right word.
I wonder whether we ought to call it liberation.
The Gospel that this grief will not bind us. Not for long.
All of this will never not have happened. We will never get to be people for whom the story of 2020 is not the story of this virus and the world it found and the world it created, with all the grief that goes along side it. But here on the fifth Sunday of Lent. On the outskirts of Jerusalem. On the precipice of Holy Week I say unto you. This. Today. This is not the whole story. This is not all of who we are. This is not all of who we can be. This is not the only way the world can spin. This is not the only story that gets to be told. These days are not the only days left to be lived. This grief is not the only thing left to be felt. To be sure, grieve what you need to grieve. Grieve high and grieve low. Grieve big and grieve small. And then come with me to the tomb. Come with me to the garden. Come with me to the grave. Come alone and afraid. Come shivering and scared. Come in that darkest hour of the night. Come just before the dawn cracks over the horizon. Come wait with all creation for the revealing of the glory of God. Come and see. Come and be unbound.
Easter is on its way.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
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