March 29

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Standing At The Tomb: 5th Sunday In Lent

The Rev. Josephine Robertson
All Saints, Bellevue
March 29th, 2020
Lent 5A

The Gospel today feels chillingly timely.

While I write this sermon, in the middle of this week there are 18,433 deaths from the novel Coronavirus. The map of its spread includes almost every country in the world, and covers every hemisphere of our globe. Here at home we have been asked to “stay home and stay healthy.” To quarantine ourselves inside our homes in an attempt to slow the spread of disease.

Our world holds its collective breathe.

We stand before the sealed tomb, weeping, feeling powerless, and alone.

Mary I think speaks for all of us when she throws herself at Jesus feet and laments: Lord if you had been here, my brother would still be alive.

As one theologian pointed out however, the focus of this story isn’t really Lazarus, it is Jesus and those around him. Jesus arrives to a community in crisis. Death and sorrow break social bonds, they reorder our world and Mary and Martha are in the midst of that upheaval.

This week an article was published quoting one of the co-authors of On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss, David Kessler. David has dealt with a lot of death and he noted that we are collectively experiencing grief. Our old world has died, and faced with an uncertain future we experience all the faces of grief.

We stand at Lazarus’s tomb and we mourn, we mourn the future we expected, the present that is so strange and isolating. We’ve seen a lot of those stages of grief. There was denial, as so many have refused to believe this is real. Anger, as others lashed out at having to cancel plans or change their routines. Bargaining we we hoped that if we just do X, Y & Z for two weeks everything can go back to the way it was and so on.

But as Mr. Kessler pointed out death is real, and we will have to accept it before we can hear Jesus’ hopeful words. Jesus arrives to find a community overturned by grief. A community filled with hurt, anger, and more than little bargaining. Even his good friends must be a little angry with his slow arrival.

In the stages of grief acceptance is where the power lies, it is where we can do something. Kessler says for us that looks like “I can wash my hands. I can keep a safe distance. I can learn how to work virtually.” (David Kessler) But I think today’s Gospel goes beyond that point. I think today’s Gospel gives us the hope to look toward in the future.

Jesus arrives at a scene of disconnection and suffering and he doesn’t blame the doctor for not treating his friend, he doesn’t chastise Mary and Martha for not having faith, or the rest of the community for being lost in grief.

He goes to the tomb, he mourns the suffering and loss he has found and then he puts everyone to work.

He waves the strong backs toward the stone and says: “lean in, take away that roadblock!” And they do. They stop wringing their hands and shaking their heads and they shift the huge stone.

And then Jesus calls to the one who was dead: Lazarus, come out! And to everyone’s surprise, that which was dead emerges into the light of day with new life.

But the story doesn’t end there. Because Jesus waves his hands at all the people standing around and orders them: unbind him and set him free.

In the midst of uncertainty and grief it can seem like there is no future different than the one that we have envisioned, no possibility that change or hardship might lead to rebirth or newness. And here in the dark days of our tomb, where we wait for newness and light that might be how it feels.

But Jesus reminds us today that death and life are two sides of the same coin. That death and resurrection exist together. That there is no ending without a new beginning. The future we were so comfortable in was not as perfect as we might imagine. We live in a world where suffering, oppression, poverty, hunger, and sickness are still accepted as givens. A world where some might suggest the economy is worth a few (or many) deaths.

But God offers us something different, the reminder that new life can look very different than the old, so different we don’t even recognize it at first. Jesus reminds us that we have the power to set free a new future, to cut free the grave wrappings we’ve been told are inevitable, to cast them off and discover new life beneath.

This isn’t a story about resurrection as Jesus’ is. Lazarus will die again. This is a story about the ways God brings new life into our lives, the ways God allows us to start again in this temporal world. Jesus reminds us that the things which seem so fixed are always being remade and we have a hand in that remaking, if we are brave enough.

 


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  1. Thanks for the great message! I preached on this passage this past Sunday online, from the Hart (Michigan) United Methodist Church parsonage, but your sermon is much better, I think…and shorter! It helped me come to grips with what’s going on inside of me, and probably others, too: grief, in all of its stages…and I need to say that I should have known better, which would be grief’s guilt stage statement, I suppose, as I go back and forth. But, I think and feel that I had a turn toward acceptance last night, after a major tension-releasing walk (the tension was major, not the walk). I’ll probably have more grief processing ahead, even in the connection that Lazarus dies again, but I’m looking and praying for those new opportunities for new life, and the infinite “second chances” God graces us with, and the different resurrection future which I can have a small and messy hand in the making. Blessings! (P.S. If you’re in Washington, our daughter and son-in-law used to live in Bellevue, as she obtained her master’s at the University of Washington and later taught ESL classes at Bellevue College. They’re living nearby San Francisco now.)

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