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There’s a famous sketch by the iconic British comedy team Monty Python in their Search for the Holy Grail movie. A man is seen walking through this wasteland of a village pushing a cart filled with recently dead bodies. As he walks along he hollers “Bring out your dead, bring out your dead!” A man approaches with a corpse slung over his shoulder. The corpse starts pleading: “I’m not dead, I’m getting better, I’d like to go for a walk.” All to no avail, the man carrying him insists he is indeed dead or at least he will be stone dead in a matter of minutes. Finally the man pushing the cart of carcasses whacks the not-dead guy over the head and proceeds to throw him onto the cart.
You can find the clip on YouTube  with a descriptive that I think rings with truth: “a dead man pretends to be alive in order to avoid the cart.” In other words even the dead pretend to be alive in our world. We pretend to be alive because we are convinced that life, no matter what the quality, no matter what the cost, must be greater than the alternative. We pretend there is some life left in a relationship that is clearly dead, we tell ourselves the job that leaves us with blood pressure through the roof or ethics that are continually compromised is as much as we can expect. We would rather stay stuck in a situation that is clearly killing us than admit there is actually no life left. We are afraid of death. A friend of mine likes to say that we have this attitude, this underlying assumption, in our society that we are going to get out of life alive.
Ernest Becker won the Pulitzer Prize for his book The Denial of Death back in the 1970s. His premise was that human civilization is ultimately an elaborate symbolic defense mechanism against the knowledge of the fact that we all die. Maybe this explains in part why the story of the raising of Lazarus has intrigued the imaginations of so many for so long. Here’s a person who escapes death.
In our death denying world it seems so very strange that Jesus, when summoned to help his ailing friend Lazarus, takes his good old time. Could there be a greater moment for haste? Maybe there’s a perfectly sound explanation. Perhaps the sisters Martha and Mary have a history of crying wolf. Maybe Jesus isn’t convinced that the situation is as bad as they make it out to be. Or perhaps the requests for help are coming in quicker than he can keep up. Maybe poor Lazarus’ plea for help just slipped so far down the backlog of emails and Jesus simply missed it until one morning he turned on the computer, saw the note, and gasped. Or maybe it was the good old persuasive powers of fear that overcame him. Jesus had been to Bethany before and he’d been run out of town, maybe he knew that going back there would be a conscious step into trouble. Maybe he was afraid. Maybe he had a moment of self-doubt: can I really be of any help?
John’s gospel, more than the others, keeps laying before us this question of whether Jesus is human or divine. Surely God wouldn’t be late to help a person in need. When Jesus arrives in Bethany and finds he’s too late to help, he stands outside the tomb and does something that we clearly identify as human: be cries.
Try as you may to define where the human Jesus ends and the divine Christ begins, in John’s gospel, you will come up short. The distinction I am making is around Jesus, the man who lived in first century Palestine and the Christ, sometimes described as the Word, the Light, the divine eternal presence revealed in Jesus. There is no way to disentangle the two. There is no way to view the Jesus of John’s gospel in this sort of dualistic way. Which means that when Jesus weeps, God weeps. If we can identify with a Jesus who took too long to help a friend, because we’ve been there and done that; if we can identify with a Jesus who weeps at the tomb of his friend, because we’ve been there once or twice before, then we can identify with God.
A God who cries is not a God anyone had learned anything about back then. Do we even have room for a God who cries today? It seems to me that as long as we leave God safely in the sky we will be successful at one thing: protecting our hearts from the real deaths that happen on the way to new life. In my own life, it’s the people who I’ve cried with, cried in front of, cried for, those are the people who have enabled me to learn what it means to live. When we cry in front of others all of our defences are down, all of our lies are exposed, all of our humanity is revealed and our hearts are open to the Divine calling us into life.
Soon after Jesus weeps he hollers out to Lazarus “Come out.” Lazarus obliges, you can almost picture him stirring in the tomb, pulling his grave clothes close and stumbling into the daylight, weak and worn but walking one foot in front of the other. I wonder if he stepped out of that tomb because of the tears as much as the holler. Did Lazarus know in those tears that his God was big enough to weep with him, to hold all of the grief and loss that had relegated him to the tomb in the first place? Did the tears give him permission to let go of the crutches that had kept him from running, the lies that had kept him from living? Is our God big enough to hold all of our grief and loss and still invite us to live? A God who cries is a God willing to be vulnerable; to let it all lay bare. If we look closely at the heartbreaks of our lives and the heartbreaks of human history, we will see that they are glistening with the tears of our God.
Yesterday a totem pole of reconciliation was raised on the UBC campus. A stunning fifty-five foot cedar, taken from the forest in the traditional way with a prayer offered in gratitude for its gift. It took two years to carve and contains stunning images of salmon and bears and eagles, and there’s a residential school with the children survivors standing on its roof, arms linked, feet hidden, as a sign that they were not grounded in that time. A bit further up is an image of a family post residential schools representing revitalization and strength and coming back together. Hammered into the imposing pole are 68,000 tiny copper nails, one for each child who died while attending a government or church run residential school. Haida master carver James Hart spoke of the totem saying: “This pole is about understanding what has taken place, and the depth of all of that, because you can’t smooth the edges on it.”
When Lazarus emerges from the tomb the story is really just beginning. You might remember a couple weeks back we read about Jesus meeting a woman by a well. She had come for ordinary water but he offered her living water. Today Jesus is offering living life, in place of ordinary life.
There’s a thirteen-year-old philosopher in my home who insists that the greatest human fear is not actually death, but life. She’s been reading the Greek philosopher Epicurus who made a case that since life ends at death, there is nothing to fear. But what if our greatest fear is actually living? I think she may be on to something. Ordinary life is fine, the one where we deny the full severity of what is happening to the land and air and waters and our neighbours. Ordinary life is fine, the one where we hide behind a worthy cause in an effort to validate that our lives have some purpose in the great scheme of things. Ordinary life however keeps landing us behind that gravestone with Lazarus. How can we practice trusting that the tears of the Holy one are calling us to more, beckoning us to living life?
When Lazarus emerges from the tomb and his community does the work of pulling the grave clothes from him, Jesus heads out of town, on his way to Jerusalem where his commitment to living life will be put to the test, and crucified. The story of Lazarus’ resuscitation is not the story of Jesus resurrection. Remember, Lazarus will die again, he will like us literally die again and he will also no doubt die a million small deaths. What Jesus is calling him and us to is a life where we are not defined by these loses because there is a call to a lived life that is actually stronger than death and more eternal and truly powerful.
Jesus’ agenda is one of faithfulness to kingdom values: values of compassion and justice that can be and ought to be experienced by all in our world. The narrator of John’s gospel wants us to remember that resurrection is what God does. Our end is not to be feared because it does not define us. What gives us identity is the fact we are called to live fully in the now. What defines us is how we live. Our meaning comes by our full participation in the issues of our time and space.
Our living defines us …Living out of the resurrection is an attitude that faces the fact that life is continuously one of perishing. We die every day. Life wears us down. If we don’t have to prove ourselves then our agenda is about finding those activities that make a difference to our experience and others experience. It is to care for the outcast. It is to care for creation. It is about care of all existence.
God is not merely out there at the finish line cheering us on that we might rise on the last day. God longs to radiate through your hands and feet, to pour from your heart, to bring forth resurrection in each and every one of us and all of creation.
From this unbelievable story, this story that our post-modern selves know could not be “true,” we are ultimately pointed toward the very tangible, simple, ordinary life of resurrection. Even if we find ourselves standing outside the tomb with remnants of a life that no longer fits, remember the tears of divine Love will wash your soul and water the earth that you might be led to living waters where you can shed your ordinary life for a living life. May it be so for us. Amen
4. These two paragraphs are borrowed from my good friend George Hermanson. You can find his sermon here: http://www.georgehermanson.com/2008/03/affirming-life.html