Lent 5A - Lazarus

From Fr. Jude Botelho:

In the first reading we hear Ezekiel speaking words of hope to the Israelites. At first he may seem to speak of the resurrection, but he is actually predicting the renewed vitality of the whole people of Israel. In the passage before this, Ezekiel painted a picture of dry bones, the bones of warriors fallen in battle which remained unburied and littered some of the battlefields. For Ezekiel the dry bones are without life, like the graves mentioned in today's reading. He predicts that God's life-giving breath will restore his people, give them new life and resettle them in their land.‘Death Be Not Proud’
John Gunther's book 'Death Be Not Proud' tells the story of his son's last year of life. At sixteen, when most young people are dreaming about their future, John Gunther's son was dying from a brain tumour. The boy's quiet courage in his encounter with death prompted critic Judith Crist to write: "His story is a glowing affirmation of the nobility of even the shortest of lives." Book reviewer Walter Duranty of the New York Herald Tribune said: "To read 'Death Be Not Proud' is to grasp the meaning of man's power to defy Death's hurt; to be filled with confidence and emptied of despair."
Albert Cylwicki in ‘The Word Resounds’

In today’s Gospel we are told that Jesus was informed by his friends Martha and Mary that their brother was seriously ill. Strangely, he delays his leaving for two days before he comes to their house. The whole story is full of symbolism and signs that point to a deeper reality. It is worth noting that Martha and Mary merely bring the plight of Lazarus to Jesus, without requesting or demanding that he come immediately. We see Jesus does not act according to human timetables; in human terms he is late but it all fits in, even death, in God's plan. When Jesus arrives on the scene Martha voices her regret but immediately she professes her faith. Jesus is quick to reassure her: "Your brother will live again." But for this miracle to happen Jesus needs her belief. "Do you believe this?" And Mary once again professes her faith: "Yes Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God." Jesus asked to be taken to the tomb of Lazarus and was greatly distressed and he wept so much that the Jews remarked: "See how much he loved him." In Jesus we see the care and concern of our God for all who suffer. John wrote his gospel for the Greeks, who believed that God was unmoved by the human condition. John paints a different portrait of a God who does not look upon the world stoically but is constantly involved in it, and interacts with it. The death of Lazarus does not mean that it is too late for Jesus to be his life. When Jesus reached the tomb he asks that the stone covering the tomb be taken away. For Jesus time, like death itself, is no barrier: "If you believe, you will see the glory of God." Before Jesus works the miracle He prays, He has full trust that His Father will listen to him. In a loud voice Jesus calls: "Lazarus come forth!" The miracle is that hearing the voice of the Son of God, Lazarus lives again. The same call of Jesus is addressed to all of us; He challenges and invites us to come alive again: "Come forth!" The story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead proclaims that Jesus is the Lord of life; that Christian life begins when we hear his word and obey it. We may be dead in the midst of life and Jesus can bring us to life again! “Come forth!”

Keep the Fork!
There was a young woman who had been diagnosed with a terminal illness and had been given three months to live. So she contacted her pastor and had him come to her house to discuss certain aspects of her final wishes. She told him which songs she wanted sung at the service, and what scriptures she would like read. Everything was in order and the pastor was preparing to leave when the young woman suddenly remembered something very important to her. "There's one more thing," she said excitedly. "This is very important; I want to be buried with a fork in my right hand. That surprises you, doesn't it?" The young woman explained. "My grandmother once told me this story and, from there on, I have always tried to pass along its message to those I love and those who are in need of encouragement. In all my years of attending church socials and potluck dinners, I always remember that when the dishes of the main course were being cleared, someone would inevitably lean over and say, 'Keep your fork.' It was my favourite part because I knew that something better was velvety chocolate cake or apple pie. Something wonderful, and with substance! So, I just want people to see me there in that casket with a fork in my hand and I want them to wonder ‘What's with the fork?’ Then I want you to tell them: ‘Keep your fork ... the best is yet to come.’" The pastor's eyes welled up with tears of joy as he hugged the young woman good-bye. He knew that the young woman had a better grasp of heaven than he did. She knew that something better was coming. At the funeral people were walking by the young woman's casket and they saw the pretty dress she was wearing and the fork placed in her right hand. Over and over, the pastor heard the question "What's with the fork?" And over and over he smiled. During his message, the pastor told the people of the conversation he had with the young woman shortly before she died. He also told them about the fork and what it symbolized to her. The pastor told the people how he could not stop thinking about the fork and told them that they probably would not be able to stop thinking about it either. He was right. So the next time you reach down for your fork, let it remind you ever so gently, that the best is yet to come.

Old Rattle Bones
Many years ago there was a man, crippled and poor, who was cruelly named “Old Rattle Bones” by a group of boys in the neighbourhood. The leader of the group, Freddie, was worried one day when he saw the crippled man heading right towards his home. Because his friends were with him, the boy attempted to hide his anxiety by taunting. “Go on, Old Rattle Bones,” he shouted, “see if I care if you talk to my mother.” The man looked at Freddie sadly as he passed the group of boys and said, “You would not be calling me such names if you knew what caused my crippled condition.” He continues along the street arriving at Freddie’s home, whereupon he was warmly welcomed by Freddie’s mother. She called for her son to come in also. While the mother brought out a pot of tea, the man turned to the boy and told him a story. “Years ago on the first day of spring, a young mother took a baby outdoors for a carriage ride along the river. Stooping to pick a flower, she briefly let go of the handle; suddenly the carriage lurched forward, careening down the hill. Before she could catch up with the carriage, it had plunged into the river. I was sitting on a nearby bench and heard her scream. I ran after the buggy and jumped into the river. After a difficult struggle, I managed to get the baby safely back to shore. I left before anyone could ask my name. But you see the river water was very cold, and it aggravated my rheumatism. Now ten years later, I can scarcely hobble along. For you see Freddie, that baby was you.” Freddie hung his head in shame and began to cry. “Thank you for saving me,” he wept. “Can you ever forgive me for calling you ‘Old Rattle Bones’? I didn’t know who you were!”
Brian Cavanaugh in ‘Sowers Seeds of Christian Family Values’

Giving up hope until
A pastor tells of the experience of a young woman at a local children’s hospital. She was asked by a teacher from the church to tutor a boy with some school work while he was in hospital. The woman didn’t realize until she got to the hospital that the boy was in a burns unit, in considerable pain and barely able to respond. She tried to tutor him, stumbling through the English lesson, ashamed of putting him through such a senseless exercise. The next day when she returned to the hospital, a nurse asked her, “What did you do to the boy?” Before she could finish apologizing, the nurse interrupted her: “You don’t understand. His entire attitude has changed. It’s as though he has decided to live!” A few weeks later, the boy explained that he had completely given up hope until this young woman arrived. With joyful tears he explained, “They wouldn’t send a tutor to work on nouns and verbs with a dying boy, would they? –Sometimes we are invited into people’s lives and into places and events that, on the surface, have no meaning or purpose to us. We ask ourselves, what are we doing here? What purpose do we have here? Often we define ourselves only by what we can see or understand; we forget that we are part of something larger than ourselves.

The interviewer asked Joseph of Arimathea, “Now the grave you lent is yours again. What are you planning to do with it?” Joseph took a long look at him, and then confided. “When I heard that he had risen, naturally I raced to the tomb. He was not there. He had given my tomb back to me. So what I did after that was: I placed a comfortable bench under the trees just opposite the opening of the tomb. In the evening as the sun is going down, I go and sit there and think to myself, Jesus of Nazareth has slept in this tomb and God raised him from death. Joseph of Arimathea will also lie in this tomb, and what will God do with him?’ Jesus had said, ‘I live and you shall live’. I can depend on that word.”
Hans-Georg Lubkoll

From Fr. Tony Kadavil's Collection:

1) Carrying a dead soul in a living body? 

In Virgil, there is an account of an ancient king, who was so unnaturally cruel in his punishments that he used to chain a dead man to a living criminal.  It was impossible for the poor wretch to separate himself from his disgusting burden.  The carcass was bound fast to his body -- its hands to his hands; its face to his face; the entire dead body to his living body.  Then he was put into a dungeon to die suffocated by the foul emissions of the stinking dead body.  Many suppose that it was in reference to this that Paul cried out: "O wretched man that I am!"  Today’s readings invite us to turn away from sin, approach the Sacrament of Reconciliation and revive the dead soul we are carrying within our body,  thus becoming  eligible for the glorious resurrection Jesus promised to believers at the tomb of Lazarus. 

2) Good news – bad news joke:

John and Jim were professional players with the Atlanta Braves who lived and breathed baseball. These guys breathed, discussed, ate, and slept baseball. One of their big concerns was whether there would be baseball in heaven. They loved baseball so much that they were not sure at all they wanted to spend eternity in heaven unless they could play baseball. They had an agreement that the first one who died would somehow get a message back to earth, letting the other know whether baseball was in heaven or not. Well, it happened. John died, and Jim grieved. He grieved for days - deeply saddened over his friend John’s death. About two weeks went by, and then it happened. Jim was awakened in the middle of the night by the calling of his name, “Jim, Jim, Jim, wake up! This is John.” “John, where are you?” “I’m in heaven - and I have some good news and bad news. It’s exciting, Jim. We do have baseball in heaven. It’s great. We play every day and there are marvelous teams, and tough, exciting competition.” “That’s great,” said Jim. “But what’s the bad news?” “Well,” said John, “You are scheduled to pitch next Tuesday.”


Good News all around us and I have good news for you: God has a resurrection for you! He wants to bring you out into the light again. He wants to bring you out of that tomb of oppression and give you a new start. And listen! He has the power to do it. He can bring you back to life.

This powerful story in John 11 speaks to this. Remember it with me. Mary and Martha who live in Bethany are some of Jesus' closest friends... They send word to him that their brother, whose name is Lazarus, is desperately ill. "Please come. We need your help. Hurry. He is sinking fast." But by the time Jesus gets there, Lazarus has died... and has been in his grave for four days. Mary and Martha come out to meet Jesus and they express their grief: "He's gone. We've lost him. O Lord, if only you have been here, our brother would not have died." 

The family and friends have gathered and in their deep sorrow, they begin to weep over the loss of their loved one, Lazarus. The heart of Jesus goes out to them... and Jesus weeps with them. He loved Lazarus, too... and he loves them... and he shares their pain. Jesus goes out to the cave-like tomb and he says to them: "Roll back the stone!" Martha, always the realist and ever ready to speak out, protests: "But Lord, we can't do that. He has been in the grave for 4 days. By now there will be a terrible odor." Jesus says to her: "Martha, only believe and you will see the power of God." 

So they roll the stone away... and Jesus cries out in a loud voice: "Lazarus, come forth!" And incredibly, miraculously, amazingly, before their very eyes... Lazarus is resurrected! He comes out of the tomb. He still has on his grave clothes. His head and feet are still wrapped with mummy-like bandages. Jesus then turns to the friends and family and says to them, "Unbind him and let him go. Unwrap him and set him free." 

In this graphic and dramatic story, three awesome lessons jump out at us. Three great truths emerge which can be so helpful to us today. Let me list them for us: Jesus wept with those he loved and he still does. Jesus raised people up and he still does. Jesus included others in the healing process... and he still does...
Springtime is the season of uncontained optimism.  

As the days grow longer, and the sun grows stronger, it feels time to do something outrageous. We dig into the earth, carefully plow and pulverize hard clods into fine loam. We remove the weeds and grasses. We add extra nutrients to enrich the prepared soil. Then into that lush, fertile mixture we gently deposit . . . dried up, shriveled, little (sometimes downright tiny), seemingly completely dead bits of matter. We call them "seeds." 

Nothing looks less "lively" than a seed. The tiniest ones--lettuces, carrots, radishes--are so minuscule that planting them is like putting into the soil grains of coarse black pepper. Corn and beans "look" like corn kernels and soup beans. Well, they look like corn kernels and beans that have been lost on the floor of your pantry for six months or so, rejected even by the mice. Definitely NOT "good eats." And yet we joyfully plunge these desiccated crumbs into the soil we have sweated over, completely confident that something will come out of our efforts.  

Springtime is the season of belief. Every spring we believe in the power of the life that lives within those apparently dead seed husks. We believe that just a few handfuls of seeds can produce a glorious new crop to nourish our lives and feed our families.

Of course, bringing that potential crop to full fruition takes a lot more than simply dropping seeds into the ground and walking away. As every backyard gardener or full-time farmer knows, once you put those babies into the soil you are in a relationship with that garden, with those fields, with the weather. Seeds require constant nurturing - watering, weeding, protection from predators, large and small. New life comes from within the seed. But ensuring the continuation of that potential new life comes from an ongoing relationship with that life, our commitment to doing all we can to ensure that every single seed becomes part of yet another new harvest. 

This week's epistle text is Paul's springtime seed catalog... 
Giving Thanks for Our Trouble 

Ours is a God who does not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted and does not hide his face from them." There is always a sense in which great living is found in the midst of suffering and tears. 

An old Yiddish folk story tells of a well-to-do gentleman of leisured much interested in the Hebrew Scriptures. He visited a wise rabbi to ask a question. He said: "I think I grasp the sense and meaning of these writings except for one thing. I cannot understand how we can be expected to give God thanks for our troubles." The rabbi knew instantly that he could not explain this with mere words. He said to the gentleman: "If you want to understand this, you will have to visit Isaac the water-carrier." The gentleman was mystified by this, but knowing the rabbi to be wise, crossed to a poor section of the settlement and came upon Isaac the water-carrier, an old man who had been engaged in mean, lowly, backbreaking labor for some fifty years. 

The gentleman explained the reason for his visit. Isaac paused from his labors. Finally, after several minutes of silence, looking baffled, he spoke: "I know that the rabbi is the wisest of men. But I cannot understand why he would send you to me with that question. I can't answer it because I've had nothing but wonderful things happen to me. I thank God every morning and night for all his many blessings on me and my family." 

It is true, is it not? The pure in heart see God. The humble in spirit know Christ's joy and enter into God's glory. "For I consider," writes Paul, "that the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us."
 Joy Unbounded, Glory Fulfilled

 Pastor/Bishop Kenneth Ulmer (Inglewood, California) envisions the animating, life-fulfilling power of the Holy Spirit as like the transformation that comes over the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon figures as they're inflated. Without any air these huge balloons lay flat on the floor, limp, and featureless figures. But when the wind starts whipping up inside those balloons, they begin to rise, stand up, and stand tall. They become individuals, people and creatures that we recognize and love. Once on the parade route, these balloons take on even more life, for they are animated not just by the air within them, but by the winds that buffet and bolster them down the street. 

In today's gospel text, Jesus doesn't appear before Martha and Mary - who are in agony over the death of their brother Lazarus - just to bring them a casserole. Jesus doesn't cluck his tongue and concede that Lazarus' death is a tragedy. 

Jesus goes to his best friend's tomb and calls out, "Lazarus, come forth!" As experienced by Ezekiel and the psalmist, once again the animating spirit of God moves with power and precision, and brings a dead man walking right out of his tomb! This is what God settles for. Miracle, rebirth, deliverance from the pit, and eternal redemption. God doesn't define winning as not losing. God doesn't settle for anything less than joy unbounded, and glory filled dreams fulfilled. 

Leonard Sweet, Collected Sermons,
The Way Out 

Most everyone has worked one of those mazes where you follow the right path to find your way out. As you move your pencil through the maze you keep running into dead ends until you find the one path that sets you free.

Life is a lot like living in a maze. We continue to take wrong turns which lead nowhere and often retrace our steps until we can find our way. It can be very frustrating. Sometimes we never do find our way out. Those are the times we are stuck and feel like a prisoner with no escape.

Today I want to help set you free. I believe that no matter how difficult the maze you live in may seem, there is always a way out. Not even death can stand in the way of your life's journey.

Keith Wagner, Only One Way Out
 The Third Day 

It was a popular belief that soul and body were finally separated after 3 days -- with no hope of resuscitation. Lazarus' resurrection thus points to Jesus' resurrection. The event forces decision on belief or disbelief in Jesus; his enemies understand that the die is cast. It is this decisiveness for faith, in a miracle that surpasses any possibility of rational explanation, that gives the incident its primary dramatic tension.  

Massey H. Shepherd, Jr., Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary: John, p. 720
Sunday's A Comin' 

Tony Campolo tells the story of a black Baptist preacher in the inner city of Philadelphia who preached a sermon Tony says he'll never forget. Tony preached first. He was "hot," so "hot" he says, that he even stopped and listened to himself. He sat down and said to his pastor: "Now see if you can top that one!" 

"Son," said the black pastor, "you ain't seen nothin' yet." For an hour and a half the pastor repeated these words over and over again: "It's Friday, but Sunday's a comin'."

"I've never heard anything like it," Tony said. "He just kept saying it. The congregation was spellbound by the power of it." 

"It's Friday. Mary, Jesus' mother is crying her eyes out. That's her son up there on the cross. He's dying the agonizing death of crucifixion as a criminal. But it's only Friday," the preacher said. "Sunday's a comin'.

"The apostles were really down and out. Jesus, their leader, was being killed by evil men. But it was only Friday. Sunday is a comin'.

"The Devil thought he had won. 'You thought you could outwit me,' he said, 'but I've got you now.' But it was only Friday. Sunday is a comin'."

"He went on like that for 30 minutes, 40 minutes, an hour. Each time he said, 'It's Friday,' the crowd began to respond, 'but Sunday's comin'. An hour and 15 minutes.

"It's Friday and evil has triumphed over good. Jesus is dying up there on the cross. The world is turned upside down. This shouldn't happen. But it's only Friday. Sunday's a comin'.

"It's Friday. But Sunday is comin'. Mary Magdalene was out of her mind with grief. Her Lord was being killed. Jesus had turned her life from sin to grace. Now he was dead. But it's only Friday. Sunday is a comin'."

The place was rocking. For an hour and a half. "Friday! But Sunday is a comin'. Friday. But Sunday is a comin'. 

"The sisters and the brothers are suffering. It just isn't fair...all they have to go through, but it's only Friday. Sunday is comin'."

"I was exhausted," Tony said. "It was the best sermon I've ever heard. The old preacher was saying it and the people were with him. 'It's Friday, but Sunday is a comin'. It was powerful," Tony said. "It was personal."

Ronald J. Lavin, I Am the Resurrection and the Life,
I Will Be More Alive

 One of my favorite quotations, one I have used over and over again at funerals, comes from that great evangelist of the last century, Dwight L. Moody. Moody said, "One day you will read in the newspaper that D. L. Moody of East Northfield, Massachusetts is dead. Well, don't believe a word of it. I will have gone up higher, that's all. Out of this old clay tenement into a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. And at that moment, I will be more alive than I have ever been."

David E. Leininger, Collected Sermons,
Run the Film in Reverse

When I was a child I used to love walking into Miss Hammond's 4th grade classroom to discover the shades drawn and a 16 mm projector set up facing the pull-down screen. This was more than the joy of knowing I wouldn't be asked to answer questions, read aloud, or work out problems on the black-board. For when there was time following the movie, rather than rewind the film, Miss Hammond would show the picture in reverse. We laughed hysterically at the antics produced on the screen: things which had disintegrated suddenly were reconstituted, buildings shaken to pieces by earthquakes took previous shape before our eyes, people who had been knocked to the ground suddenly sprang back to life. That is what these lessons are about today -- God's power to run the film in reverse, to reverse the initiatives of infinitude, to overcome the gravity of life, to address a problem in life which you and I cannot solve.

Fred Anderson, A Problem You Cannot Solve