Brief synopsis of the readings: In Ezekiel we learn that God has promised to raise us from our graves. God “shall put my spirit in your, and you will live, and I shall resettle you on your own soil.” Then they will know that the Lord did this. In the Gospel (and I’m using the shorter form) we see the account of Lazarus. Lazarus had two sisters (Martha and Mary) and was gravely ill. Martha and Mary sent for Jesus and Jesus was on his way. By the time Jesus arrived, Lazarus had been dead for four days. Martha told Jesus: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus told them he is the resurrection and the life. Jesus insisted on going to the cave and rolling the stone away. When they did Jesus prayed and commanded him to come and he did. Many people who witnessed that became disciples of Jesus.
At first glance it seems these readings are difficult or even cruel given today’s events. Both of these readings speak of promises to return someone from the dead. And as I write this worldwide nearly 15,000 people in the world have died from Convid-19. People are scared and wonder if the end is in sight.
But looking from a different angle, perhaps these readings are just what we need right now.
Stories of healing go all the way back to Abram and Sarai’s infertility in Genesis. But they all centered on either fixing something that was wrong (like infertility), healing from illness, or making the impossible happen (like Jesus turning water into wine). But bringing someone back from the dead is something of a different order, a different level.
Ezekiel wrote during a bad time in history. His readers lived in exile and wondered if they would cease to exist. In many ways they felt dead. When Ezekiel promised that their days of exile would soon end, it almost didn’t seem enough. Could God heal them to the point where they would once again feel alive? Ezekiel thought so and that’s what he wrote. And he was right: they returned from exile and built a new Temple.
If we aren’t so familiar with the reading from Ezekiel I think we all know the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. But it’s complex story and it’s worth a read with new eyes. There is another Lazarus in Luke 16 (he was the poor person who died and went to Heaven while the rich man lived in torment) but he is a different Lazarus.
Here Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha are loved by Jesus and when Lazarus fell ill it made sense for the sisters to call for Jesus. But here’s where it gets puzzling: Jesus essentially slow walked his journey to Lazarus’ bedside and he got there four days after Lazarus died. This is my favorite part: Martha bounced all over the place. At first she appeared to blame him by telling him that if he can come sooner her brother would still be alive but then acknowledge that God will grant whatever Jesus wanted. When Jesus said her brother would live she misunderstood and said he would rise “on the last day.”
And then Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. On some level that must have looked at least a little comical: as was the custom Lazarus was prepared for burial with his hands and feet bound and a cloth on his face. We can imagine him stumbling out still bound and not being entirely certain what was happening. Jesus even had to instruct his followers to unbind him.
Finally, many of those gathered saw this and began to follow Jesus. And that needs to be our focus today.
These days frighten many of us. As I said we are learning of a virus whose power appears limitless. We live in a world nearly without borders. We think nothing of waking up in Asia, spending the day on an airplane and falling asleep in North America and we recognize that people are contagious before they have symptoms.
And if that weren’t enough the world economy is tanking. The very acts that protect us against the virus slow the world economy and bring back memories of how bad things were in 2008 and 2009. And those of us who obsess over history make frightening parallels to the influenza virus of 1918.
But here’s where today’s readings come in. God doesn’t promise an end to suffering or death. We don’t know how many people died in 1918 but we think it was somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 million (including President Trump’s grandfather and my grandfather’s stepfather).
God’s promise to us doesn’t mean that we won’t die or that our retirement savings won’t suffer. It doesn’t mean that the money we saved for our retirement or for our childrens’ college fund won’t be affected.
But Jesus was clear that his friend Lazarus’s death wasn’t the end of the story. Jesus was clear that salvation history means that our salvation has a future and that our story doesn’t end with exile, or whatever killed Lazarus. It doesn’t end with the influenza of 1918 or the COVID 19 virus.
We are called to follow directions, to wash our hands, to keep distance from each other. But we are also called to understand that in this crisis we need to remember what Jesus commands us. We are called to continue to pray for each other, to revere life and to do what we can do.
And we can do a great deal. We can call an elderly neighbor and ensure that his or her needs for food (and toilet paper) are met. We can call an old friend in a hotspot and make sure that friend is OK. We can find a charity we know that reaches out to people on the edge and write a check without being asked.
Finally, my wife and I work in the healthcare world. We spend our lives with people who are sick or immune compromised and we often don’t know what we’re facing. We take precautions but none of us are completely safe. Please pray for all of us who work with the sick.
Finally, let us especially pray for first responders and those in emergency rooms. They are more at risk and more deserving of our prayers and respect.
We’ll get through this.