Lent 5 RCL Yr A
John 11:1-45 and Ezek. 37:1-14
The Rev. Gillian R. Barr
April 6, 2014
The Church of the Good Shepherd, Pawtucket
That is the King James Version of Martha’s description of four-days-dead Lazarus, what we heard as “already there is a stench.” Actually, the King James says, “he stinketh.” Lots of things stink, literally or figuratively. The death of a friend. Disease-laden drinking water. The smell of gunpowder after a shooting. Flop houses and crack houses. Bodies on a battlefield. Antiseptic in hospitals and the deadly infections it fights. A person living on the streets without access to a shower or clean clothes. Salty tears.This morning’s scriptures don’t sugar-coat death and decay. There is a stench. Other translations use the words putrid and foul. He stinketh. Only two words, but they say so very much. They stand for all the things in life which indeed reek of death, those things which stink to high heaven.
In Ezekiel’s vision described in the first reading, Ezekiel is led all around a valley of bones. He isn’t invited for just a quick look, no, this is a close and lengthy inspection of a valley full of bones. A whole valley full of death, death that has been happening a long time–they are very dry, and there are very many of them.
The Bible doesn’t shy away from death. In our culture, we do. We use euphemisms. Bodies are whisked away on gurneys to be cleansed by undertakers We avoid the word “death”–we don’t say someone died. “He passed,” “she transitioned,” “he crossed over,” “she has gone to a better place.” We “celebrate their life” but go to great lengths to avoid the cold hard word “death.” We prolong life in hospitals, we avoid making wills or estate plans or advanced directives. We don’t tell our pastors when we are sick or in trouble because we “don’t want anybody to see us like that.” We may show death and gore in action and fantasy film plots, but we avoid talking about how it happens in real day to day life.
Talking about death reminds us of our own mortality, our own powerlessness, the one thing that even the best doctors cannot ultimately fix, only delay. Like taxes, we can sometimes file for an extension, but we cannot avoid death.
In contrast to our culture, the Bible looks death straight in the eye. It is honest about the pain of loss, of despair, of grief. The dry bones in the Ezekiel passage are an image of the people of God after they have been in exile in Babylon for a generation. They are the disjointed bones of loss, of separation from homeland and family, of forced resettlement. They are the soul-crushing experiences of being a refugee, a reviled foreigner. They represent the despair of seeing your whole life upended, your religious sites destroyed, your government overthrown, your capital city turned to rubble.
The Bible is honest about the pervasive presence of death. But bones and bodies are not the only things in these stories. There are actually 3 characters in both of these stories. The dead body, someone who cares about the dead person, and God. Lazarus’s sisters are mourning him and their friends are trying to comfort them. The valley of bones are seen by Ezekiel, who cares about his people. And in both stories God is present. God comes in the words of a prophet, breathing new life and hope over a people lost in death. God comes in Jesus, weeping for a friend, and calling him out into new life.
Just as the Bible doesn’t sugarcoat death, it doesn’t downplay its effects. Jesus weeps. St. Augustine wrote, “Why else does Christ weep, but to teach us how to weep? . . . . He groans because that is what faith does when it sees something that has gone wrong and is not right.” Jesus comes to be with his friends and to weep along with those others who come to comfort them. And that is a key part of both these stories. A prophet cares. Friends and family support one other. Jesus comes to be with them.
One reason we downplay death is because it is hard to know what to do, what to say. It is hard to go towards death, to be around someone who is lost in grief, to face their pain. Easier to paper it over with euphemisms, just send a card, jolly them along the next time you see them. It is hard to walk towards someone and simply be with them, acknowledging their pain, feeling it with them. But that is what Jesus does. He comes to be with his friends. As Christians, not only do we have confidence that God is with us in valleys but we can also feel confident when going to be with others in their dead places that we are not alone—we go with the power of the God who resurrects. When Jesus arrives he asks to be taken to the body, and Mary and Martha’s friends and neighbors go along with him to help console the women. It is by coming to be with the sisters in their grief that these bystanders get to witness the new life that does in fact come. And it is the bystanders who help Lazarus stay on his feet as he emerges from the tomb, and finish unbinding him from all that is holding him in death.
Having the courage to go and be with someone even where the stench of death is strong can be costly. It forces us to contemplate our own limits, see a foretaste of what awaits us, it makes us ask how we will respond when we are faced with our own death. In Jesus’ case, going to be with Lazarus and raising him back to life cost Jesus his own life. In the next scene of the story, many people begin to follow Jesus because of seeing him raise Lazarus, and this is what makes the chief priests determined to kill him.
This is why we hear this story right before Holy Week. It is one of the last things that happens in Jesus’ life and is the immediate trigger for his death. Jesus does not only weep for Lazarus–he weeps also for himself. He knows, and the even the usually clueless disciples sense, that by raising Lazarus Jesus has signed his own death warrant. When he looks at the stone in front of the tomb, he sees where he is headed.
Just as Jesus cannot and does not avoid looking directly at the tomb and allowing his own grief for his friend and for himself to overwhelm him, so during Holy Week we do not avoid looking death in the face. On Palm Sunday we wave triumphant palms but we also hear the story of crucifixion. On Maundy Thursday we remember the commandment to love–but we also see where that love leads–to a garden. On Good Friday we go from the Garden to the Place of the Skull and the tomb.
There was a time when Palm Sunday focused only on the triumphant entry of Christ, his kingship. And then it was Easter Sunday. The average worshiper went straight from triumph to glory. When I was in charge of children’s programming in churches and we were introducing a full celebration of Holy Week, there was always worrying from parents about “what to do about Good Friday?” How to talk about Jesus dying? The temptation is go straight from “sweet hosannas on the lips of children” to “Jesus Christ is Risen Today,” from waving palm branches to carrying Easter baskets and chocolate. Then we wonder why our young people do not see their faith as having anything to do with real life, with having any thing to say to them in times of disappointment, loss, accidents, mistakes, grief. And why even as adults we struggle to trust that God is with us in our darkest times.
That is why the recovery of the full liturgical observance of Holy Week in recent years is such an important thing in the church, and why we clergy keep stressing the importance of attending as many of the services as possible. And so today we hear the story of Lazarus, and stand with Christ as he looks at the tomb of his friend and forward to his own tomb. Fred Craddock says,
“And if the story of Lazarus is really about Christ, then it is not about a death following illness being overcome by a raising, but about a meaningful death, deliberately entered into for the sake of the world, and a resurrection for the life of the world. The death of Lazarus was a tragic event in the absence of Christ; the death of Christ was an extraordinary gift in the presence of God whose will he obeyed. As a Lazarus story our text is an Easter story; as a Christ story our text is a Good Friday and Easter story. The difference must not be lost on us. Offering Easter to the world without Good Friday is to encourage its easy translation into a rite of spring, full of flowers, eggs, and rabbits. Offering to the world both Good Friday and Easter is to invite entrance, not only into his death and life, but into our own as well. The shout at the tomb reserves its real meaning for those who are with him as he weeps. “
I have said all these things to you in the Name of the Crucified and Risen Christ, the one who says,
“I am the voice of life that wakens the dead. I am the good odor that takes away the foul odor. I am the voice of joy that takes away sorrow and grief . . . . I am the comfort of those who are in grief. Those who belong to me are given joy by me. I am the joy of the whole world. I gladden all my friends and rejoice with them. I am the bread of life.
 Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John 49.19, found in Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 1 7:276, as quoted in Elowsky, Joel C., ed. John 11–21. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007, “John 11:38.”
Craddock, Fred B. “Jesus Wept : John 11:32-44.” Journal For Preachers 23, no. 3 (January 1, 2000): 36-38. ATLASerials, Religion Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed April 6, 2014).
 Athanasius, Homily on the Resurrection of Lazarus, found in American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1895–1941, 57:265-266. Cited by Elowsky, Joel C., ed. John 11–21. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007.