Fifth Sunday of Lent

Mar 28, 2020

“Lazarus is dead,” Jesus tells the disciples

It’s not hard to imagine the questions that might be running through the minds of the disciples and the hearts of Mary and Martha. They are the same kind of questions I have heard being asked, and I have asked myself, over the last several weeks as our state, our country and the whole world face the spread of the latest Coronavirus and the resultant Covid-19 disease. They are the same kind of questions we ask ourselves and each other whenever life is interrupted and changed in ways we do not want, especially by the death of loved ones. They are the same kind of questions we ask when circumstances show us just how difficult and fragile life really is.

Why? How could this happen? What’s next for me? Is this an ending or a beginning? Could it be both? How do I move forward? How do I make sense of what has happened? When will life return to normal? What will life be like after this? Why didn’t it work out the way I wanted? Is there life after this? What could I have done differently? Why didn’t God do something to prevent this? Every one of us could add to this list– we all have our questions. What questions did you ask when the Lazarus of your life died? And what questions are you asking today?

Every time life sets before me those kind of questions I am reminded, once again, that I live with more questions than answers, and the answers I do have no longer seem to carry the weight and authority they once did. Our lives are filled with unanswered questions. My experience is that the unanswered questions of life tend to leave us disappointed– disappointed in life itself, in ourselves, in another… or sometimes in God. Disappointment is wrapped up in and bound by our unmet expectations.

That’s where Mary and Martha are in today’s gospel. They are disappointed. “Lord, if you have been here, my brother would not have died,” they both say separately to Jesus. Even the crowd that follows Mary is disappointed. “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” they ask. We all know that disappointment. We want answers, explanations, and understanding. But maybe there aren’t any; at least, not the kind most of us want. Maybe life itself is an unanswered question and maybe that’s how we are to live it.

It’s important to realize that Jesus does not offer answers or explanations to Mary and Maratha… or to us. Instead, he uses our disappointment as “an agency for transformation,” a concept articulated in David Whyte’s book entitled “Consolations.” Jesus seems to know that disappointment is inescapable, necessary, and even a faithful response to life’s circumstances. He neither criticizes nor ridicules Martha and Mary for their disappointment. Instead, he uses it as an opening and entry point into their lives. There’s something honest, heartfelt, and real about Mary and Martha’s words of disappointment to Jesus. They are offering and making themselves available to him. They rethink what they know about life, death, and resurrection. They risk smelling the stench of death.

To attempt to insulate ourselves from disappointment and demand all kind of answers to life’s questions is to close ourselves to the vulnerabilities that make possible real life, love, intimacy, and relationships with God or with another. It limits what we are willing to risk giving or receiving. It leaves the stone in place over Lazarus’ tomb. While we might want to escape our disappointments, life wants to use them. Life will not waste our disappointments, and Jesus always stands in the middle of life. Disappointment calls into question our assumptions about life, ourselves, each other, and God.

The current world crisis with its local restrictions on life as usual has occasioned all sorts of responses from people.  Some are hoarding toilet paper… while others have risen to creative acts of kindness and generosity.  Unfortunately, many people seem stymied, almost paralyzed.  We feel locked in and focus only on when this will be over.  The danger, here, is that we will put our lives on hold as we go through this extraordinary time and just endure it… rather than allowing ourselves to be graced by the possibilities that lie within this uninvited season of our lives.

Disappointment asks us to reassess ourselves and our inner world. It is the first step in freeing us from misguided assumptions. It breaks old patterns of seeing and relating that have become hardened and less than life-sustaining. It opens our eyes to a deeper way of seeing. Jesus uses our disappointment in the unanswered questions of life to invite us to a larger foundational reality than what we create for ourselves and project onto the world. Isn’t that what he’s doing with Mary and Martha?  Listen as he says:

  • I am the resurrection and life.”
  • Take away the stone.”
  • Did I not tell you that you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
  • Lazarus come out.”
  • Unbind him and let him go.”

With those words Jesus is holding before Martha and Mary the possibilities that lie within an uninvited and unexpected life event.

The great question before us (and Mary and Martha) is whether we experience our disappointment as an opportunity for seeing and engaging our lives and world in new, different, and life-giving ways or whether we experience it only as a wound, an injury, a set-back. It’s a question we answer every day by the way that we live. It’s a question Jesus answered throughout his life.  It’s important to be honest, and as we journey together through the Coronavirus pandemic—and so it’s OK to say “Wow, this really stinks!”  That’s what Martha says to Jesus in trying to dissuade him from entering the tomb of Lazarus.  But after admitting and accepting that, the next step is to hear Jesus calling us out of the stink.  That’s exactly what he is doing for Lazurus in today’s gospel.

As you can see, this is a place through which Jesus has walked and shown the way forward. It is not the dark place we often think it is. It’s an aperture into the light, a path that opens to new life, a clearer way of seeing, a truer sense of ourselves, and a deeper experience of Christ. It becomes the place of our unbinding and being let go.  “Lazarus, come out!” is Christ’s unceasing call to each of us.

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