The Living Dead

Sermon preached November 1, 2015

Texts: John 11:32-44

The story begins simply enough.  “Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany.”  It has a bit of a “Once upon a time” feel to it.  There is a connection between this man, his sisters, and Jesus.  Jesus loved Lazarus.  His sisters think Jesus would like to know about this, so they send word.  Jesus does not come right away, however.  He is on a mission, to share good news about God, to let God’s glory shine through him.

His work done across the Jordan, Jesus determines to return to Judea, but Judea seems a dangerous place.  Jesus has already experienced threats there, but he does not let fear hamper his mission.  Judea, indeed, turns out to be a dangerous place, for just after our reading for today we would read about the conspiracy to have Jesus killed.  Fearing what Rome might do given Jesus work a decision is made that it is better for one man to die than for a whole people to be destroyed.

The verses we read are in the middle of the sweep of this story.  Lazarus has died.  Jesus has told Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life.”   This is not simply something for the future, but something for now, and soon Jesus will demonstrate that.  Jesus enters into all that is happening.  Seeing the grief, he feels “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.”  He weeps.  His friend has died, and he knows and feels something of the grief and loss people are feeling.  It is as he is fully present, emotionally present, that he is able to move forward with his mission here, as well, to share good news about God, to let God’s glory shine through him.  Jesus calls to Lazarus, “Come out!”  He responds and Jesus tells others “Unbind him, and let him go.”

This can be a puzzling text for we moderns.  In our experience, dead is dead. Sure there are significant debates in bio-medical ethics about how we might define that moment of death – is it loss of cardio-pulmonary functioning, the complete and irreversible loss of brain activity, of higher brain activity?  But once death comes, we experience it as irreversible.

To get too caught up in what happened questions, though, is to miss the point and power of the text.  The gospel writers, including the author of the Gospel of John were focused on the “why” more than the “what.”  They were not interested so much in journalism as in evangelism – sharing good news.  The focus of this story is Jesus as one through whom the glory of God shines and touches other lives.  In Jesus we find resurrection and life.  In Jesus we see God’s loving power even over death.  In Jesus, we discover God’s gift of new life, new existence.  One scholar wrote that what we have here is an “elaborate object lesson of God’s life-giving power.”

And it is something that is present, not just something that is future.  Jesus’ words are not meant only to be assurance about those who have died, though they certainly are that, and I speak them at every funeral I officiate at.  Jesus’s word are also about life now.  Even now, Jesus enters into our grieving, our sorrow, our moments when we are greatly disturbed in spirit, and he feels with us and brings new life.  In Jesus there is a new way to live, and in Jesus we are deeply connected with each other.  In some ways this is a kind of love story – the power of love to bring new life, the power of love which strengthens connections – Martha, Mary, Lazarus, Jesus.

We might say life in Jesus is about soul.  The writer and scholar Mark Edmundson distinguishes between the State of Self and the State of Soul.  In the State of Self “we live for our personal desires; we want food and sex, money and power and prestige.  We aspire to health.” (Self and Soul, 14)  Another kind of existence is possible, the State of Soul.  “Then we live not for desire but for hope.  We live for the fulfillment of ideals.” (15)  In the book in which he writes about this, Edumudson says that he “seeks the resurrection of Soul” (15).

Essayist and novelist Marilynne Robinson, who spoke at The College of St. Scholastica a few years ago, has written recently about fear. “Contemporary America is full of fear….  Fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” (The Givenness of Things, 125)  Paradoxically, she goes on to write, “As Christians we are to believe that we are to fear not the death of our bodies but the loss of our souls” (125).  To be too filled with fear is to lose our souls.

Life in Jesus is about soul. It is about living with hope and living for ideals, ideals like compassion, justice, reconciliation, grace, beauty, kindness, and love.  It is about living with hope and for ideals in the messiness of the world, engaging that world fully, being fully present in times of grief, sorrow and when people are greatly disturbed in spirit.  That is the way of life and to find it is to experience a resurrection of soul.  Jesus offers us such resurrection and life.

Soul life is also connected life. Jesus brings people together into community.  Jesus creates new kinds of connections that are like family.  And those connections remain even in death.  Death does not eliminate the bonds that connect us, the tissues that encircle us.  Here the dead are also the living.

Novelist William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” (Requiem for a Nun, 80). In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, which is, in part about his experiences as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, therapist Victor Frankl wrote: Not only our experiences, but all we have done, whatever great thoughts we may have had, and all we have suffered, all this is not lost, though it is past; we have brought it into being (131).  Such statements are even truer in Jesus, true in an even deeper sense.  We remain connected not only with our own past, but with the people who have been part of us in Jesus.  This might more adequately be expressed by the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, who writes of God as “a tender  care that nothing be lost….  A tenderness which loses nothing that can be saved” (Process and Reality, 525)  In Jesus we are a community, and a community that continues to include those who have gone before.

I invite us then, in Jesus, who is resurrection and life, to remember. Remember those whose names we will read.  Remember those who sat with you in this place.  Remember those who in their lives did soul work and helped you do soul work.

I invite us then, in Jesus, who is resurrection and life, to hold grief and gratitude together and to “be stretched large by them” (Francis Weller, interview in The Sun, October 2015, p. 7).

I invite us then, in Jesus, who is resurrection and life, to continue our soul work, knowing that we are connected to each other in Jesus, and always will be. Amen.