It was three years ago this spring when Covid 19 began to really impact our lives. Some time in those early months of 2020 our parishioner Megan Gallagher, who is a physician who works with infectious diseases, led a forum in which she talked about viruses and how they spread and what we might expect in the case of a pandemic like this and the implications it could have on our lives and on the world around us. She talked about flattening the curve, which I remember so clearly.
And this changed how we did things at the Cathedral. We began to put in place the precautions we would follow the next couple of years, some of which we still follow today. My sermon for the 3rd week of March 2020 talked about how we were no longer using the chalice at worship and how we had changed how we were doing the peace. We had not yet closed to having people here on Sundays, but we were heading in that direction.
Sometime around then, I remember shopping at Costco or one of those places where we were stocking up on things my family might need. And the store was filled with people, as you might imagine. It was chaotic. And I was wearing my mask and pushing my cart down the aisle there amidst the chaos. And people were fighting for things like toilet paper. Remember there was no toilet paper.
And suddenly there in the store, I noticed the song that was playing over the store’s speakers, it was a song called “Life During Wartime” by the band Talking Heads, which talks about the chaos and confusion that happen in the midst of war. And looking around at the other shoppers and myself I thought –this could be pretty bad.
It was a moment when you’re aware that things can go different ways and not all of the ways are good. Suddenly for the first time in many of our lives, and certainly for the first time as a nation and a world in many years, we were confronted with illness and sickness and death, and they were not just vague, abstract concepts, but they were possibly there in that person who stood before you, or in the wine of the chalice, or in the groceries you brought back from the store.
And while the reality of illness and sickness and death are always around us, they became part of our daily lives, and we had to choose how to deal with them. Which is not a bad thing. Many people have to deal with these things all the time.
And I bring this up because it’s Spring again and I’m remembering that spring from three years ago. And also because it’s interesting that our scriptures today, the last Sunday in Lent, all have something to say about illness and sickness and death.
In the first reading, from Ezekiel, the prophet is set down in the midst of a valley, and it is a valley that is filled with bones. In the Psalm, the Psalmist begins from this pit of despair, which isn’t exactly death but it is death-adjacent. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, Paul writes about how simple it is, just by setting our mind on the flesh, for us to head toward death. And, of course, the Gospel begins with the terrible news that Jesus’s friend Lazarus has died.
Valleys of bones, pits of despair, heading to death, the death of loved ones, all of these are just part of life all the time, but they are particularly present to us sometimes more than others.
Many years ago, I had a friend named Gladys and she invited me to her office one day and there on the wall next to where she sat were a bunch of photographs of people. And I was looking at them and I asked her if they were her family. And she said, oh this is what my coworkers call my “wall of death,” because these were all family members who had died right around the same time a few years before. She said that one, her brother, died of AIDS, one was shot, a couple died of natural causes. And it was for her a reminder of this time in her life which was a difficult time but a time she did not want to forget.
And the question is not – are we ever going to be free from illness and sickness and death? But the question is, when these things happen, how do we respond? What do we do? What does our faith teach us?
And we begin with Jesus. I find it helpful as a pastor to remind people again and again that Jesus never promises us that nothing bad will ever happen. But he promises us that when bad things do happen, he will be with us. And that’s part of what we see in the Gospel today.
In the Gospel, Jesus receives word that his friend Lazarus is ill but Jesus doesn’t do what most of us would probably do in this situation which is just to drop everything and go off and see our friend. Instead he waits a couple of days.
So when Jesus does arrive at the home of Martha and Mary, one of the responses he gets is Martha telling him: if you had been here my brother would not have died. And Martha is saying what I think we all feel on some level, we all hope – that Jesus will prevent death, or Jesus will stop bad things from happening to us. If you are only here, Jesus, at my side all the time, nothing bad will befall me. Which is nice to think but it isn’t exactly what we see in the Bible.
The Bible is a reflection of life and it shows how faithful people have lived with God for thousands of years. It is full of stories of people living their lives and struggling with human challenges in every possible way, some of them are winning and victorious, but many of them are trapped in pits of despair and walking through valleys of bones. The New Testament has encounter after encounter with Jesus and people who are, just like us, challenged. They are sick and they are hurt and they are trapped and they are struggling and they are lost, and they die. And none of these things were prevented from happening- rather they happen.
And one thing you could say is that these things have been allowed to happen. Just like Jesus allowed Lazarus to die. He probably could have saved him. He could have arrived two days earlier and maybe stopped the illness from taking Lazarus away. But instead, he allowed it to happen. He waited. And why? As he says, it’s so people could believe. “This illness does not lead to death,” Jesus says, but through it we can see the glory of God. We can see my presence and what I can do and know that through me all things turn out okay. And Lazarus is the proof.
It’s almost exactly the same thing that happened last week when Jesus’s followers asked him about the blind man “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” And Jesus answered them, No one sinned, he was born blind so that my glory might be revealed in him.” So that you may see that these things which we think are impediments, these things we think are horrible, these things we think are tragic, these things we think are pits and valleys filled with bones might be made alive.
What we miss in moments of panic when there’s chaos and when there’s change, and in those times when death is swirling around us and we are standing in the valley of bones, what we often fail to remember is wherever we are, this is not the end of the story but that there’s going to be more. As long as we are alive we are someplace in the middle of the story which ends well. And that’s the promise of Jesus Christ who can redeem all things and bring them glory, even death.
And so often we get caught at that the point in the journey where we are at the Costco and all around us and within us is the chaos and panic and fear of what might happen. Because what might happen could be horrible. And we stop there. So we stop at the tomb to gaze at the corpse of Lazarus. We stop and smell his death. We stop and see his body, or the bones of the valley, or the wall of death we have placed before us.
But what is our end? In the case of Lazarus and the blind man, it is in the glorious things that God can do in a person’s life.
Shortly after this part of the Gospel today we find Jesus again at the house of Martha and Mary. And there is Lazarus. He’s among the people sitting at dinner with Jesus.
After he is brought back to life, what does the existence of Lazarus mean? Lazarus lives in this world as a reminder of this promise of Jesus. And so I ask: What is Lazarus for you? What is your Lazarus? What role does a Lazarus play in your life? And how are you something like him?
At one point, I’m sure we thought that Lazarus was simply impossible. We knew that Lazarus would never happen, would never come to be. And we probably had abandoned Lazarus to the grave, because that’s where we stopped. We grieved his loss and were ready to give up and perhaps lie down there next to him. But then along came Jesus, and here Lazarus is.
If you are here today it is most likely true that you have gone through difficult things in your life. You may have your own wall of death, or you may have had a recent trauma, or you may, like our church during the pandemic, have gone through a period of tremendous change. But what all that means is that you have lots of Lazaruses or Lazari at your side, all of whom stand as a reminder of the promise of Jesus Christ.
Would we ask for these things never to happen to us? Would we ask for life always to be perfect? Sure. But think of all we would miss. Think of the new things that come because the old ones have died. The new opportunities arising from the ashes. That’s what I see in our church, certainly, exciting new things ahead, some of which we will be announcing in the next couple of weeks.
And that’s where we focus our lives, not at the tomb but at the promise.