Life Unbound; Rev. Dee Ledger, March 29, 2020

Many years ago, an art teacher challenged me to draw the interior of a Dutch wooden shoe.  If you have ever peered inside a wooden shoe, you might then understand the challenge.  It looked like a cavernous black hole and my rendering was flat, two-dimensional, and resembled a charcoal oil spill.  But my instructor took his eraser and skillfully brought my oil spill to life, lifting little bits of charcoal here and there, making the inside of that shoe look as if you could place your toes into its dark cavity and walk off the page.

The instructor then said something that has remained with me, “Look for the light.  Find the light in the shadows.”

In the scripture for today, a family death confronts us.  A beloved brother, Lazarus, has died.  Two sisters stand weeping.  An entire community mourns with them.  The body has been buried in a dark tomb and a stone placed at the entrance.  We are told that four days have passed, four days of mourning, four days of feeling empty, bereft, and numb, four days of anger and misery.  Four days of unanswered questions; four days of waiting and wondering, four days of watching and hoping for their beloved Rabbi, the Son of God, to come.

Perhaps you know such waiting.  Perhaps you have waited for a test result, for a phone call that never seems to come, for a dream to come true or a promise to be kept—perhaps you too have waited for a resurrection in a dark tomb, or in a situation that has bound your heart, mind, and soul.   If so, then you understand both the heartbreak of those sisters, and the death and immobility of Lazarus.

When Jesus arrives, Martha goes to meet him and the first thing she says is,

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Later, her sister, Mary, goes to Jesus.

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” she says.

Then we hear those standing at a distance say, “Couldn’t he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

These are challenging questions that mirror some of our own questions when illness, tragedy, or misfortune occurs.  “God, why won’t you heal my sister of cancer?”  “God, if you had been there, my brother wouldn’t have been killed in that car accident.”  “God, if you had been there, that nurse would have been spared getting Covid-19.”  “God, if you had been there my children would have been spared.”   And then—why, God, why?

These are questions that even faithful, devout, and mature Christians ask.   They are questions that we have asked under the stark florescent lights of a hospital emergency room, in the quiet of the night while we lie awake and restless, and when we look into the eyes of a beloved friend who has walked more than her share of miles in the valley of tears.

“God, where are you?”

“Lord, if you had been here …”

Asking these kinds of questions does not mean that our faith is defective, or that we somehow missed too much Sunday school as a child because we were more interested in snack time than the daily bible lesson.  Asking them does not mean that we are somehow less religious or less worthy of God’s love.  Asking them does not anger, annoy, or disrespect God.  A God worthy of our worship can hold our questions, our doubt, our confusion, our anger, our fear and our tears. God holds all of this in Godself, waits upon our trust and unfolding awareness, and shares our deepest sorrows.  We are told that when Jesus comes, he sees Mary weeping and is greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.  When those gathered urge him to “come and see,” Jesus does so and begins to weep.

But our story does not end here.  In the face of death, in the face of tragedy, in the face of grief, loss, and decay, a resurrection comes.  “Lazarus, come out!” Jesus cries, and somehow we know that when Lazarus walks out of that tomb with bands of funeral cloth trailing behind him, we are meant to come out of our own tombs.  We are meant to be released from all the ways that we bind ourselves and others.  Somehow amidst the thousand deaths that our flesh is prone to, we too can cry out in faith, “With Christ, I shall rise again.”

But first we must enter the tomb and that is a scary proposition.  We fear the skeletons in our closets, the very real and rising numbers of deaths, and the things that cause us to stumble in the night.  We wonder what will happen when we roll away those heavy stones of doubt, mistrust, cynicism, apathy, and pride and let God’s light shine into the dank and decaying parts of our lives.  Martha gently warns Jesus, “Lord, already there is a stench,” and we hold our noses as if the odor of all our disappointments, internal conflict, and miscalculations and sin will overwhelm us.  Yet, our walk with Jesus to the cross calls for us to enter the dark cavern of our soul, trusting that God will help us to unbind that which stifles, strangles, and suppresses the life giving Spirit within us.  On our Lenten walk with Jesus, there is no tomb or situation beyond God’s capacity to bring healing.  Perhaps the cure will elude us, but healing comes even as it seems the world’s bandages are not enough to stem the tide of decay.  Situations that seem devoid of light have flickers of hope within the shadows.

During Lent, Christians are asked to spend time among the shadows. We are asked to contemplate death, specifically, our death, in order that we might live more fully.  We are to hold the promise of resurrection as we allow the reality of our mortality to reach gut level.  Often this is not a place that we willingly visit.  In a culture that frequently denies death or masks death’s finality with euphemism, people are uneasy speaking of their own mortality, grief and loss.  And that makes it so much harder to live through the emotions that arise now in the midst of pandemic.   And yet, in Lent, we are challenged to do this very thing so that we might value life in all of its preciousness and in all circumstances.  The tendency is to race to resurrection and avoid the crucifixion.  As Marcus Borg writes, “it is the contemplation of one’s own grave that can teach one how to live.”[1]

Sometimes people ask me how I could sit at the bedside of so many grieving families, day after day—how I could stand in solidarity with those who lived with the pain of terminal illness, in whatever form it took.   There were times, I confess, when I wondered the same.  One of those times happened just before Christmas several years ago.  A friend and colleague of mine lost three grandchildren to a terrible fire.  I recall that during that same week, the world stood weeping with those families whose loved ones perished in the tsunamis.  As if that weren’t bad enough, the newspapers spoke of terrorist attacks in Iraq.  These events coupled with the challenges of my ministry literally brought me to my knees in prayer.  It seemed that death followed me throughout the day and the night.

In the midst of such tragedy and sorrow, I, too, have cried with Mary, “Lord, if you had been here, my brothers and sisters would not have died.”  I, too, have struggled with my faith and strained to hear how God speaks to me in these events.  I, too, have waited for resurrection amidst the ashes of despair.  I, too, have prayed, “Lazarus, come out!”

In his book entitled, Night, Elie Wiesel tells a story about when he and his fellow Jews were forced by their guards to evacuate one concentration camp and walk over 46 miles to another in the cold and snow.  Many never reached the camp and succumbed to death.  When they finally reached their destination, they were led by the guards to a dark and crowded shed where bodies were pressed in on either side.  There were moments when he felt as if he could not breathe and when he called out to his father, as they had become separated in the darkness.

Then Wiesel relates, “I heard the sound of a violin.  The sound of a violin, in this dark shed, where the dead were heaped upon the living.  What madman could be playing the violin here, at the brink of his own grave?…It must have been Juliek… It was pitch dark.  I could hear only the violin, and it was as though Juliek’s soul were the bow.  He was playing his life.  The whole of his life was gliding on the strings—his lost hopes, his charred past, his extinguished future.  He played as if he would never play again.”[2]

If you read a little further in the gospel story, it is the raising of Lazarus that seals Jesus’ fate on the cross.  For the gospel writer that we know as John, the raising of Lazarus was a powerful sign of Jesus’ ability to transform death and despair.  God’s power to resurrect often comes in small yet profound moments:  a violin played by a dying man,  a tear wiped by a caring friend,  a bit of bed sheet transformed into bandages, leftover material turned into facemasks for medical staff, a loving card in the mail saying what we can’t seem to say in person, a mercy extended or forgiveness granted… these things are part of the resurrection that God intends for our lives.  But perhaps we need to visit the grave first, to stand weeping silently with Jesus, with our questions hanging in the air and our eyes adjusting to the darkness.  Then, in time, like a bulb bursting from good soil, we will emerge from our tombs giving witness to life unbound and a spirit set free.







[1] Marcus Borg, “Death as the Teacher of Wisdom” http://   accessed 3/12/2005

[2] Elie Wiesel, The Night Trilogy (New York: Hill and Wang, 1985) 100.

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