The EPISCOPAL CHURCH of ST. JAMES the LESS
Wow, These Gospel readings have been long. As if we didn’t have enough to contend with right now!
Welcome to all of you online. We may even have some newcomers, and if that’s true, a special welcome to you. I know that we also have friends and alumni from far away watching this morning. I’m grateful we can do this while we’re apart. Especially because it’s allowing us to keep our community and widen it–including parents and grandparents, people who’ve moved away or who can’t normally make it on a Sunday.
I went to our archives this week, where I was reminded how many difficult seasons the people of St. James have had to weather–wars (from the Civil War all the way through to Afghanistan and everything between). The Great Depression.
Even, and this is what I was looking for, the Spanish Flu of 1918. Do you realize that our church back then, 100 years ago, as far as I could tell piecing together the vestry minutes, had to close for 3 months during that pandemic? August, September and October. One of the first sermons the rector preached when they came back together was for Thanksgiving, and that sermon happened to coincide also with the end of World War I. So they had a lot to celebrate. And a lot–I dare say more than we–to contend with.
Here’s what I found in our newsletter, the Messenger. It’s just a short segment.“It has been a time of testing and of widespread anxiety and much sorry that the influenza epidemic has led us through. Some of our homes will never forget it. Too much cannot be said of the tender and heroic service rendered by those of our women who, disregarding their own danger, have attended the bed-side of many who otherwise would have had no one to care for them. The closing of the church and Sunday School caused an unfortunate interruption in our parish work, from the effects of which we are just recovering.” November 1918
So many of the women of the parish (and men) are carrying this torch, helping take care of people. As then, so now.
Today is the fifth Sunday in Lent. I can’t believe we’re this far along. We have for our Gospel story the raising of Lazarus from the dead. It’s the lesson we read every third year on this final Sunday before the start of Holy Week (next Sunday).
Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha were close friends of Jesus. They lived in Bethany, just outside Jerusalem. Theirs was the home Jesus stayed in when he visited Jerusalem. They appear several times in the Gospels; the other famous story with them is when Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with oil and wipes them with her hair.
The raising of Lazarus is here in part because it’s a foreshadowing of Easter. Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, as he will himself soon be raised. We’re meant to be aware of that connection, and it’s not hard. The stories have much in common–the tomb, the bandages, the women standing around. Of course, coming back to life from the dead.
Theologians tell us that, similar as they seem, these are distinct events. Lazarus was (what we might call) resuscitated, not resurrected, like Jesus. Did you know (I just learned this. The doctors and nurses in our parish of course know this already) that there’s something called “Lazarus Syndrome” where someone, after failed attempts at resuscitation, suddenly and unexpectedly comes back to life, with a normal heart rate and rhythm. Jesus isn’t resuscitated, but resurrected. I think theologians say the difference has something to do with the fact that Lazarus would again grow old and die, and Jesus wouldn’t. To be resurrected is to be restored to life forever.
There are other differences between the two raisings. Lazarus was in the tomb four days, Jesus three. Lazarus was not arrested, or crucified or even killed, but seems to have died a natural death, for reasons untold.
Here’s a difference that I find particularly meaningful, especially in these days we’re in as a country, as a world. While Jesus’ resurrection took place in the dark, with no one around, no witnesses, no one to roll back the stone or remove his bandages for him–we don’t know any of the details of the actual event–Lazarus’ raising was in broad daylight, with family and friends present. While Jesus’ resurrection was an act involving just him, and God, Lazarus’ involved everyone present there that day. It took everyone there, to help bring Lazarus back to life.
“Take away the stone,” Jesus tells them. “Unbind him, and let him go.“
John’s Gospel is never about just the literal meaning of an event, or word, or phrase. There’s always another layer. Here, it’s that death comes in many forms. There’s literal, physical death. And there are those deaths we die while still alive. The death of hope. The death of faith. Of dreams. Of desire, or care.
And when we die those deaths, we need others to bring us back to life. To roll away the stone (whatever that is) that entombs us, and to unbind the bandages that restrict us, making us unable to move, to feel, and experience this great world we live in.
It took many to bring Lazarus out of his tomb, just like it takes many today to rescue each other from the isolation and anxiety we’re all feeling right now. That’s what we do in this community. As the people of St. James have been doing for nearly 200 years. And it’s what we’ll keep doing, in whatever ways we can, for however long we must. Amen.