There is a lot about the Lazarus story that I do not understand. I do not understand why Jesus allows Lazarus to die if he is only going to bring him back to life anyway. I do not understand why Jesus weeps when he knows he can fix things. I do not understand why Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead when eventually Lazarus will have to die again. But mostly I do not understand why we never hear from Lazarus about how he feels about all of this. The text tells us Lazarus has been dead for three days. We do not know much about the afterlife, but presumably, after three days, one’s body and soul have already moved beyond this earthly life. For all we know, Lazarus is at peace, already enjoying eternal rest with God. Whatever pain and suffering he has endured in life is gone. Maybe he is relieved to be free of the stress and battles of earthly life, and to be released to enjoy the peace of eternal life. When he has reached that point of peaceful bliss, why would he want start over – knowing he will eventually have to go through death all over again?[i]
I used to watch the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the show, the premise is that throughout time there has always been one young woman in the world chosen to be the Vampire Slayer – a young woman trained and “called” to protect the world from vampires. In season five, after having prevented at least five apocalypses, Buffy faces one more. In the episode, the only way to stop the end of the world is for her to sacrifice herself. She dies and the world is saved. Of course, the next season, her friends use magic to bring her back from the dead. But the rest of that season, Buffy struggles. She finally confesses that she did not want to be brought back from the dead. She had been happy and at peace. All of the fighting and struggling against evil was over, and she was finally free from all obligation and strife. Being brought back was even worse than before. Not only did she have to continue fighting evil, but also she was now aware of the freedom she could have had. She didn’t want to be resurrected.
What Buffy eventually discovered, and I am sure Lazarus did too, was that there was still some purpose left in her life. In fact, she was able to transform the entire vampire slaying industry. Unfortunately, we never really get to hear what happens to Lazarus – how his resurrection transforms his life. We eventually read that the chief priests plot against Lazarus because people are beginning to follow Jesus after he raises Lazarus from the dead. Perhaps there were times when Lazarus would have preferred to have stayed dead than to be raised again and face all the controversy. But perhaps, Lazarus found new purpose and was able to use whatever additional earthly time he had to do something good.[ii]
When Scott and I first moved to Delaware after graduating from college, we found a church home at the Cathedral. The Cathedral was a special place for us. The Cathedral was where we were both confirmed as adults. The Cathedral was where we had our first experiences serving on Vestry, leading Bible Study, officiating Morning Prayer, and teaching a Rite 13 class. The Cathedral was the place where I fell in love with Anglican Choral Music and chant. The Cathedral was where I was ordained as a Deacon in the Church. So, a few years ago, when the Cathedral closed because the congregation could no longer support the cost of ministry in that space, you can imagine that I and hundreds of others were devastated. Those pews, those stone walls, that altar rail was the site of transformation and holiness in our lives. Now, the fate of that sacred space would depend on who bought the Cathedral and what they decided to do with it.
This past week, a story broke about the Cathedral.[iii] Another non-profit in the same town purchased the property and would be converting the church and all the office and classroom spaces into housing for moderate- to low-income elderly persons. When the project is done, there will be 53 housing units, housing over 116 residents. Though I never wanted the Cathedral to die – in fact, I was devastated by its death – I also must admit that the news of the resurrection of this church into a powerful new ministry brought me infinite happiness this week. What I could see was that something good would be coming out of the Cathedral’s death. The Cathedral had always been a place of service and mission, bringing Christ’s light into the community. Once this new residence is completed, the Cathedral will continue its work of bringing Christ’s light into the community.
As I was thinking about the Cathedral and Lazarus this week, what I began to wonder is whether earthly death was necessary for each of them to be reborn into new life. In many ways, when we do a baptism, that is what we say happens. As we enter into the waters of baptism, the old self dies and a new self emerges from the waters on the other side. We die to earthly life and are reborn into the life of faith. In fact, in ancient days, baptism happened in a pool of water so that the whole body could be immersed in water, signifying the old self being washed away and the new self emerging out of the watery womb of Christ. But in order to be baptized, in order to have new life, death must first happen.
When we think about All Saints Day, which we celebrate today, that pattern is quite familiar. Most of the saints that we honor today experienced a death of sorts before their earthly deaths. I can think of countless saints who renounced their wealth or their privilege in order to begin a new life: St. Francis, Mother Teresa, and Oscar Romero. And we know everyday modern saints who experience the same thing: that young adult who spent thousands of dollars on a University education to go spend two years in the Peace Corps; that person who worked on Wall Street, making millions, who left to start a non-profit; or that well-paid doctor who spends weekends at the community clinic and summers traveling with Doctors Without Borders. What those ancient saints, famous saints, and everyday saints teach us is that sometimes a part of us has to die in order for us to truly experience resurrection life.
I imagine each of us here has something we have been holding on to – or even clinging on to – that needs to die before something can be reborn in us. Maybe we need to let go of a memory – the memory of that perfect long-tenured rector or the memory of that painful experience with a rector – so that we can reassess what new life is blooming right in front of us. Maybe we need to let go of a resistance to change – letting the familiar die so that something new and fresh (and perhaps, just maybe, shockingly better) can be born anew in our community. Or maybe we need to let go of a theology of scarcity – that fear that I or my church will not have enough – so that we can allow a theology of abundance to grow in us. In many ways, I see that new life already budding here at St. Margaret’s. I see those glimpses of resurrection life pushing their way out of our protective arms. The invitation from the saints today is to let go. Let death happen so that new life can emerge. Let that new hope spring out of the tightly sealed containers in which we have hidden budding hope. And maybe, like Lazarus, when Jesus calls for us to come out of the tomb, we won’t be afraid to take off those binding cloths and to embrace whatever new, scary, uncomfortable, and awesome new life awaits. Amen.
[i] Suzanne Guthrie, “Back to Life,” Christian Century, vol. 122, no. 5, March 8, 2005, 22.
[ii] Henry Langknecht, “Commentary on John 11.32-44,” November 1, 2009, as found at https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=429 on October 29, 2015.
[iii] Robin Brown, “Historic church complex set to continue ‘Lord’s work’,” October 29, 2015 as found at http://www.delawareonline.com/story/news/2015/10/22/historic-church-complex-set-continue-lords-work/74269674/?hootPostID=ab06f2224fc6ba16ac4e81312a021ffa.