Fifth Sunday in Lent John 11:1-45

Stepping Out

The story of the raising of Lazarus is found only in the gospel according to John, and it is a disturbing narrative. The death is untimely and Jesus’ behavior seems out of character; though he loves the family, he does not rush to help them. When Jesus does arrive, we are told that Lazarus has been dead for four days. According to Jewish tradition of the time, the soul lingers for only three days after death, so that Lazarus is shown to be indisputably past hope.

Jesus is described as being “deeply moved.” The Greek suggests that he is angry as well, as we tend to be when life proves itself to be hopelessly unfair. So moved is he that he actually cries. He sheds tears, perhaps, for his friends in their grief; tears over the loss of his friend; tears about the frailty of life and the randomness with which it is snuffed out; tears that no one seems to understand what he is about, much less to believe it; tears over the enormity of what he has been given to do and how alone he is.

Lazarus, meanwhile, disappears from the scene after he is resurrected and unwrapped. What no one mentions is that after all this, after he has faced everyone’s greatest fear and surrendered to death – at some point it must occur to the revived Lazarus that he will have to die again. And though writers and philosophers have speculated, no one knows how that makes Lazarus feel. No one has recorded what emotions are in play however many years down the road, when Lazarus must die again, this time forever.

We must all, finally, die. As fervently as we pray for healing and long life, we must all finally die and it is the darkest mystery each of us must face and our greatest and most unconquerable fear.

Like Martha and Mary, we appeal to some power that will protect us from it. Like Jesus, we weep with the enormity of our sadness and anger at it. Like Lazarus, we find no words that make sense of it. And is there anything in the world we would like better than to make sense of it? To conquer our great fear? To know why, when, and how we die, to know where death fits in the divine economy, to have reliable evidence that death really is just a dark door into a brighter world where everything makes sense?

If there is one word our hearts can be counted on to cry out when we are afraid, it is: Why? Why me, why this, why now? As if understanding would make our fear go away. And yet it’s not really the explanations we seek, at least not for themselves. It is the security and sense of control that those explanations might give us. Tell us why, God, and maybe we can offer a convincing argument why not. Tell us anything we can handle, tinker with, control, but do not ask us just to believe – what is it we must believe? That everything will be all right? Please, God, give us something we can work with, something we can hold on to.

          My God, my God, why have you forsaken us?

These are strong words, strong questions to ask the ruler of the universe, but they are the truth of how we feel when we cannot make sense of what happens to us, when we are not give a reason. We feel abandoned, forsaken, but because the patriarchs and the prophets and even Jesus himself have joined in these words and feelings they are not something we must hide.

To have faith in God is to have faith that we are in good hands, to have faith that whether or not we understand it, the universe makes sense. That is the hardest choice any of us must ever make. To decide it is all true is to step out into the air without a net, because we have no proof, no evidence, nothing but the adamant witness of our own hearts that it is so. We simply give up the illusion that we are in control of our own lives and step out.

In the end, it is like any human relationship. The ability to step out in faith depends entirely on love. Love is a power as well as a process. It’s curative. It is creative. When someone we care about dies, it is the love we have known that causes the pain of separation – and it is also the love that slowly weaves the inevitable bonds of healing.

Knowing that we are loved, that we have been loved, is the key to our doing the things we fear. Love supports us to go ahead, to step out in faith, and we can support others to step out in faith, knowing that we who are left behind will have someone to turn to.

Love heals. It strengthens, making us courageous both when we receive it and when we give it. Knowing we are loved makes our existence special. It affirms that we count, that we have counted, in another person’s life. You and I need others. We need to strengthen our connections to others for the security, even success, of each of us.

To know that love, and to allow that to be the foundation of our faith in God, faith that we are in good hands, faith that the universe makes sense – whether we understand it or not – that is the hardest choice that any of us must ever make. To decide it is all true is to step out into the air without a net, because we have no proof, no evidence, nothing but the unmistakable sensation of love, the adamant witness of our own hearts telling us that yes, this is so. We simply give up the illusion that we are in control of our own lives and step out.

We are still afraid of death. But the more we love and are loved, the more we make ourselves vulnerable, the more times we have rehearsed the pain of separation and ending, the more we see our loved ones cross the threshold, we believe more and more that just maybe, when it is our turn, we can do it too.

Who has come back across the river of death to tell us that it is all right? It all depends on whom you believe, and if you believe. There is Ezekiel’s miracle in the valley of the dry bones, for one, and there is Lazarus, for another, although as far as we can tell he never said anything at all.