This is the now the third Sunday that we have gathered virtually instead of physically, and even as we are growing accustomed to life in time of pandemic, the difficulties presented by our isolation, by “safer at home,” the disruptions to our lives, world, and economy are only now becoming real to us. Some of us have lost our jobs. Many of us are trying to juggle childcare, home-schooling, and our own work schedule. We worry about our loved ones and our futures. And the virus itself is coming closer, touching our community now for the first time as we learn of friends, relatives, or acquaintances who have tested positive, are hospitalized, or even have died.
Full of fear, worried about today and tomorrow, wondering whether life will look at all the same on the other side, if we ever make it to the other side of the pandemic, we gather to worship, to listen to words of comfort from scripture, to pray for ourselves and for the world.
We may even remember that it is the fifth Sunday in Lent. If you’re like me, most of the Lenten disciplines you began in February have fallen by the wayside as they seemed like meaningless gestures next to everything we have had to give up-the easy sociability of friends gathering, a restaurant meal, Sunday worship, the Blessed Sacrament.
Yet it is Lent, the 5th Sunday in Lent, and although the Lent of COVID-19 will continue for many weeks, liturgically we are drawing near to Holy Week, near to the cross and the tomb, nearer to Christ’s victory over death in his resurrection
As if a foretaste of the great joy of Easter, deferred though it may be this year, we hear the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. And for us in our place, behind closed doors, isolated from the world and from physical connection with our fellow humans, it speaks to us.
The poignancy of Mary and Martha’s fear and grief touches us even as the apparent callousness of Jesus’ response to them offends. They send word to him that their brother, Jesus’ friend, Lazarus, is sick. Instead of changing his plans and going to be with them immediately, Jesus tarries for two days, a long enough delay that Lazarus is dead and buried by the time Jesus and his disciples arrive in Bethany.
Then come the recriminations. We understand Mary’s anger and frustration—Lord, if you had been here he would not have died. But instead of sitting with her in her grief, Jesus turns this moment into an object lesson about his identity. “I am resurrection and I am life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in m will never die.”
Words, words. Sometimes in John’s gospel, even the most beautiful, the most powerful, the most profound words that Jesus says can come to seem less than connected with our lives. He says so many things, so many times he says the same things in slightly different ways, or uses the same words or images again and again. The words may begin to wash over us, or worse, we may simply tune them out because they don’t speak to, or for, us.
After the words, actions. The group goes to the tomb. Suddenly, words matter; suddenly the reality of it all hits home. Jesus tells them to roll the stone away. Martha reminds him that Lazarus has been dead four days; that the stench will be overwhelming. And now we are in the presence, the overwhelming power of death. Even if we’ve never come near a dead body, or opened a tomb, we can imagine what’s going. We’ve seen enough movies, we’ve watched enough TV to know what is happening, what has happened.
Yet the stone is rolled away. And Jesus cries out, “Lazarus, come out!” He comes out, a dead man walking, and Jesus tells them to unbind the graveclothes from him. And we get the punchline. “Many of the Jews believed in him”
A story of miraculous power, of resurrection and life. A story of faith, Mary’s, and Martha’s, and the bystanders who came to faith. A story of love—of two sisters for their brother, and the love of Jesus for his friends. A story of death, and grief, and deep, deep feeling. All those adjectives used of Jesus here: “Jesus greatly disturbed and moved in spirit” Jesus began to weep, and again, repeating that Jesus was “greatly disturbed” All of these powerful emotions given to Jesus the Son of God at a time of the deepest distress of his friends.
Like Lazarus, we are in tombs, tombs of isolation, despair, anxiety, and fear. We don’t know how long this will last. We don’t know whether the pandemic will touch us more deeply and closely. We can’t see beyond the next few days or next few weeks.
But we are not alone. The one who is resurrection and life calls to us, “Lazarus, come out!” He calls to us to come out of our tombs of anxiety and despair. The risen Christ is with us here and now. He has conquered death and gives us life.
I pray that in this time of loneliness and fear, when we are separated from our friends and family, separated from the gathered body of Christ, that we listen for the voice of Jesus. It is a voice that calms our fears and gives us hope. It is a voices that offers us strength and life. And may we look forward to the day when, emerging from the tombs of isolation, we are freed from the bindings that restrict us by the loving hands of our fellow believers.