Christians have a certain fixation with bodies. Early Christians violated the ancient laws of Rome. The holy city was in part kept holy because it was a city for the living. The dead were buried out beyond the walls. But Christians got in trouble for digging up the bones, and carrying them into the city. Christians do not abandon the dead.
As a little kid, I remember hearing stories of the great cathedrals of Europe. I’ve been a church nerd for a long time, as long as I can remember. When I got to college, I took a semester abroad at Oxford, and I toured every Cathedral within reach. I remember being sort of shocked by how full the cathedrals, even the ancient parish churches were, with bodies. Walls were covered with memorial plaques. The pavement contained marker after marker for all the Christians buried in the foundations.
Even here at Holy Communion, we bring the dead into church. Even as I preach this morning, I can see the columbarium in our chapel, where we have laid so many folks to rest. We keep the bodies close, as Christians.
Today’s stories from Scripture tell us why.
The story of the raising of Lazarus is the culmination of a whole series of miracles in John’s Gospel. Supposedly there are seven signs in John, a new seven days of creation. Jesus first signs turns water into wine, as God separated the water. There are a whole series of healings. Jesus walks on water. Then we reach the end. And just as God gave life to Adam, Jesus gives life back to Lazarus. Time, in the Bible, especially in John’s Gospel, can be more emblematic than chronological. In any moment the world may end. In any moment, God is creating the world again.
John is a difficult storyteller to read. It’s because of the perspective in this last Gospel. John had so many years to ruminate on the meaning of Jesus’ words, Jesus actions, that sometimes we get more explanation than historical reporting. There are some convoluted descriptions in John, and the dialogue is pretty over-wrought.
But beneath all the layers of explanation, beneath Jesus’ assurances to the disciples that Lazarus is just sleeping, that this will be an important sign, there is a moment that even John can’t gloss over.
The shortest sentence in the Bible is this: Jesus wept.
Both of Lazarus’ sisters say to Jesus, “If you were here, my brother wouldn’t have died.” Jesus finds his decision questioned. He knew his friend was sick. Why didn’t he come? Why didn’t he save him?
Jesus wept. Then the Gospel goes on to tell us, that when he comes to Lazarus’ tomb, Jesus is greatly disturbed again.
I’ll confess, in the past when I have preached about this Gospel I have rushed to the conclusion. I’ve rushed to the sentence: “untie him and let him go!” I have rushed to the good news that Jesus has power over death, that death does not have the last word. I have rushed there, because so often we need that good news. So often, we need that assurance. We Christians who bring our dead with us to church, we who carry the memories of those we love into our worship, so often we need the hope, we need the good news, we need the Gospel truth that our dead will not leave us alone either. God will raise them up.
And we do, we need that assurance. We need to remember our faith in days like the days we are facing. We need to remember our principles. We need to remember that we are not alone, there are generations who have carried us here. We need to remember the faith that, in the words of Saint Oscar Romero who was martyred 40 years ago last week, said this, “I do not believe in death without resurrection.” I do not believe in death without resurrection. He went on to say that if he was killed, his spirit would be raised up in the Salvadoran people. We carry our dead with us. We need to remember that faith. Death does not have the last word.
And we need our faith as we face these days. They say death is the great equalizer, that may be true, but death also is unveiling inequities. Folks have been talking about the changes we’re seeing that we should keep around after the virus: driving less, telecommuting more, spending more time with family. All of those are laudable, but there are changes we need to make systemically too.
If we don’t come out of this pandemic and ask questions about our prison system, if we don’t come out of this pandemic and change the way we incarcerate children on our border, if we come to the other side of this disease without realizing that our health system can only work if it works for ALL of us, we will have wasted the moment. Jesus comes not just to bring life, but to bring new life, to do away with the death dealing ways of our world. When we get to the end, we have an opportunity. Let’s not waste it.
But in days like these, we cannot simply rush to the end. With the virus that is now bringing such suffering, such morbidity, we cannot rush to the end. As they say, sometimes the only way out is through.
I need to say a word to our doctors, our nurses, our healthcare workers. The days ahead are going to be rough. I need you to hear from me today, as a patient and as a priest. I need you to hear from me today on behalf of your congregation. Hear these words: we trust you.
Our healthcare workers are going to faced with terrible decisions in the days ahead. From what we know about this disease, from what doctors and nurses and hospital orderlies and janitors and hospital board members have already seen in Wuhan, in Italy, in New York, this is a virus that does not discriminate. With limited supplies, and limited resources, we know that you will be faced with decisions you don’t want to make. Know that we trust you.
We don’t trust you because of the certificate on your wall. We don’t trust you because of the name of your nursing school. We trust you because we know that you are going in to work to take care of us. We know that you are among those who Mr. Roger’s pointed to when he said, when things are hard, look to the helpers. We do not trust you to be perfect. We do not trust you to be superhuman. In the days ahead, we trust you to do your best, to do the best you can with the knowledge and resources you have. And we trust you to take care of yourself, because our health depends on yours.
And if you find yourself doubting a decision, know that you are not alone. One of the markers of Post Traumatic Stress is something called “moral injury.” When you have to make a decision with no good options, and someone suffers, that decision can cause you real distress. Don’t hesitate to reach out, to a therapist, to your priest. You do not have to walk alone
And remember Jesus in this story today. Remember that for God, for Christ the healer, there were moments when the options weren’t good. Remember to weep with the families, to stand there with them in grief and pain. I know the nurses among us know that work. They have practice. Nurses are the angels of our medical system, at least in my experience.
I have to be honest, I’m scared for the days ahead. As the leader of your church, I will do my part to maintain social distancing, to help our community minimize the spread of this virus. We will deal with frustration and inconvenience. We will deal with real financial loss. We will celebrate Holy Week and Easter virtually. We will make small sacrifices because lives are on the line. And Christians don’t take life lightly. We don’t take bodies lightly.
One of the easy ways to get tongue twisted as a priest involves the name of the place you study for priesthood. The school is called a seminary, but even I have accidentally said the word cemetery once or twice. The image is endearing, a bunch of priests to be leaning up against tombstones with their theological books.
As it turns out, the tongue twister isn’t wholly inaccurate, at least it wasn’t for me. On the campus of my seminary, there is a small cemetery. I went to school in Alexandria Virginia, just a few miles across the Potomac from the nation’s capital. The seminary had a commanding view of a memorial to president Washington, not the main obelisk on the mall. In Alexandria there is another tall tower, the masonic memorial.
Traditionally Christians were buried with their feet to the east, so that at the Resurrection, they would be facing the rising sun, the second coming of Christ. But there was a famous professor of liturgy and history, the late Rev. Dr. Charlie Price, at my seminary who supposedly was buried facing the other way. At the resurrection, he explained, he didn’t want his first view to be the unsightly and ungodly masonic temple.
I always found that tongue in cheek humor delightful. I wish you were here with us, so I could hear some of you laugh. I wish some of those who have died were still with us, especially Ernie Last. Because his laugh would have given us all permission to laugh at my bad joke.
But I tell the story not just to make you chuckle at your kitchen table. I tell it because it reminds me of the faith we share. We do not believe in death without resurrection. When Jesus says, “unbind him, and let him go,” Lazarus gets up and walks out of that tomb. Christians carry our dead with us, because we believe that death does not have the last word. At the last day we will be surrounded by that great crowd of witnesses.
At the last day God will breathe over the whole earth all those cathedrals in Europe will crumble to the ground. Their whole foundations will be upturned as God’s people rise. That is the image that Ezekiel brings us, the dry bones will live again. God’s people will not always know pain. They will not always know exile. The only way out may be through, but there is a way out.
In the days ahead, do not let go of hope. Do not let go of those who are suffering, even if we do have to pray from a distance, connect over the phone. Do not let go of your sense of direction. Because we are a people who roll away tombstones. Christians are a people who know that death does not have the last word. Evil does not have the last word, and God knows, disease will not have the last word.
Sorrow may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning. Look, I’m going to break a rule, and I just don’t care. This Lent has been too long. This Lent has been too deep. This Lent has been the ugliest Lent I have ever known. There is an ancient hymn. We sing it at funerals, just as Christians have always done. First the hymn tells us a certain truth: all of us go down to the dust. Just as we heard on Ash Wednesday, we remember we are dust and to dust we return. All of us go down to the grave.
But the hymn continues, and even at the grave we make our song “Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.” You’re not supposed to say that word in Lent. But I don’t really care this year. This year we need to hear that defiant word, and we need to hear it now. So Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia. Friends, today’s scripture tell us not to give up hope. Today’s Scripture tells us that we will weep, and God will be with us in the weeping. And today the Bible tells us, weeping is not the end of the story.
In the days ahead, you will have my prayers. Those of you who will face tough decisions especially. All of us need to keep our doctors, our nurses, our healthcare workers in prayer. We need to keep families in prayer. And we need to pray with our feet by staying home unless venturing out is absolutely necessary.
And we pray those prayers for a reason. WE have to remember. As Christians, we carry our dead with us. As Christians we believe the strangest, most unlikely truth. We believe them bones, them bones are gonna dance around. We believe Lazarus will rise. So Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.