5 Lent, Year A, 2017: Entombed

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Link to readings for 5 Lent: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=28

I have never preached on Lazarus.
Any time this story has come up,
I preached on the alternative –
which usually is from the prophet Ezekiel
about the valley of dry bones.

Honestly, what is there to say:
Jesus raised a dead guy?

There is the old liberal Christian thing
of suggesting that maybe Lazarus was only in a coma
and somehow, as luck or God would have it,
Jesus was in the right place at the right time
when Lazarus came out of it.

But I don’t like pretending there is a reasonable
explanation any more than I like preaching
that it really, really happened.

Since we are not the kind of Christians
that take the Bible literally,
and because we are not stuck
with believing everything written
in the pages of scripture is factual,
I am not required to proclaim to you
that Jesus took a dead body
and turned it back into a live body.
You can believe that if you want, no problem!
But I do not have to proclaim it
or explain it, or in any way try to perfume that pig.

Still, knowing that some people,
probably some people right here today,
have a pretty high-stake investment
in believing Jesus could and did do such things,
I certainly do not want to be up here
poo-pooing those beliefs,
even as I do not want to be espousing them either.
So that is why
I have never preached on Lazarus before,
even though I reckon it has come up
more than a dozen Sundays since I have been a preacher.

The only way I know how to get out of that kind
of rock and hard place,
is to dive in
and make the scripture personal.


Jesus is clearly grieved in this story.
He cries, it says.
I don’t want our prophet
to be immune from pain –
nor do I want God to be immune from suffering.
If they are going to be in it with us
they better doggone suffer with us
because suffering is a big part of life as we live it.


I went to seminary when I was 24 years old,
and I am going to tell you a story
that makes me ashamed.

It was the summer after my first year in seminary
when we had to enroll in an intensive
clinical pastoral education program
in a hospital or prison.
It is almost a hazing kind of thing.
Everyone who has been through it
knows what the poor dupes are about to go through
but can’t explain it to them
even if they wanted to warn them.
The long and short of these programs
is to rub the innocent and naive seminarians’ face
in suffering, death, and powerlessness,
and for good purpose.

I was as naïve as any,
and less innocent than most.
I was also deeply into anesthetizing myself
with alcohol and drugs on a daily basis,
so my emotional life was already
a case study in mental illness.

That’s not the part I am ashamed of by the way,
that’s just a fact.

I did my training at New England Deaconess Hospital
in Boston, where I lived and went to seminary.

The first two weeks of the program
we were to don green scrubs
and work as a nurse’s aid in the morning
and be subjected to group therapy in the afternoon.
The idea was that we would get a view of the hospital
without any comfortable filters –
in the same way they would later also insist
we observe an autopsy.

As I was taking the subway to my first day
as a nurse’s aid, I suddenly realized
I had not been in a hospital since I was born –
other than to interview for the program.
Even though I worked in a mental health unit
the year before I went to seminary,
it was a self-contained wing of a hospital
and I had never had any association
with the physical illness part
of the medical establishment.

I felt kind of cool though,
in my baggy scrubs
and picture ID badge hanging around my neck.

When I got to the unit
it was 7 AM and a shift change.
The nurses were meeting
and someone told me to just walk around
and see if anyone needed anything.

I lumbered down the hallway, like I do,
looking in rooms
where everyone was sleeping
and feeling grateful no one wanted anything.

As I turned a corner
I started to hear moaning.
The sound pulled me in
like passing drivers rubber-necking at an accident.
I stopped at the doorway
listening to a man with his back to me,
sitting on the edge of the bed
rocking back and forth,
moaning loudly.

I was frozen.
I didn’t know what to do.
Finally I stuck my head in a little further
and blurted out, “Can I help you?”

The man turned around
and he was bright yellow.
I gasped, turned, and ran down the hall.
That is what I am ashamed of.

I had never seen jaundice before,
and in fact, never heard of it.
All I knew was that this guy was yellow
and in pain,
and I was powerless.
So I ran. Yep.
My instinct was to run from pain,
and certainly to escape any sense of powerlessness.
As you might imagine,
there was quite a bit in that summer
for me to encounter and learn from.

Even so, two years later
I would be headed for my first job
as a newly ordained transitional deacon,
in the parish where I would eventually
be ordained a priest,
without ever having considered the fact
that I would one day be conducting funerals.

You might rightly wonder what I thought I was doing,
and looking back I cannot even explain it to myself.
But I was in so much denial about death
that I literally never gave a thought
to the liturgical activity around it.
Nor did we talk about funerals
in any class I ever took in seminary –
at least not any of the classes I actually attended.

So I tell you all of that,
to get to this:

I was not prepared
for the deep and pervasive presence of grief
in the life of a priest.

I apologize for being so personal,
but I promise it is moving us toward that story
from the Gospel of John.

Priesthood is an incredible privilege
for which I am deeply grateful;
and like any profession
it can be full of great joy,
powerful meaning,
and amazing abundance.
But as with any relationship
or circumstance
that includes the potential to love
and be loved,
priesthood is also a fountain of grief.

So many times of standing at the grave
of Lazarus, my friend,
with no ability to bring him or her back.

So many times of sitting with a family in sorrow
without the ability to comfort their pain.

So many times of preaching at the funeral
of people I have loved,
but unable to process my grief
with those who are grieving.

So many times of dropping granules of dirt
into a dark hole,
hearing my own voice
over the sound of earth hitting coffin.

I don’t even know if I should be telling you this,
as you and I may yet share such moments together.
It isn’t very professional of me.

But here is what happened.

All those years of grief piling up
unbeknownst to me,
unacknowledged by me,
unprocessed by me,
finally blanketed my life
in a heavy layer of depression.

I looked around
and everything I could see
was the grave of my friend Lazarus,
and he wasn’t coming out.
Unlike Jesus in that story,
and exactly like you,
I was, and am, powerless.

I tell you that,
not to invite your compassion or empathy,
and hopefully not your judgment or scorn.

Rather, to invite you to stand
at the front door
of your own grief and sorrow.
To invite us all,
to stand with Jesus at the grave of his friend,
in the moment of powerlessness
where we can do nothing but cry –
and sometimes we can’t even do that.

Why in the world
would I want to invite you to such a dark place?
Well, first of all, because it is a real place.

It is a real place all of us have visited.
Gathering as spiritual community like this,
should be a place where we can be real
about such things –
not just happy talk
and sunshine.

But in addition to being real,
I am inviting us to stand with Jesus
at the graveside of his friend,
because all of us have a lifetime of grief
we need to be mindful of
and do something with.

But it is not only grief
it is also powerlessness.
Whether you are a control freak
or imagine yourself to be pretty nimble and flexible,
powerlessness is a fearsome moment to stand in.

And yet, allowing ourselves
to stand within our powerlessness
will open us to more opportunities for healing
than any surgery,
or any pharmaceutical,
or any magic ever known.
The reason I have invited us
to stand here at the front door of our grief
and powerlessness,
is that it is also the front door
to the most elementary piece of spiritual wisdom
residing at the heart of Judaism,
and Islam.

Truly, the wisdom of our three Western religions
is rooted in that painful,
grief-filled moment of powerlessness.
Judaism and Christianity call it surrender, and
Islam calls it submission.

Every other element of spiritual wisdom
emanating from these three religions
is built upon the foundation of surrendering
to our powerlessness
, and in so doing,
experiencing a power greater than ourselves.

In fact, we cannot
and never will
encounter that power greater than ourselves,
unless and until
we do surrender.

That is just a fact.
It is the singular, indivisible fact of our tradition.
Unless and until
we can stand in the moment of powerlessness
and surrender,
we will not know
that power greater than ourselves.
Now that is bad news
if we don’t want to do it.

But it is good news
in that every single one of us CAN do it.
and surrender
is an equal opportunity encounter –
it comes to all of us
sooner or later,
and sometimes with great frequency.

There is no trick to it
or easy method for doing it.
It is something we must simply practice.

It never seems to get any easier with practice,
but we can get better at recognizing
and submitting to those moments
if we do practice.

Holding hands,
sharing our grief,
and telling stories about moments of powerlessness,
are the ways we practice.

Being a community
in which we can tell the truth,
and talk the truth
and be real with one another,
is the best way to practice.

So this story from John,
whatever it was about way back when it was told,
is now a story about us.
It is about us,
and whether we will allow ourselves
to surrender to our powerlessness
and share our experiences of doing so.

It won’t bring Lazarus
or any of our other friends back from the grave,
but it will allow US…to walk out of the tomb.