The Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A - April 2, 2017

The Rev. Amelie Wilmer Minor
Sermon Text: 

The Fifth Sunday of Lent

Year A

April 2, 2017

The Reverend Amelie Wilmer Minor


Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, "Lord, he whom you love is ill." But when Jesus heard it, he said, "This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God's glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it." Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

Then after this he said to the disciples, "Let us go to Judea again." The disciples said to him, "Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?" Jesus answered, "Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them." After saying this, he told them, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him." The disciples said to him, "Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right." Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, "Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him." Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, "Let us also go, that we may die with him."

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him." Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again." Martha said to him, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day." Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" She said to him, "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world."

When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, "The Teacher is here and is calling for you." And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to him, "Lord, come and see." Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, "See how he loved him!" But some of them said, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?"

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, "Take away the stone." Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, "Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days." Jesus said to her, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, "Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me." When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, "Unbind him, and let him go."

Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.





A few days ago, I received a Utube link from a friend to let me know that this is the week we celebrate National Epitaph Day.  Of course, my focus is on the fact that this is the fifth Sunday in Lent and we are well on our way to Holy Week, but that didn’t occur to her.  And yet, I got to wondering, maybe there is a connection.

You all know what an epitaph is, right?  (What is written on a tombstone.) Some people create their own epitaphs before they die, and sometimes relatives will do it for you when you are gone.  Which may be incentive enough for you to write your own!  If you were to do that, what would yours say, in a line or two, about your life?

In the Utube video, when the reporter asked people on the street, he heard some things like this:  “an independent woman, hard working, I made people happy, I was a good person.” None of these epitaphs are bad, but is that all there is to say about your life? 

Through the centuries people have quoted scripture on their tombstones, or written short poems.  And there are epitaphs written on the tombstones of many well known people, for example:  William Shakespeare’s is “Curst be he that moves my bones”, W.C. Fields’ reads, “On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.” Mel Blanc, the Loony Tunes creator has on his stone, “That’s all folks!” Merv Griffin, entertainment mogul, has on his, “I will not be right back after this message.” 

Our scripture readings for today all invite us to reflect on our mortality. Ezekiel is asked by the Lord, amid a valley of dry bones, “Mortal, can these bones live?” Paul, writing to the Church in Rome, says, “he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” And in the Gospel of John, Mary and Martha, not understanding why Jesus procrastinated in the face of Lazarus’ illness, cry out to him "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

These are all stories that know the grave.  And just as we began Lent with ashes to remind us that we are but dust, we are reminded again, on this 5th Sunday in Lent, that we’ve got to walk alongside death to get to Easter. For most of us, this isn’t an easy thing to do.  As a culture, we tend to avoid the subject of death whenever we can because it is not a comfortable subject.  We can’t even say the word, even in an obituary.  Instead we say, “he passed” or she has transitioned from her earthly home, moved on to life eternal….

In our reading from Ezekiel, which is his vision about the eventual return of Israel from Babylon, the image of dry bones is disturbing.  We don’t know what to make of bones that begin to rattle, come together, and are covered with flesh, even if they do have life breathed into them by the spirit.  And so we sing a funny song – “Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones!” We make jokes about death to hide our discomfort, and tend to ignore its inevitability for as long as we can. And perhaps we do this because death is something we cannot control, hard as we try.

In today’s Gospel passage, Mary and Martha don’t know what to do when their beloved brother Lazarus gets sick – they fear death so they send for Jesus.  And when he finally arrives, too late, they are sure there is nothing he can do for their dead brother. Not in this life, anyway. Absorbed in the pain and disappointment of their loss, they can only see resurrection as something that will occur in the future, on the other side of the grave.

All of us, at various times in our lives, may feel like God has left us for dead, set us down in a valley of dry bones. Like Ezekiel we have no hope that those dry bones can live.  We hate our job and see no way out.  We owe so much money we think becoming debt free is an impossibility.  We face challenges with loved ones – addiction, disease, alienation - and there seem to be no answers.  Can these bones live?

Or perhaps, we might relate better to the story of Lazarus.  Many of us know what it feels like to be stuck in the tombs we have so carefully constructed; how, when we’re in them, we really don’t want anyone to take away the stone. We don’t ask for help, or admit we might be wrong, or take an honest look at how we might be avoiding the reality of our lives by living in denial. We get comfortable in our safe, secure tombs, even if they do keep us spiritually, emotionally, or relationally dead.

History shows how much we long for comfort and security, even in the grave. Think of the Egyptian pyramids and the elaborate interiors filled with everything the soul might need for the journey.  Just last week I heard about a man whose dying wish was to be buried with his Harley.  He was placed upright on his motorcycle, in his leather jacket and helmet, and encased in Plexiglas.  They needed a giant crane to lower him into the huge hole in the ground.  Because he just might need his Harley in heaven!

We find all kinds of crazy ways to comfort ourselves as we face death, but notice what Jesus has to say about it.  He tells Martha “I am the resurrection and the life.”  And when he says this, he is speaking, not in the future tense, but in the present tense.  In other words, he is already raising people out of death into new life. Lazarus may be the most obvious example, but throughout the gospels, Jesus transforms people, turning lives upside down and inside out, bringing abundant life to all who knew him - and who know him now, coming into our world, into our lives to transform them and make them new.

So the thing I’ve been wondering is this.  Could it be that we’re not so much afraid of death, but afraid of life?  We talk a lot about being “resurrection people,” but do we really live like it?

How often do we live hopeless, dried out lives because we cannot trust God to bring us up from our graves, our dry bones, and breathe new life into us? How often do we allow fear to bind us, and keep us holed up in our tombs? And when we do manage to walk out of them, why is it that we’re so hesitant to share our experience of transformation, boldly state our awareness of God’s grace in lifting us from the grave, and communicate our desire, get the help we need, to live life differently going forward?

Which leads me to another element of today’s gospel story, and that is, what Jesus tells the onlookers right after Lazarus is raised from the dead, “unbind him and let him go.” The community, in other words, is asked to participate in God’s action and join in completing the work of redemption. The raising of Lazarus from death unto life might be entirely the work of God, but Jesus invites the community to participate in that, to do something essential and meaningful and important – now. [Ask anyone in recovery, and they will tell you how important this is].

We’ve got each other, now.  How might God be inviting you and me, today, to participate, to make a difference in the lives of others, or allow others help set us free to live in to our own resurrected lives?  How do we take part in the power of resurrection by completing the work God has begun all over the place? 

Take a minute right now to think about what you have on board in the week ahead - both the challenges and opportunities – and consider where you might claim this promise of resurrection - make a difference in someone’s life now, someone you know who could really use a hand, or by letting someone help you to achieve a purpose you believe in.  It doesn’t have to be huge or take a long time or be spectacular (though, who knows, maybe it will be). Opportunities to unbind and let go are all around us, but we need to look for them so that we might hear Jesus calling us by name to make a difference as we can.

As resurrection people, we are to be about the business of living abundant lives, helping to transform the lives of others, and sharing a message of hope with a world full of dry bones and sealed up tombs. Rather than sitting around writing epitaphs, what if we were to live them instead?






With acknowledgement to The Rev. Robin Teasley and the following commentaries: 

Sharon Blezard

Steve Pankey


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