Lent 5
JN. 11:1-44

Several weeks ago, while having my third cup of morning coffee, I came across a column in the newspaper about the writer, William Manchester. Recently Mr. Manchester, age 75, underwent quadruple-bypass heart surgery. During the surgery, the doctors discovered a bullet lodged in his heart. Fifty years ago William Manchester was a marine, fighting in the jungles of an island in the Pacific. His squad was torn up by enemy fire, and Manchester was wounded. He was evacuated and patched up. The navy doctors missed the bullet. For fifty years Manchester walked around with the weight of death on his heart and didn’t know it. What a metaphor for our lives! Isn’t it true for you? It was true for my father. At age 75 he walked into the emergency room at Greenwich Hospital and said, “I think I am having a heart attack.” “That’s nice. Would you take these forms into that room over there and fill them out?” Dad did as he was told. He walked with a doctor to the elevator, where he collapsed. Dad died two hours later. It could have happened any time. For years he had been walking around with death on his heart. It was true for me. My best friend, Hugh, died of lukemia at age 35, leaving behind a wife and two children. When I heard the news I felt as though I’d taken a bullet in the heart. We had started kindergarten together, played baseball, basketball, built train sets, gone to college and to graduate schools. I flew out to Illinois for his wedding! God took the wrong one! What’s with this death bit? It’s a weight, like a cramp, constricting breathing. Right there in the heart.

It was true for my friend Joanne. She married her college sweet heart. Life was almost good. Twenty five years ago he contracted cancer. In pain and despair he walked out to the backyard and shot himself. The physical suicide killed him. Joanne has never recovered from the emotional bullet in the heart which she took.

For some the death on the heart is fear. It can be fear of an abusive parent or spouse. Or it can be fear of the loss of a job or the loss of one’s physical and rational facilities. As a friend pointed out it can be fear not of death itself but of dying. Some of you carry death on your heart in the form of resentment or a sense of betrayal. My friend Jack felt death on his heart when his wife divorced him. “I couldn’t believe she left me for a younger man,” he told me at lunch. All I could think to say was, “Jack, you’re not that old.” Fear, resentment, anger, doubt, sadness, despair - in one form or another most people carry a bullet, carry death, on their heart.

What is true for the individual can be true for a society. As a people Israel carried this sense of death on her heart. She was physically torn up by military defeats and occupations. Fear of her oppressors, of the efficacy of her liturgical traditions, resentment over the constant mishaps of her political and religious leaders Ü all this lay like death on the people’s hearts. Added to this was near frantic despair over the coming of a messiah. Ezekiel spoke to this death upon the people’s hearts when he described a valley of dry bones. He looked for a resurrection of the people, the nation, possibly the Kingdom of God, perhaps at the end of time. Death would be vanquished at the final judgment.

Over against our human condition of the burden of death, and Israel’s burden of a sense of death on her heart, John the Evangelist told the story of the raising of Lazarus. In and of itself, this is a simple miracle story. There is a crisis, tension regarding Jesus’ response, and a dramatic climax at the end. There is a bit of the spooky and macabre (the stone is slowly rolled away, there is a foul smell, and a figure emerges in burial wrappings. This is the type of story young kids love, for it pushes the edges of appearance and reality, of the past and the future. The mind tries to grapple with the possible and the impossible, the probable and the improbable. Lazarus’ story evokes an instinctive response to push deeper. It is a neat story. But still it would only be one of many miracle worker stories. Such a story is not all that uncommon in the ancient world, nor even in the contemporary world - the doctor was wrong. What makes this story about the burden of death different from other stories is the nature of the protagonist - Jesus Himself- and the direction in which the story points - towards the nature of God.

Jesus Himself is more than a miracle worker. He is also a teacher, preacher, and healer. Moreover, Jesus consistently embodies His message. He not only talks the talk, he walks the walk. The story foreshadows Jesus’ own physical death, resurrection, and the experience of new life and new hope which His disciples experienced. Jesus steps to the forefront of the stage of history with a new message: that of individual new life and new hope - individual resurrection. This resurrection is not just of the nation (dry bones) and not just in the great by and by. It is individual, for you and me, and right now, the present, today, Sunday morning. With Jesus’ Gospel there is a breaking into our space and our time of the Kingdom of God and of eternal life. When the future impinges upon the present and the past, when eternal life leans upon mortality and death, then the temporal, mortality and death have their legs cut out from under them and are not such a big deal.

The story of the raising of Lazarus is remembered because it points beyond itself. It is a sign. It points to a new revelatory action by Almighty God. That new action in history is His incarnation, His taking upon Himself our human form, your and my fear, despair, anger, resentment, and injury. God in Jesus Christ issues an overt challenge to the secular world’s councils of despair, of dry stoicism, of clinical objectivity, and to the powers of darkness, evil, sin and death. “Yes the world is tough. I’ve been there. I know. You are not alone. There is meaning and purpose and the power of love not only in this life but in the next. And I guarantee it.” That is God’s message through St. John’s Gospel, through the story of Lazarus, and through the person of Jesus Christ.

Death is not the victory. Death does not hold the ultimate claim upon our too human heart. You and I are promised that in our grief there is profound comfort, in our fear there is assurance, in our anger love, in our doubt faith, in our sadness hope, in our despair joy, in our death eternal life.

You and I are given in John’s Gospel God’s showing forth of Himself - the Word- not only as water, not only as spirit, not only as shepherd, but as a constant presence and guarantee in our life of support, strength, courage, and meaning. How? By the presence of Jesus Christ (whose body and blood we receive in the Holy Eucharist) and in whose life we participate through the life of the Church and the power of the Holy Spirit.

Death, fear, anger, resentment, pain no longer lie alone upon our heart like a leadened bullet. Rather they are surrounded by the heart of God - by the body and blood of Christ, by the power of a creative and redeeming God, and by the force of new life and the reality of eternal life. This is the promise of God Himself in Christ, stated in John’s story of the raising of Lazasrus. This promise has been part of our liturgy since the time of the Reformation in the fifteen hundreds.

I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord;
he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live’
and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.

I know that my Redeemer liveth,
and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth;
and though this body be destroyed, yet shall I see God;
whom I shall see for myself and my eyes shall behold,
and not as a stranger.

For none of us liveth to himself,
and no man dieth to himself.
For if we live, we live unto the Lord;
and if we die, we die unto the Lord.
Whether we live, therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s.
Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord;
even so saith the Spirit, for they rest from their labors.
(P.B. p. 469)

In Jesus Christ it is death, not we, who has taken the ultimate bullet. Amen.