Fifth Sunday In Lent – Year A
March 29 2020 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Ezekiel 37:12-14 | Psalm 130
Romans 8:8-11 | John 11:1-45
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
On the island of Cyprus, in the northeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea, stands the ancient church of Saint Lazarus. Tradition says that this church was built above the grave of Lazarus, the friend of Jesus – that is, his second grave. If you descend a narrow stone staircase into the low-ceilinged crypt, you can peek into the empty stone coffin that according to tradition once held the body of Jesus’ friend Lazarus. His grave in Cyprus is empty because during the Middle Ages Crusaders stole his body. But his first grave was emptied in a far more dramatic fashion, in one of the most amazing encounters anyone ever had with Jesus.
We all know the basics of this story. Today’s Gospel tells us explicitly that Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Marth as friends. The Greek text uses the verb “filio”, meaning to love in a friendship sense, as distinguished from romantic love, called “eros,” love between parent and child, known as “storge” or a generalized love of humankind. Friendship is very powerful, indeed.
When Jesus was at an unknown place away from Bethany where Lazarus lived with Martha and Mary, Jesus heard that Lazarus was ill at the point of death and was urged to return to Bethany in Judea. He delayed his return for two days despite being urged to leave immediately. He told them not to worry, that whatever was ailing Lazarus would not result in death.
When he was ready to leave, the disciples of Jesus were concerned for his safety. As you well know, Jesus was not popular with the religious establishment of his day, and was in danger of being stoned. Yet Jesus decided to go anyway. Fear of other people never kept Jesus from doing anything. What I’ve always admired in Jesus was that he went about his business not fearing what other people might do or say. Jesus was truly a man on a mission, and here, his mission was to bring Lazarus back to life, and to heck with the consequences. While Lazarus walking out of the grave surely made Mary and Martha happy to see him again alive, what Jesus was really trying to demonstrate was that the raising of Lazarus was to prophesize of his own Resurrection on Easter Day. But the people listening to Jesus did not understand it that way. So Jesus told them simply, “Lazarus has died.”
Martha was so anxious to have Jesus come to her home and make things right that she went up the road to speak with him when he had not yet reached Bethany where she lived. Even though she thought her brother would not have died had Jesus been there sooner, she trusted Jesus to do the right thing, putting her faith in Jesus when she said, “I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” Jesus gave her hope when he responded, “Your brother will rise again.” Mary thought that Jesus meant the general resurrection of everyone on the last day, but Jesus responded with one of the seven great “I am” statements from the Gospel of John, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Mary’s affirmation of Jesus is what gave her hope that her brother would come back to life. Mary took the words of Jesus seriously and trusted him. She was under great stress morning in the four days following the death of Lazarus, yet she professed her faith in Jesus, not knowing what would come next.
When Jesus arrived in Bethany, he found Mary and Martha weeping, mourning the death of their brother. Jesus did what every good pastor would do in the same situation. That is, he empathized with the family. He comforted them and mourned with them. The Gospel explicitly says, “Jesus wept.” There, Martha and Mary experienced in a very poignant way the humanness of Jesus, who to paraphrase Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, emptied himself and became one of us. As we will sing in the Nicene Creed today, Jesus “became truly human” as shown by his weeping.
The humanness and divinity of Jesus was an ongoing debate in the early years of Christianity, and it continues to this day. Commonly, this subject is phrased as “God Transcendent” and “God Incarnate,” or in more pedestrian terms, God in Heaven and God on Earth. This story presents both. Jesus empathized and cared for Mary and Martha is a very human way, but at the end of the day, the divinity of Jesus is what made the news. The divine power of Jesus, that is, the aspect of Jesus that is God, enabled Jesus to call Lazarus out of the tomb and back to life. Jesus is, indeed, the Lord of life.
Today’s first reading also demonstrates the divine power of God and God’s sovereignty over life itself. It is taken from the story of the valley of the dry bones in the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel which is read at the Easter Vigil service. Ezekiel was among those Jews deported to Babylon in about the year five-ninety-seven B-C and is thus known as an “Exilic prophet” those who prophesied from the midst of the Jewish community while it was in Babylon. To give you a little background here, the Babylonians, led by King Nebuchadnezzar, ransacked Jerusalem, destroyed the first Temple built by Solomon, and deported its inhabitants. The Jewish community remained in exile until about five-thirty-eight B-C, almost sixty years. Ezekiel, like Isaiah, Jeremiah and other prophets predicted a return to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Temple. Ezekiel’s message was one of hope, that God, who has ultimate power over life and death, would raise up the Jewish community back to life, just as Jesus did with Lazarus in raising him from death.
The Corona Virus, commonly known as COVID Nineteen, has made death a far too prominent fact of life for the entire world in a very big way. There are many families wishing that Jesus would reappear on earth and call their loved ones out of death, just like he did Lazarus. In Italy, hospitals are playing God in deciding who will live and who will be left to die. Earlier this week, I read a Washington Post story that said hospitals in the United States are considering blanket Do Not Resuscitate Orders for COVID Nineteen patients in danger of dying. By that, I don’t mean honoring the wishes of a patient not to be resuscitated. Every person has the right to refuse medical care. What’s happening here is the hospitals are making a resource allocation decision to not revive those patients. That is more than just wrong or immoral. It is murder and ought to be prosecuted as such. And I say to the families of the victims of any such policy: sue everyone involved and take them to the cleaners for a lot of money, particularly the hospital executives who approved those policies. We cannot permit health care professionals to play God! This conduct is evil beyond words!
The usual way hospitals do business, the way they are supposed to do business, is to take care of the sickest and most vulnerable people first. That makes sense. But in Italy, hospitals are allowing people over sixty years of age to die to concentrate their efforts on young people with more years of life ahead of them. I am glad I am not in Italy. And we find such thinking in the United States as well, from none other than the Lieutenant Governor of Texas, who came right and said old people should be sacrificed for the sake of the economy that serves young people. Money ahead of human life? That is really perverse. Earlier this week, the New York Times published an article by Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention, which is not exactly a progressive organization. His words are right on point:
“It’s true that a depression would cause untold suffering for people around the world, hitting the poor the hardest. Still, each human life is more significant than a trillion-dollar gross national product. Stocks and bonds are important, yes, but human beings are created in the image of God.”
I am sixty eight years of age. How is my life less valuable than some who is forty-eight, thirty-eight, or twenty-eight? I call that perverted social engineering. People of my generation, even though we are more vulnerable, offer the world invaluable wisdom and know-how. Again, to quote Russell Moore,
“We cannot pass by on the side of the road when the elderly, the disabled, the poor, and the vulnerable are in peril before our eyes. We want to hear the sound of cash registers again, but we cannot afford to hear them over the cries of those made in the image of God.”
And I cannot help but observe that we are where we are on this problem due to the failure of national leadership to quickly implement a meaningful response to COVID Nineteen to obtain and distribute the drugs, medical supplies, and personnel needed to defeat COVID Nineteen. This failure to act responsibly is placing human lives in danger. Again, life is sacred. Life belongs to God. A human life cannot be measured in dollars. The right to live comes from God. Taking away someone’s life, whether by acting or failing to act, is nothing but sinful.
The unthinkable act of rationing of medical care in a world facing massive deaths has many people asking, “How can God do such a thing, letting so many people die?” A pandemic like the one the world is now experiencing is one of those events that raise the profile of the theological term, “theodicy” wherein one tries to figure out whether and why God is doing bad things to good people. The question is essentially the same that people ask when a hurricane wipes out hundreds of lives or when a single child dies from cancer. It is called the “problem of suffering,” “the mystery of evil” or the “theodicy,” and it’s a question with which saints and theologians have grappled for millenniums.
Christians are all now asking, “Why this”, just as Mary and Martha wondered why Jesus let their brother die instead of immediately rushing to him when they heard Lazarus was ill. Indeed, Martha said to Jesus,“ Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Today, many people are wondering where is God in the COVID Nineteen crisis. Why did God let this happen? Just as Martha was concerned that Jesus did not immediately respond to the illness of her brother Lazarus, people today are asking, where is God in the corona virus crisis?
Let’s get rid of one item of nonsense right away. Some of our less educated and less compassionate fellow Christian sisters and brothers have preached that the virus represents God’s wrath for what they allege is bad human behavior. They are absolutely wrong! Their approach is not that of Jesus. COVID Nineteen is not punishment for sins, yours or anyone else’s. Jesus explicitly rejects that approach. As we heard in last Sunday’s Gospel about the man born blind, when the crowd asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus responded, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. Here, Jesus explicitly rejected any idea that God is a monstrous Father.
A traditional explanation for natural suffering is that it is a test. Under this theory, suffering tests our faith and strengthens it. In the Epistle of James, we read, “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” But while explaining suffering as a test may help in minor trials, like an annoying person testing our patience, it fails the most painful human experiences. Does God send cancer to “test” a young child? Yes, the child’s parents may learn something about perseverance or faith, but that approach can make God out to be a monster, again, not the image of God that we should be teaching because that is not what God is. Scripture, in particular the Psalms, describes God as full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger, long-suffering and of great goodness.
The major problem with connecting suffering to God is that it destroys hope. If we think of God in negative terms, how can we possibly be open to God’s healing? How can we be in a position to thank God when suffering ends with a good result?
Over the past month, COVID Nineteen has overtaken not only the news cycle, but nearly everyone’s life. That has presented a challenge for the church like nothing else in my lifetime. The news reports describe the progress of COVID Nineteen in almost apocalyptic language as if the end of the world was near. I will have to admit, many of the news reports look pretty scary, particularly in areas with high infection rates and shortages of medical resources. Many people, including myself, are asking, “When will this all end” and “What will our world look like when this is all done”?
The humanness of Jesus and the divine power of God harmoniously combine to give the human community hope for a better future, where what we thought was dead comes back to life. Just as Ezekiel prophesied and Jesus raised Lazarus, the unfailing message of the Church can, and must be, “better times are ahead,” even in the midst of the coronavirus crisis.
The encounter of Jesus with his dead friend Lazarus was more than just a revelation of God’s heart, that is, an expression of his sympathy and love for grieving people. It is also a demonstration of the power of Jesus over evil and over our final enemy, death itself. It is a preview of what we can look forward to ourselves if we are friends of Jesus just like Lazarus, Mary and Martha were.
In times of crisis with a deadly disease ravaging humanity, Christians will eventually turn to Jesus just as Martha and Mary did. With the worldwide outbreak of the coronavirus, we are confronted once more with the fragility of our lives. Again we are reminded of our common humanity; that the peoples of this world are our brothers and sisters who should not be competing against each other for survival. The world’s response to COVID 19 should demonstrate that nationalism and ethnocentrism are incompatible with maximizing human survival. COVID 19 has proven manifestly unreasonable the notion that one should be responsible for one’s own survival. The survival of everyone is everyone’s responsibility, now and always.
We, and by that, I mean all of humanity, are all one family under God whom God will never abandon, even now in this time of trial and testing. I urge all of you to anchor your heart into the faith we have in Jesus, just as Martha and Mary did. Now is the time for us to intensify our prayers and to do the basics of Christianity: love God with all our hearts, minds and souls, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Let us use this time of sheltering within our homes to draw closer in our love for one another and in our love for Jesus, and rediscover the things that truly matter in our lives, like music. I plan to get a substantial amount of composing done. It’s also a good time to vocalize to improve your range and breath control, maybe practice your favorite instrument. I’m going to be doing those things too. There is one good thing coming out of Italy. News reports show Italians on their balconies singing opera. So open up a live video on your Facebook page or YouTube channel and sing your favorite music. I’ve seen some of this already. Mario and Michelle are doing a great job in that area. The singers who are doing this are using their gifts to bring great comfort to humanity, the kind of comfort that political leaders cannot or will not provide. We hope that by continuing to livestream our Sung Mass, we are doing our part here at Saint Cecilia Catholic Community to uplift humanity.
The world will probably not be free of COVID Nineteen on Easter Sunday to the extent normal life can resume. But if we focus on Jesus and trust Jesus like Mary and Martha did when Lazarus died, our hope for better days will remain alive. Humanity needs music to get through all that.
Music gives hope like nothing else. Don’t let COVID 19 defeat music. Remember that music is God’s gift to get all of humanity through times like these. Music matters, now more than ever! AMEN.