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04-02-17 - Dying to Live


“Dying to Live”
Bountiful Community Church, United Church of Christ
The Rev. Jodi Bushdiecker

4/2/17

 

Ezekial 37:1-14

John 11:1-45 

            Perhaps you've heard the saying, “If you're not living, you're dying.” My experience in ministry has taught me that the opposite is true: If you're not dying, you're not living. Why? Life is growth and change. And so it requires death to what is, that what might be, can be.  The tension between the finality of death and the hope of new life is palpable during this season of Lent. Amid painful circumstance and death-dealing social realities, we yearn for resurrection and the unbinding that releases us to dream beyond the boundaries, and to experience life anew. Our Scripture passages on this Fifth Sunday in Lent invite us to consider the possibility of resurrection in our lives and in a world deeply in need of God's life-giving presence.

            Ezekiel's vision of the valley of dry bones is one of the most imaginative readings in the Bible. This vision reminds every generation that God not only gives life, but also restores life. It shows us that death will not have the last word, even when all signs of life have been taken away. The reading opens with the prophet Ezekiel being brought by the hand and spirit of God to a valley full of dry, human bones. After the prophet walks all around these bones, God asks: "Mortal, can these bones live?" And then, under Ezekiel's watchful eye, these bones suddenly reassemble themselves in a great clatter. They are strapped with sinew and flesh and skin and, finally, are reanimated with a breath called forth from the four winds.

            In our gospel reading, we hear about the equally astonishing event of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus of Bethany is one of Jesus' beloved friends. When he falls ill, his sisters, Martha and Mary, send a message to Jesus to hurry to Bethany. These women have seen the many signs Jesus has performed, and they believe that Jesus can save Lazarus from death. But Jesus, upon hearing that his dear friend has fallen deathly ill, waits two days before departing for Bethany. When he finally arrives on the scene, it is too late. Lazarus is dead.

            Why would Jesus intentionally delay his arrival in Bethany when Lazarus' life is at stake? Martha and Mary wonder about this as well. When Jesus finally shows up, these sisters don't hesitate to express their feelings of disappointment and sadness. Each of them greets Jesus with the lament: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Are we to view Martha and Mary's words as accusations against their trusted friend and teacher? Or do we understand them as confessions of faith in Jesus' power to bring new life?

             Jesus tells Martha, “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.” Jesus' declaration echoes the assurance he offers the disciples upon hearing the news that Lazarus has fallen ill: “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.” But Jesus' words are little consolation to grieving hearts....Or are they exactly the good news that these mourners – and we as well – need to hear?

            In my work as a hospice chaplain, my patients and their loved ones have taught me much about transforming pain, loss, and death into new life. One of my patients, whom I'll call Kay, was in the final stages of pancreatic cancer. Kay's partner, whom I'll call Susan, told me that Kay had not taken in any nutrition or liquid for seven days. When I arrived at Kay and Susan's home, Kay was unresponsive, and I could see that she had withered to skin and bones. At only 48 years of age, Kay was clinging to life, yet was clearly on the verge of death.

            In our Bible reading today, Jesus not only offers a sign of hope to those mourning Lazarus' death, he also joins in their grief and stands with them in their suffering. The text says that when Jesus saw the grief of Mary, Martha, and the others, he was “deeply disturbed” by their pain and loss, and his compassion moved him to weep. What a powerful image – Jesus weeping alongside his friends at the grave of Lazarus! But unlike all the other mourners at the tomb, Jesus knew that Lazarus' death was not permanent. Given this knowledge, why then does Jesus weep at Lazarus' grave? Are his tears indicative of his deep love for Lazarus? Or do they reveal regret for not having arrived before Lazarus dies?

             We can only imagine why Jesus wept. But what we can be sure of is that Jesus' tears show us a very human Jesus: a man who enters into friendship, who expresses love, who shows human affection. Jesus' tears send a message about how we are to live: We are to care deeply for others, to love with abandon, to express compassion with no holding back. Jesus' tears show us not to fear the pain of grief and loss that comes when we love deeply. And they show us that the only thing to regret in life is not loving. They invite us to ask ourselves: How are we being called to love more deeply? To whom are we being called to show more compassion?

             As a pastoral caregiver, I have learned that I cannot prevent or remove the pain experienced by my patients. Nor can I take away the loss or stop the tears of their loved ones. But I can enter into their grief and stand with them in their suffering. During my visit with Kay and Susan, Susan shared with me the painful history of Kay's life. When Kay was a child, she had been burned by her mentally ill mother. Kay was then taken from her home and placed with an adoptive family, where she was sexually molested by her adoptive sister. As a young adult, Kay went through a period of struggle to accept her sexual orientation, and she fell into a dark time of substance abuse. Eventually Kay got clean and sober, and for ten years she and Susan enjoyed what Susan described as “a wonderful relationship.” But then Kay got sick. And now she was dying. Susan had been caring for Kay throughout her illness, and she was exhausted. Susan burst into tears as she exclaimed, “She won't die. We've tried everything, and nothing's worked. I have strong faith, but I can't keep this up.” Susan loved Kay dearly, yet she knew it was time to let her go. But for some reason, Kay was hanging on.

            Jesus, in delaying his trip to Bethany while his beloved friend Lazarus lay on his deathbed, teaches us that there are some things in life we need to allow to die for the sake of gaining new life. Jesus had to allow Lazarus to die in order for Lazarus to be raised from death to life. The question for us to ponder is: What must we allow to die in our lives to bring about new life? What must we let go of so that we might be transformed? Perhaps addiction has us buried in self loathing and social isolation. Or perhaps an abusive relationship has caused us to die to the self. Or it could be paralyzing worry or doubt or fear that has us entombed. Or maybe our overspending has buried us in debt. Perhaps it is hatred and intolerance which we must let go of. Or perhaps we must release our attachment to unjust and life denying social structures that keep us separated one from another, and from God.

            Through many years of hospice experience, I have learned that there is often emotional or spiritual work that a dying person must attend to before she or he can let go physically. I suspected that Kay had this sort of emotional or spiritual block that was holding her back, even as her body was shutting down. She needed to release that which was hindering her from dying in order to experience the promise of resurrection.

            After hearing about Kay's life, I asked Susan if Kay had been in contact with her mother or sister since she received her terminal diagnosis. Susan said Kay's family did not know that Kay had cancer, much less that she was dying. She explained that Kay had not been in touch with her family for many years because of the pain she had experienced while living with them when she was younger. I suggested to Susan that Kay appeared to be holding on for the opportunity to reconcile with her estranged family members. It seemed that Kay's emotional and spiritual block was her need to forgive those who had hurt her.

            When I first suggested to Susan that she contact Kay's family members, she was reluctant to do so. Yet Susan did not want Kay to linger in her current state of suffering. And so she made the call to Kay's family. When they came to visit, Kay was unconscious and could not interact with them. Yet, I believe that this final contact between Kay and her family provided the opportunity for Kay to release the emotional and spiritual pain that was blocking her from letting go physically. Soon after her mother and sister visited, Kay slipped peacefully into death.

            We all yearn for unbinding from the painful circumstances that entomb us. We yearn for release from the unjust social structures that entangle us. We yearn for God's presence which brings renewed life. And we yearn for transformation through the power of the risen Christ. “Lazarus, come out!” Jesus cried with a loud voice. “The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Then Jesus commanded, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

            In commanding Lazarus' friends to remove the burial cloth dangling from Lazarus, Jesus shows us that we have a part to play in the process of transformation.  We must loosen that which binds us and others. Susan helped to remove the wrappings of separation and unforgiveness that bound Kay. When these grave cloths were lifted, Kay was freed to enter into new life.

            While there is no doubt that Jesus loved Lazarus and he had compassion for those mourning his death, the focus of the story of Jesus raising Lazarus is not about bringing Lazarus back to life. What's important is not what Jesus does for Lazarus, but rather what he does through Lazarus.  This story points to the power of God to bring life from death for all God's children. And it shows us that we must actively participate in creating new life for ourselves and for others.

            We will soon move into Holy Week, when we remember the events of Jesus' passion, death, and resurrection. The breath God called to come from the four winds in the valley of the dry bones is the spirit of God, the life-giving ruach God breathed into the first human creature in the garden. It is the breath of life that moves forth in the Lazarus story, and it is the breath that was breathed into Jesus crucified, lifting him up to resurrection life. This breath is the spirit that continues to move in the world through the power of the Holy Spirit. 

            Jesus' raising of Lazarus signifies that God's promise of new life is available here and now, in the midst of ordinary life, for all who accept this promise. Jesus called to those at the tomb to unbind Lazarus and let him go. Jesus also calls to us as we stand at the tomb of suffering and pain, urging us to unbind ourselves and others to live in the new life which God promises. The promise of resurrection calls us to recognize that our world is not as it should be. It calls us to imagine a world in which wholeness, well-being, health, and prosperity are experienced by all God's children. And it calls us to partner with the God of life in making that dream a reality.   

            Will you accept God's invitation to die to that which has you entombed? Will you answer the call to bring new life to those in our world who are hurting? Will you choose to tear away the wrappings of fear, anxiety, loss, and grief? Will you work to loosen the ties of addiction, despair, and unforgiveness? Will you endeavor to set free those who are bound by abuse, poverty, and marginalization? Are you willing to partner with God to make hope a reality in your life, and the lives of our brothers and sisters, that all God's children might live in the promise of resurrection?

 

 

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