The Episcopal Chaplaincy at Harvard
The Fifth Sunday in Lent, 2017
This past summer I worked as a chaplain intern at Boston Medical Center. We’re really not supposed to have favorite patients, but the truth is, I did. The first time I met Marcus, as I’ll call him, he was brought onto my ICU floor – he had been living across the street at the Barbara McGinnis House, a medical facility for people experiencing homelessness, but he had been having severe shortness of breath and needed to be transferred over to BMC to get more advanced care.
Before I went to visit Marcus for the first time, my supervisor told me that Marcus was a frequent flyer at the hospital – she said that he may be too sick to talk, but that he loves having scripture read to him. So, I grabbed a bible and headed up to the fifth floor. When I arrived in his room, Marcus was pretty out of it, his eyes barely open and his breathing incredibly labored. He had a nebulizer mask over his mouth and nose and hardly responded when I introduced myself. Given his sorry state, I didn’t have high hopes for our visit, and wondered if he would even know I was there. Nonetheless, I flipped open the bible, and happened to land on the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead, which I then read to Marcus. I couldn’t tell if he was listening or not, but at the end of the reading, I asked him, “Marcus, what did you think about that?”
“Well,” he wheezed, still in what seemed like a half-sleeping state, “it’s a great teaser for the main event.” I wanted to make sure I understood what Marcus was saying – “tell me more,” I inquired. “You know,” he replied. “The Resurrection! If we didn’t know that life after death was possible, how would we believe it when it happened to Jesus?”
The irony was not lost on me that this acute theological insight – about life after death and how we understand it- was coming from a man who seemed to be on the brink of life and death himself. The next time I visited Marcus, he was feeling better and was much more alert. I quickly learned that although he spoke very little during our first meeting, that his personality was anything but quiet. Now, feeling stronger and breathing better, and without the nebulizer mask covering his mouth, Marcus talked for nearly an hour, nonstop. In that second visit, Marcus, as a means of introducing himself, ran through a vast and diverse litany of his own near death experiences; gruesome fist fights, police chases, drug use, asthma attacks, pneumonia, and the everyday dangers of living life on the streets. “I really shouldn’t be here,” he would always say. “There’s just no way not to believe in God after everything I’ve been through! Somebody’s watching over me, I know it.” To Marcus, resurrection wasn’t experienced in the abstract – he had, on many occasions, existed in that thin space between life and death, and recounting these experiences was how Marcus made meaning of his life, and how he conveyed his faith to me in our many subsequent visits. In a sense, it seemed to me that the fabric of Marcus’ life had been punctured or perforated with experiences of being near-death, and those places were the places where God’s love penetrated his heart and shown through most clearly.
And, back to Lazarus, of course Marcus was spot on when he said that the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead helps to prepare our minds, hearts, and our imaginations for the Resurrection, with a capital R, that is to come. The narrative that John’s gospel develops – and of which Lazarus is key - both bespeaks the resurrection inherent in everyday life and transforming the experiences of everyday people, and also points toward Christ’s own passion and resurrection that is to come. For John, a persistent theme is that our God is a God that beckons sweet life in all its forms to emerge from the stench of death, and in turn beckons us, as God’s people, to emerge from binding brokenness into the freedom of wholeness in Christ.
Another foreshadowing element of tonight’s gospel is found in the theme of sacrifice that permeates the story. When Jesus encounters Mary and Martha in Bethany, he has just been in Jerusalem, where he was stoned for claiming himself to be the Son of God. After being pelted with rocks he narrowly escapes arrest. It is no wonder, then, that the disciples say to him “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus loves his friends, Mary and Martha, and their brother Lazarus, and risking death, goes to them at once. By raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus asserts his power in a way that ultimately makes him a threat to the imperial government, and secures his fate on the Cross. Through this action, we come to understand something significant about the character of Jesus and the nature of God; that the power that Jesus has to bring to life that which was once dead is subversive. It shakes up the social order, and takes a Samaritan woman, a blind man, and Lazarus – a man who has been dead for four days – and places them in the heart of our salvation narrative.
This business of resurrection is dangerous stuff, and it also poses a threat to anything and anyone who uses violence and death as a means of gaining power. As theologian John Dear remarks, “Wherever he goes, [Jesus’] disarming presence leaves merciless death embarrassed and impotent. Threats and dicey situations abound, but Jesus faces them with fearlessness and truth. The downtrodden who cross his path feel better, more dignified, because here is one with no trace of violence in him...His was a risen life before resurrection ever occurred.” In other words, Jesus is not just one who has the capacity to resurrect, Jesus is Resurrection itself.
In closing, I want to turn your attention to one of the elements of our liturgy, the Nicene Creed, which serves as a symbol of our faith and a testament to our beliefs as Christians. As you likely know, the final phrase in the Creed is this: “we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”
This statement serves as a simple reminder that being a Christian means not only believing that Christ was resurrected, but just as importantly, perhaps, it means living as though resurrection is a constant and unfolding feature of our world, which it is. The language of the Creed says that more than acknowledging resurrection as a possibility, we look for it in the world around us and in our own lives. Perhaps you’ve never seen a dead person return to life, or rolled a stone away from an empty tomb. But I’m willing to bet that you’ve seen a relationship that you thought was hopeless mended, or a missed opportunity redeemed, or a new pathway or possibility emerge where you thought there was none. Following Christ, then, means that we are continually cultivating our senses in order to perceive the places where life is emerging from death.
The late, great writer, thinker and neurologist Oliver Sacks knew quite a bit about looking for resurrection – he was known to connect with, and to bear witness to the experiences of patients whom many other doctors, for a variety of reasons, considered unreachable. Sacks once wrote that “every act of perception is an act of creation” and I think that this is precisely what it means to look for resurrection of the dead – by perceiving life through the lens of the Cross, but also the empty tomb, we create openings where life can emerge and where love can transform us.
“Can these bones live?!” cries out the prophet Ezekiel. My prayer for each of us, as we journey toward and through the Passion in the coming weeks, is that we can say, without hesitation, YES, they can. These bones which were once dry and rattling, can come together, can move, can live.