The story is beautiful—and we heard the whole thing this morning—but the luxury of hearing the whole story gives us all the richness of the story: the love Jesus has for this family is emphasized again and again: “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” The inexplicable delay of Jesus before his return, his promise, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.”, the accusations of both Mary and Martha: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” that bring up our own cries to God at the apparent unfairness of death. The promise of resurrection that we recite at the opening of every burial office: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” Jesus’ humanity is on display as well in his tears at the death of his friend. There’s even a little humor at Martha’s practical concern about the smell of her brother’s corpse (the King James’ translation of that verse is, “but Lord, he stinketh.”) And finally, the climax: Jesus’ powerful call, “Lazarus, come out!” and Lazarus’ response, emerging from the grave in his shroud to begin life again. It’s very real—all the things that concern us about death and dying are in this story; our faith, our fears, and our tears. Our big questions—where is God when we die? And what does it mean to believe in resurrection?
Death has been very real for me this Lent. As most of you know, my father in law Jerry died a few weeks ago, and we went back to Monmouth, Illinois for his funeral. We planned to meet Jonathan’s brother and family to go to the funeral home on the evening we arrived to make sure everything was “alright” before the viewing and funeral the next morning. On the drive downstate from O’Hare to Monmouth, Jonathan and I had one of those “I have no idea what parents are supposed to do” conversations about whether we should take Nathan with us to see his grandfather in the casket. We decided that since he’s only two, and not old enough to have cultural fears about death, it was probably OK. He’s a double preacher’s kid, so he may as well start getting used to being around death, since it’ll be a bigger part of his childhood than most kids.
So we all trooped to the funeral home, and Jerry looked very good in his casket, very peaceful, and as we approached Nathan asked, “Sleeping?” A pause. “Yes, Nathan, Grandpa is sleeping, a special sleep.” Nathan lost interest, and ran around the room a bit with his cousins while Jonathan and his brother reminisced. We gathered around in a circle to say a prayer before we left, and Nathan burst out, “Wake up! Grandpa, wake up!” It was hard to choke back the tears. Figuring out what to say as a parent is really hard. Again, Nathan commanded, “Wake up!” Finally I thought of the Lazarus story, and answered, “Nathan, Grandpa can’t wake up right now. But when Jesus asks him to wake up, he will.”
When Jesus asks us to wake up, we will. Just like Lazarus, or maybe not “just like” Lazarus… I’m not sure what that “waking up” will look like. In my last parish in suburban Los Angeles, we had a history of participating in an ecumenical Easter sunrise service at the local cemetery, which baffled me and made me feel kind of creepy. Do you think that because we’re celebrating Jesus’ emergence from the tomb today, that all these people are going to wake up too, just like Lazarus? And what do you plan to do if they do all come out of their graves? I am pastorally and theologically unprepared for that… How are the dead with us, if they are waiting to be woken up by Christ’s triumphant shout but it isn’t a Lazarus-like emergence from the tomb in our shrouds.
Can you keep a secret? Because Jonathan—and I by association—could get in trouble for this. Jonathan’s office is near the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and six months ago or so, he was invited for the first time to celebrate one of their midweek Noon Eucharists in a chapel. He was very excited… I’ve never gotten to celebrate the Eucharist in a cathedral, and I don’t think he has either. He arrived early, found the sacristy, got on his vestments, headed out to the chapel, and waited until the appointed hour. No one was there. So he started the service… reading the lessons… preaching the sermon… it being the Cathedral, some tourists wandered in and out. A few were present at the Peace and he chatted with them and invited them to stay for the Eucharist but they declined.
And now he was faced with a difficult choice. We do not say private masses in the Episcopal Church… or the Lutheran Church. The correct thing to do was to stop praying and leave. But as Jonathan put it, he was all dressed up, and a Gothic Cathedral feels medieval enough that you can do medieval things… so he continued the service, confident in being surrounded by the Communion of Saints, so he was not alone. When he broke the bread, and it came time to distribute communion, he went to the altar rail and imagined giving communion to his mother, who died over 30 years ago. What was not possible in real life, and what would not have been possible if other living persons had been present, became possible in the leisure of solitary openness to the Spirit. He gave communion to Walter Bouman, his mentor and seminary professor. To Gerald Youngquist, the pastor of his adolescence and young adulthood who formed his identity as a Lutheran. To grandparents and great grandparents he’d never met; to icons of the church in centuries past. All were around the table in the Cathedral that day. A communion with the communion of saints.
When we die, we do not lose our place at this table. We just move to the other side of it. We do not dine here alone this morning. I pray that the communion of saints can be viscerally present with us even when we’re with others—we don’t have to say a private mass to know that Jesus has called many to the banquet table ahead of us. Who do you know—who do you miss—who will be communing with us today? A parent? A friend? A spouse? A child? This morning at the 8:30am service, I thought about who I would remember, and the obvious thing was to remember the people from Epiphany who I have buried or who have died while I’ve been here. I thought of Anita Ehinger; of Paige Moyer; Anne Mead. But what surprised me was that unbidden, when I celebrated the Eucharist I thought of Lot Jones, the founding rector of this church, and all the other old guys who were clergy hear. And I felt like I could feel their hands on my shoulders, pressing down, in a line behind me. It was a sort of mystical experience—not what I’m used to, but very powerful. “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.” Amen.