The Fifth Sunday in Lent: Year A

“Real Death. Real Life”

A sermon by Rev. Erika Hagan

Please note – the sermon as given in church may not be identical to what is written here – this is my starting point, but I allow the Spirit to guide me when I preach. The YouTube recording is the best representation of the sermon as given. Peace – Erika+

Our psalms that we speak each Sunday are some of the oldest words of praise, of thanksgiving, of lament, of prayer, that we have in our tradition. Old. They range from 500 to 900 years before Christ. And so, I find it remarkable each time we speak or sing them together that they always seem familiar to life as I know it. To what it’s like to be a human in this world in relationship with God. Now, these 2000 years after Jesus walked on this earth, I hear “Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD. Lord, hear my voice!” and recognize the times I have called out to God in this way, in fear and grief and anger and sorrow. Lord, hear my voice – I am calling to you from the depths, from this deep dark place of hard things I must bear.

I sang these words in my college choir, a piece called Psalm 130, part of a larger work called the Harp of David. (sing) “Out of the deep have I called unto thee, O Lord…Lord hear my voice”. It’s a haunting and complicated piece, layers of spoken words – Lord Hear My Voice – and plaintive interweaving melodies. It’s not an easy piece to sing or to listen to – it’s the cacophony in your brain when you’re processing grief.

The year my college choir had sang this piece was a year of shocking death at our school – a classmate died of cancer, a classmate died in a car accident, a classmate died from alcohol poisoning and exposure when he drank too much and fell asleep outside in the winter, a classmate was kidnapped from her waitressing job and murdered, a girl in our choir’s mother died suddenly of an aneurysm. My college was a small one – we had about 400 kids in my year. If you did not know someone personally, you knew someone who knew them – the interweaving connections of knowing someone who had just died and knowing someone who was grieving and processing your own pain became layered and haunting. We were young. Death was going to classes with us every day that year.

This piece is so powerful to us in that choir in large part because of its sonic bluntness of the chaotic reality of death and dying and lament – the excruciating tension of watching those we love go through it. We don’t like death, we humans. There’s an Instagram account I follow called ‘They Didn’t Die’ – it posts obituary euphemisms for death found in newspapers across the country, the extreme linguistic lengths people go to avoid mentioning the words “death” or “died” as they share the news of their loved ones passings. He “went quietly home.” She “floated away.” They “left many fans,” “Rode into the wind,” “Went on a last walkabout,” “Left the dance floor here on earth.”

But it is from death that Jesus resurrects Lazarus in our gospel reading today. Martha doesn’t say, ‘Jesus, if you were here, he wouldn’t have left the dance floor here on earth.” She puts the full brutal truth, her full vulnerability, in view – Jesus, she says, he died, and if you had been here, he would not now be dead.

And Jesus goes to goes to Lazarus’ tomb, weeps at the reality of death and loss, and then, for the sake of the crowd, for the sake of the witnesses, for the sake of we who hear this story and imagine ourselves there, for we who watch those we love get old, get sick, and die, for our sake in our fully human selves, Jesus calls out to Lazarus – COME OUT. And Lazarus, from his tomb, gets up and walks out, resurrected. Death and life, humanity and divinity, both so real and so bluntly on display.

The calendar has created an interesting contemplative moment for us this weekend – with this gospel and yesterday’s Major Feast. Yesterday was March 25th, which is the Feast of the Annunciation. It is exactly nine months before Christmas, and it is the day we remember when the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her she was blessed among women for she was to have a baby, and that child would be Emmanuel, God With Us. Nine months from yesterday is Christmas Day.

Jesus, that baby, that fully human man, fully flesh, fully vulnerable and suffering and laughing and crying and eating and drinking and sleeping and waking and being hugged and hugging others and tripping and scraping his knees and last week putting his hands smeared with mud on a man born blind and today, in our reading today, encountering the death of a dear friend and falling to the ground weeping in grief. See how he loved him.

Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?

Jesus, fully divine, says to Mary that she will see the Glory of God. He calls to Lazarus, his friend who has been dead for days, who is already beginning the decomposition of death, he calls out to him to COME OUT…and Lazarus does, a fully living Lazarus, still wrapped in his funeral bindings.

Jesus tells those around him this is done that they may believe, that they may fully believe and embrace that Jesus is sent by God. For the sake of the crowd, he says, Lazarus come out. For the understanding of those who witness, see that resurrection is from death. From this fully human experience of death and loss and grief, from the depths…comes resurrection.

We repeat these words over and over in the Nicene Creed: For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again…He will come again in glory

We don’t like death, we humans…but when we skirt the death part of this larger Christian story – when we make Easter only about spring returning, only about new dresses and chocolate eggs, only about the happily ever after, we cheat ourselves. God became flesh, became Emmanuel, became God with us so that we, as us, as our human selves, could experience this resurrection. Lazarus’ resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection from the cross. Our resurrection to eternal life. We are baptized into Christ, so that in Christ who dies for us, as one of us, we are resurrected. Even though we die, we live.

Real death.

Real life.

And it is here, in this reality, where the voice of Jesus calls us, out of the grave, like Lazarus. Come out. Come out! Our funeral bindings are unbound. We who could not bear the depths, who could not breathe in our loss…we now take a deep breath in. And out.

Next Sunday begins Holy Week, with Palm Sunday. We move through the week with Maundy Thursday – Jesus’ Last Supper – with Good Friday – Jesus’ Crucifixion – with Holy Saturday – Jesus’ death, lying in the tomb – and then, finally, only then after we live through all these things – comes the Resurrection and new life of Easter Sunday and the return of that word we’ve been longing to say that rhymes with Shmalleluah.

Easter can feel like a cathartic joy, like gulping sunshine, like a weight lifted from our bodies and a glowing lightness in our souls. It really can – I’ve felt it – but not if we cheat ourselves from the full experience. Not if we don’t walk through the valley of death with Jesus in vulnerability, in the brutal truth of our humanity.

Don’t cheat yourself. Don’t skip the human parts of this story, the palms and the walking and the breaking of bread at a shared table and the foot washing and the betrayal and the sorrow and brutal reality of crucifixion, and the death of Jesus, God with us, and the quiet waiting of we who mourn. The passion of our Lord Jesus Christ is a story of full humanity, and full divinity. It’s our story of how we live in this world where things die and how we live in Christ where we live.

Next week is Holy Week. Come out. Come out and live.