The Reverend Elizabeth Bowyer
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Reflection for Lent V, Sunday, April 2, 2017

Based on John 11: 1-46 The Story of Lazarus

Opening Prayer:  Holy, gracious, and amazing God, may the words on my lips reflect the glory of your abiding love as we reflect together this day on your word for us in scripture.  Amen.

Our readings this morning remind us that while death certainly is a part of life, they also remind us that new life can and does emerge out of our experiences of death and dying.

New life can and often does emerge out of our experiences of death and dying, especially when we are able to acknowledge and work through our grief and sorrow accompanied by God’s gracious and nourishing Spirit all along the path.

This awareness reminds me of the academy award nominated film, “Manchester by the Sea”. 

Perhaps you’ve also seen it or heard about it?

It stars among others, Casey Affleck, one of the leading actors awarded the Oscar for Best Actor this year.

Some people found ‘’Manchester by the Sea” a challenging film because  

· it had a slow start

· there was too much swearing.

· it was a tragic and depressing story.

It is true there was too much swearing in the film. 

It is true that the story was tragic.

It is true that some would find it depressing. 

I, on the other hand, found something very real and very hopeful in its grittiness and I was glad to be able to bring a sense of patience to the opening scenes of the film as it did quickly deliver for me.

There’s no denying it did begin in a rather slow way.   

As Casey, in his role as Lee Chandler, goes about his daily routines as a handyman shovelling snow or fixing bathtub plugs for tenants in a rundown apartment complex, I did wonder where this would take us.

But then, I was drawn in by the opening scenes, including visiting Casey’s run down accommodation in a basement suite, including the seedy tavern where he goes and picks a fight with others as much to get out and about as to drown his sorrows.

Immediately, I found myself thinking there has got to be something more to this man’s life in the first 10 minutes of the film. 

 When Lee receives a phone call from the hospital two hours away that his brother is dying, there is a sudden and dramatic shift in Lee as he returns home to pick up some of the threads of the life he left behind.

Called back to “Manchester by the Sea”, a small working class village on the eastern seaboard of the U.S., Lee learns he is now guardian to his nephew, Patrick, whose father, Lee’s brother has just died.

Though there’s a lot more to the story that that, I am reminded as in our stories from scripture this morning, the film “Manchester by the Sea” also shows us how new life can and does emerge out of death.   

But it takes courage and commitment and showing up to that which must be let go.

In Lee’s case, new life slowly begins to nudge Lee through his grief and loss as he is drawn into relationship with his nephew, Patrick, possibly one of the most effectively obnoxious characters in the film. 

On return to Manchester by the Sea, Lee is drawn into re-visiting his own experience of the tragic story of the death and loss of his three beloved children and the ensuing breakdown of his marriage.

Its true enough that Lee’s new life begins to emerge very gradually.

Its true enough that he is rebuffed and rejected by many, but not all, in the community he re-enters.

Its also true enough that the possibility of new life dawns on Lee as he comes in contact once again with two of the key women in his life, each affected by the family’s tragic history in their own ways.

Each of the women, his wife and his sister in law, seem to have travelled through their own valley of dry bones and come out the other side.

Though Lee never quite accomplishes re-birth that we can touch and see in vivid and concrete ways in the film, there is a real sense of hopeful possibility for him, that the dried up bones of his life will be fortified and restored.

This becomes evident as the film moves to its closure and Lee makes plans to return to work and life in the city. 

I found great hope in Lee’s choice to find less dingy and more hospitable accommodation in the hopes that his nephew, Patrick, will one day visit him. 

And then, of course, Lee’s willingness to risk sharing that invitation with the highly egocentric Patrick himself was, for me, one the film’s highlights.

For Lee Chandler, frozen in grief at having lost everything he held dear in life as a father and a husband, to reach out to his coming of age nephew in this way felt a breathtakingly courageous step to take.

For me, “Manchester by the Sea” was one blockbuster of a movie with more momentous characters, scenes, and themes than time hardly permits us to do justice to here.

In the same way, our readings from both Ezekiel and John’s gospel reading this morning are their own blockbuster stories affirming that new life can and does emerge out of death, grief, and sorrow if we can but wait on Love’s arrival.

Some might describe John’s gospel as heavy slogging or a demanding read.

Some might describe it as a story with a slow start.

Some might describe the author of John’s language as convoluted and confusing

Listening to Jesus’ words and the commentaries of his followers, we might wonder: Does anyone every seem to get on the same page with Jesus in John’s gospel?  A short answer might be Yes and No.

Our reading this morning is divided into five distinct scenes, full to the brim with unusual signs and sayings and characters many of us might recognize from other stories from John’s gospel, and or from the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

There’s Mary and Martha and their brother, Lazarus who has been ill and who has died.  Then there’s the tempting thought that if only Jesus had just arrived a little sooner, Lazarus would still be with them.  This reminds me of Lee in the movie-if only he hadn’t buzzed off to the store for more beer in the middle of the night, he might not have lost his family in that tragic fire.

Then there’s Thomas’ and the disciples’ response to Jesus’ news that has Lazarus 'just sleeping' and then soon after as 'having died'. 

Which is it, we might well wonder?

Then there’s poignancy and drama, sorrow and grief, and concern about the need to protect Jesus whose life seems to be increasingly under threat. 

Not a good idea to go back to Bethany, his followers tell him.

But, similar to what we heard Jesus say last week, they, and he need to go so that God’s glory might be seen and experienced.

There’s also foreshadowing for our consideration as we hear this story on the last Sunday in the season of Lent, the Sunday before we celebrate Jesus’ triumphant final entry into the city of Jerusalem.

Those gathered in this story are thought to consist largely of religious authorities.  Named by the author of John’s gospel as “the Jews” these ones are very fearful of Jesus’ impact on the community.

On top of all that, there’s a real sense of urgency and questioning about Jesus’ identity, his timing needs over and against Martha and Mary’s and the community’s timing needs.

When they do arrive at Bethany, located just two miles east of Jerusalem, there’s also Jesus’ very human and abundantly obvious compassion for his beloved friends, Mary and Martha and for the whole community gathered to mourn Lazarus’ death.

Indeed, scripture tells us that “Jesus was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” when he hears that Lazarus has already been dead for four days.

There’s also transformation and new life for Martha whose experience of Jesus in this story causes her to proclaim the good news from her own experience that, indeed, she gets it that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world”.

As underscored through it all by the author of the gospel of John, there’s the desire to show God’s glory for all gathered. 

Finally, there’s Jesus’ modelling, not only own intimate relationship with God as father, but of embodied prayer as we learn this:

“Jesus looked upward and said: “Father, I thank you for having heard me.  I knew you would always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.”

And, last but never least, there’s the final sign, the miracle of new life for Lazarus as Jesus’ instructs each member of the gathered body to take their parts in this bringing of new life out of death for Lazarus. 

“Take away the stone.”  Jesus tells them. 

And they do.

“Lazarus, come out!”  Jesus says. 

And he does.

“Unbind him and let him go!”  He tells the gathered community. 

And they do.

In the midst of all this, there is also deep seated fear and the need to deny and betray new life. 

Indeed, Jesus’ fate is sealed as the reading concludes with these ominous words:

“Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.  But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done.”

 I wonder what it must have been like for Lazarus to be brought to new life. 

Would Lazarus have even wanted to be brought back to life after four days in the empty, cold, dark tomb?

Would Lazarus have been angry with Jesus for delaying his arrival and causing such distress for his family and friends?

Would new life for Lazarus have emerged gradually like it did for Lee Chandler in the movie, “Manchester by the Sea?” 

Or would new life for Lazarus have come swiftly like a burst of light or a breath of fresh cool air?

Later in John’s gospel we find Lazarus reclining next to Jesus at the Last Supper  but, other than that, we hear no more.

Our stories from scripture as always, bring with them more questions than answers.

Our stories from scripture invite us into the work of wondering about what in our own lives and in our life as a church needs unbinding and setting free.

Our stories from scripture invite us to consider where in our own lives we need to find courage and hope in the face of tragedy, deep grief, and unbearable sorrow.

And they provide us with a model for being in prayerful relationship with God and with each other through Jesus.

This brings to mind the new life energy I see emerging here at Knox in our experiences of the various guest speakers’ response to the question: “Who is Jesus for you?” at our Lenten Luncheon series. 

Somehow, these speakers’ own testimonies to who Jesus is for them has whetted our own appetites for the same question. 

Who is Jesus for you?

What better way to do our own work as followers in the Way as this Lenten season draws to its close! 

As we anticipate our celebration of Palm Passion Sunday next week and the movement into Holy Week and Easter after that, may we know God’s nudging, nurturing Spirit ever actively at work in our hearts and in our lives this day.  May it be so.  Amen.