March 9, 2008
Edwards (Knox) United Church
Fifth Sunday of Lent
Click here for an easy to print or email Adobe PDF version of this post.
The Rev. Dr. George Hermanson
It seems that one of our societal preoccupation is the aging of the boomers. For every day we have some comment on their impact on jobs, health care, and pensions. Going along with these comments are articles about how to extend our life span. There seems to be some scientist who is promising us some form of immortality.
I have a saying that one of the attitudes that define our age is we think we are going to get out of life alive. In the seventies my campus ministry ran a series on death. We were fortunate to have Ernest Becker, just before he died, as the theme speaker. He wrote a book called the Denial of Death where his premise was that human civilization is ultimately an elaborate symbolic defense mechanism against the knowledge of the fact we all die. We seek ways to come to terms with this fact and develop strategies that will make us outlast our finiteness. Some turn to trying to deny. Others attach themselves to causes and ideas that give will give our life meaning, a purpose that suggests we are significant in the grand scheme of things.
When we mine the poets and fiction we find this question of immortality and our meaning has been with us since recorded history. Of all the animals we are those who think about the meaning of life in the face of our perishing. Just the other night I watched Men in Trees and the story was about one of the community who had been lost at sea. His potential death caused them to talk about what they would regret not doing if we knew when we were going to die. As it is with such times, it was a reflection on what was important, what was lost, what meaning could they give to their lives.
John’s narrative is about such reflections. First there is the bargaining when death appears at our door step. We say we will act differently if we are saved. We make God into our bodyguard or the house doctor. When God falls short at these responsibilities and someone dies too soon, we complain, sue or even fire this failed guardian.
Hear the hints of this in Martha and Mary. Jesus hears about his friend and yet he does not rush to the bed side. He turns up too late and Mary and Martha want to fire him. The story teller is telling us that there is another agenda at work. This is a hard teaching - this waiting.
Thus we ask what is going on here? What is the different agenda? First we notice that this is a resuscitation. Lazarus is beginning to stink to high heaven. So Jesus calls him out of the tomb. But Lazarus will still die. This is not immortality. This is not resurrection. It is reminder that despite all attempts to deny death we do die. The question before us is what will we do with what have until that time.
The story is preparing us for the next movement. Jesus is going on to Jerusalem to die. The narrator reminds us that Jesus' agenda is one of faithfulness to kingdom values. Values of compassion and justice that can be and ought to be experienced by all in our world. He moves on without fear. The narrator wants us to remember that resurrection is what God does. Our home in God is a given. We are not on a course of eternal return but freed from the fear of death - freed from seeking immortality by trying to earn it. We are to live fully in our time and space with out any reward. Resurrection is God’s activity of redeeming the good done and holding that good in God’s reality as a resource for further action on our part. Our end is not to be feared for it does not define us. What gives us identity is the fact we are called to live fully in the now. What defines us is how we live. Our meaning comes by our full participation in the issues of our time and space.
This story calls into question the agenda of not dying and trying to extend our days. It focuses on what is crucial for this living. There is ordinary dying and it does not define us - our living does. This living well was the point made about Jeff Healey who died early this month. He was tired of the rock-star life and before the cancer which had blinded him in infancy claimed him he had changed his goals. Paul Wells said this: “It is important to remember him on his own terms. He made it to the big time, but he decided he would rather be happy. How many of us, in his shoes, would do the same?” (Macleans March 17, 08)
Living out of the resurrection is an attitude that faces the fact that life is continuously one of perishing. We die every day. Life wears us down. If we don’t have to prove ourselves then our agenda is find those activities that make a difference to our experience and others experience. It is to care for the outcast. It is to care for creation. It is about care of all existence.
In the Christian narrative we have been claimed by God and in God each day is redeemed. With Jesus we die to fear and holding on. With Jesus we are raised to let loose of those grave clothes that bind us. Our fear and denial of death has bound us and mere resuscitation will not give us the existential satisfaction we desire. What we can claim is the resurrection which moves us beyond the habits we have developed that deny our finiteness. We have been schooled in the idea that the one who has the most toys wins. But toys also perish. We are more.
In those stories that touch our hearts we know that the answer is to affirm the relationships we have, to nurture them. In Men in Trees the townspeople find that life is full of meaning when they let go of fear. One rediscovers the music he had repressed. Another lets go of fear of commitment and jumps into it. Another begins to recover his lost memory. In other words, in the face of a friends death, they rediscover those things that nourish others and thus life.
Immortality is in the end a selfish vision of life. It is about me. Resurrection is about giving our lives away. Jesus walked into his future of the cross, committed to the well being of all. In baptism we experienced death and resurrection, we are let lose of those old habits that hold us back. In the rising from the water, from the tomb, we go out to live for the sake of the well being of all. Living in the resurrected life our agenda is one that seeks the healing of our world, the healing of those who are broken. Let lose of our fear of dying - the denial of death, we live - live for the well being of others - live for the common good.