November 1, 2015

All Saints Day, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling

What was it like to be called from death back into life?

Suzanne Guthrie, an Episcopal priest, almost died during childbirth. Different than many near-death experiences, she didn’t see a light, but she did experience “blessed clarity, freedom, release, an existence that felt more real than the one she had been living.” She writes:

Then the recovery room nurse enforced an alternative plan for my life. Someone was shaking my body and calling me by name. No! NO! Unprepared and inept, I slipped, as if falling on ice, into that lesser “reality” in a helpless panic of anguish and anger. Suddenly I was back in the confines of that little life of mine…. I came to consciousness disappointed, frustrated, unspeakably sad — and in excruciating pain. [1]

Was it like that for Lazarus? It might help explain the awkwardness of the resurrection scene; Lazarus comes out of the tomb. The crowd is holding their noses. Maybe he even takes a quick sniff, wondering, “Is that me?” His feet and body are still wrapped in the burial cloths, making it difficult to walk, even to see where he was going. Did his back hurt from laying on that stone slab? Was the illness that killed him still present, waiting to take root again?

Lazarus is called by Jesus to come from his eternal life with God back to his life with two sisters. I had one. I know what it was like. He is called back to a world where death and illness is real and painful; back to a life that would be challenged and difficult. In fact, we hear in the next part of the story that the religious leaders decide to kill Lazarus because he was alive. He was living proof of Jesus’ power.

It’s a strange twist to think of the story that way, isn’t it? It makes the miracle of resurrection a little more complicated. But I think it’s the key to understanding why John tells this story in such exquisite detail. Lazarus is the sheep who follows the shepherd’s voice. 1. He trusts the voice of Jesus. 2. He trusts that there is life in the face of his dying.

So often I want a Christianity that calls me away from everything that’s hard. So many of us would love a shepherd who took away our struggles, who gave us life without disease or death or suffering. In the gospel of John, we meet a Jesus who doesn’t call us away from life but a Jesus who calls us into life.

Kathleen Norris wrote a book about acedia[2]. Acedia is one of the seven deadly sins, sometimes translated as “sloth.” It is the temptation to disconnect, to stop caring, to stop making an effort. She writes about the difficulties of spending a lifetime caring for a husband with mental and physical difficulties. She writes about the difficulty in getting up to perform the regular and daily tasks that she knew she needed to do but didn’t want to; didn’t feel any enthusiasm and was bored by.

Acedia is like dying while you’re still living. You see the sunlight on the trees, but you turn away and turn up the volume of some vapid game show. It’s the life that leaves the decision you know you need to make to another day. It’s a life of inaction in the face of injustice, allowing the status quo to become the default. It’s a life focused on the stench of dying. For many of us, who get stuck, who get wrapped up in our struggles, or bound up by indecision and fear, Jesus still speaks from the pages of the gospel of John: “Lazarus, Come out.”

John wrote before “coming out” became a metaphor.  “Coming Out” has become a way of talking about coming back to life; for claiming the life that God has given us. Not limited to sexual orientation anymore, there are all kinds of ways that people can come out, naming out loud what has been shameful for us admit. “I came out to my parents about my debt,” someone told me once. It was a decisive step for her to stop buying as a way of feeling alive. Coming out is trusting that inner voice that is urging us to live with more honesty, more intention, and more initiative than we have ever done before.

Today, the saints we remember are probably more like Lazarus than they were like Jesus. They lived their lives with baggage and disease, amazing gifts and spectacular faults. There were times when they were living proof of the power of Jesus, and there were times whe they tripped on their bandages. We remember them today as saints because Jesus called them by name into life. “Child of God, you are baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” God gave them eternal life, certainly on their last day, but more importantly on their baptismal day. Resurrection didn’t just come at the end. It came at the beginning. As it does for every one of us.

The community standing around the font is like the community that was standing outside Lazarus’ tomb. They, too, are given a command: Unbind them, and let them go. Jesus doesn’t instruct Lazarus to live resurrection by himself. He gives Lazarus a community whose job it is to facilitate his freedom. Later in the gospel, Jesus will call this community his friends, and he will breathe his very own spirit into them so that they can live out of the same love he did.

In a world of acedia that’s dying with violence and prejudice, self-centeredness and greed, division and despair, the church is the community that lives and loves in the face of death. We hold the world like it’s a child at the font.

Suzanne Guthrie concludes her story about her near-death experience by saying:

A few hours after the recovery nurse shook me away from [that other] reality, another nurse put a beautiful but hungry infant boy into my arms. As I held his tightly wrapped body close to mine, my baby suddenly sensed proximity to the solution of his ravenous need. Instinctively, but no less miraculously, he grasped my breast to suckle.

[1] Suzanne Guthrie is the Episcopal adviser for students at Vassar College and the author of Grace’s Window: Entering the Seasons of Prayer (Cowley). This article appeared in The Christian Century, March 8, 2005, p. 22. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

[2] “Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and the Writer’s Life.”