March 29, 2020

Fifth Sunday in Lent, Pastor Lois Pallmeyer

Dear Friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you.  Amen

It’s been about 3 weeks since we’ve been isolating ourselves from each other. We’re no longer worshiping together in one building, eating in restaurants, going to school, meeting friends, visiting elders. Many people are no longer working. Even your worship leaders are only together through video-conferencing.

We come together this morning to discover it’s not just Lazarus wrapped in cloths and lying in a tomb, it’s all of us, bound by fear and anxiety, and following directions to stay home.

Maybe you saw the same article I did earlier this week, written by Scott Berinato[i], essentially reminding us that we are all literally in the midst grief.

When a loved one dies, those of us who were close grieve deeply, while those one or two steps away are able to support and encourage us. But right now, we’re all grieving. Some have different losses, and some losses may certainly be more acute or devastating, but no one is immune. We’re grieving our routines and our confidence, our sense of hope and our trust in the future. We’re grieving our day-to-day joys, and all kinds of normal human interactions.

Depending on our individual experience of grief, we may each be having one of the many reactions to it.

Some of us are probably in denial, thinking perhaps the experts are overreacting, that things won’t get quite as bad as all the doctors are predicting. It’s a little bit like the response we hear in this powerful story about Lazarus[ii]. Like the disciples, we may argue, “If he has only fallen asleep, he will be all right.” We may try to fool ourselves with false hopes:  “If we’re only experiencing minor symptoms, we can still go out.” “If young people normally don’t get that sick, it’s not that bad for them to be together. This will probably all be behind us in another week or so.”  Hmmm….  I don’t think so.

Or maybe we’re in the blaming and regret stage: “If only this had been managed differently,” we may be saying. “If only we had a more robust plan from the start, if only the authorities had heeded the recommendations of the CDC and infectious disease doctors years ago, things wouldn’t have gotten to this stage. We respond with Martha and Mary, “If you had started reacting earlier, we wouldn’t be in this predicament.”

Maybe we’re just frustrated that none of the answers are coming quickly enough. “Goodness:  We can put a spaceship on the moon. We can create smart phones that hold encyclopedias of information in a chip smaller than our pinky fingernail, but we can’t find enough face masks for our nurses?” “Amazon can deliver trinkets to us in less than 24 hours, but we can’t manufacture enough respirators for our hospitals?”

We’re incensed that the losses will undoubtedly be worse for those with access to money or support. Like Lazarus’s neighbors we complain: “Couldn’t this man, who restored sight to the blind person, have done more than this?”

Maybe we’re bleakly resigned like Thomas was, “Let us go with him to the place of death.” “We’re all going to get sick eventually. What’s to be done?”

Many of us are like Jesus, disturbed in spirit. The anxiety, the stress, the isolation, the frustration, the juggling of new things we have to learn in order to do things we used to know how to do, the criticism and condemnation that seems to come with all of it, is just overwhelming. We are weary, frustrated, afraid, and despondent.

At least for me, there are too many moments when I can’t hold it in. Like Mary and Martha, and the neighbors, and Jesus himself, even those who normally are able to hold it together, I just keep falling apart in tears.

And though we luckily haven’t started to experience wide-spread fatalities in our community, I think nearly all of us identify directly with Lazarus, wrapped up in bands of fear and doubt and despair, as if we’re holed up in in a cave. And it’s not just four days. We’re not even sure it will only be forty.

Martha’s right. There is already a stench. This stinks.

Berinato’s article reminds us that it’s important to name the grief, to be honest about it. Of course, we can trust that for the most part, we will somehow get through this, but the assurance of that doesn’t mean we need to minimize our feelings now. We don’t have to pretend we’re okay all the time. It’s not healthy to minimize or ignore our feelings.  Even Jesus, knowing what he was able to do, wept with his friends. This is hard, and this grief is real.

The gospel shows us that God sees the pain and distress people across the globe are in. And God, who loves the world, weeps with us. Jesus shows us the heart of God, and is brokenhearted for us.

In fact, John’s gospel says that Jesus is greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. Some scholars think a better translation would be infuriated and agitated.

We wonder what made Jesus angry about the situation. Is he mad at the responses of the neighbors, who, like those in last week’s gospel story[iii], don’t approve of what he’s doing in their midst? Is he mad about the illness that killed Lazarus, even if he understands his ability to restore him to life? Or is he mad at the whole horror of the power of death in our lives? Is he angry that after all this time, even his closest friends and followers still miss the joy and the love God offers the world?

Whatever it is, we do know this: Jesus doesn’t leave his friend Lazarus in the cave. He doesn’t leave Mary and Martha and the disciples and neighbors wrapped up in their grief or sorrow either. The stench that’s in the tomb will be refreshed with living, gracious fragrant life, not just for Lazarus, but for all of them.

Before he even orders Lazarus out of the tomb, Jesus reminds Martha that Lazarus will live again. Martha is faithful. She trusts in the power of the resurrection that will come at the end of time, and she trusts that Lazarus is secure in that ultimate future.

But Jesus has emphasized throughout his ministry, that he has come that we might have life now. Jesus has come to save the world here, to give us living water today, to know the abiding love and presence of God in the midst of all that we experience.

Jesus doesn’t just promise that Lazarus will be resurrected with all of us one day, but that right now, God’s glory is revealed as we live in the present. I am the resurrection, and the Life! he claims. I am the resurrection at the last day, and the life today!

What would it mean for Mary and Martha to live in their present situation? What would it mean for Thomas to realize that he hasn’t just gone with Jesus to the place of death, but has already entered with Jesus into everlasting life even now?

And how might Jesus be calling us out of our tombs, not just someday after we die, but right here, while we’re still wrapped up in our denial, or anger, or despair, or fear, and telling us to live?

The clue to me is in those last few words of the story, when Jesus tells Lazarus’s friends, “Unbind him, and let him go.” He doesn’t tell Lazarus to drop the grave cloths by himself, but he tells the friends and neighbors to help. Jesus gives the community the task of unbinding those who are wrapped in fear.

I have to believe that Jesus is not waiting until this pandemic is over to bring us life. Even though we face fear and isolation and sorrow now, we still have been called out of the grave, and are invited to unbind one another. Even while we are separated from one another physically, we can still be active in the task of unbinding.

It may start with finding moments of peace and goodness in the midst of our own lives first. Turning off the non-stop news and report which shake us into despair, and looking instead for ways to meditate or give thanks. Looking for things that bring us hope, music, or art, or creating something; reading, or praying, or walking.

But then we are invited to care for our neighbor, yes, in ways that allow us to keep each other safe, but in compassionate ways, regardless. Doctors and nurses and scientists are on the front line, caring for their neighbor in acts of incredible heroism and courage. Grocery store and nursing home employees, delivery persons and bus drivers are all doing their part, too.

But the rest of us are being called to unbind each other, even in more indirect ways. There are countless simple ways this is already happening. Pastor Javen mentioned the sidewalk chalk messages of cheer last week, and I know many of you are continuing that now.

Some of you have been able to listen in to Paul’s nightly hymn-sing on Facebook[iv], where he and his spouse record a gentle evening devotion for us.

I’ve heard of countless acts of random kindness people are showing each other. Folks are dressing up in costumes and telling their neighbors to have their kids look out to wave.

Teachers are driving in caravans through their students’ neighborhoods, and calling out greetings to the children at home. Sewers are making hundreds of handmade facemasks to help those in need. People are calling friends and acquaintances, sending snail mail, dropping off care packages. TV stations are playing concerts and plays and movies and archived ballgames reminding us of the things that keep us relaxed and give us life. Separated choir and orchestra members are sending in individual recordings of themselves performing compositions, which are played together to create beautiful ensembles across the miles. They’re amazing.

Yesterday morning I heard the story of a community organizer in Queens, New York, who had developed a COVID Care Neighborhood Network[v].           It started when she realized her neighbors were frightened, and some didn’t have access to the internet. So she began to leave Post-It notes on each of their doors, giving her name and telephone number and asking them to call if they needed anything.

The calls started coming, not only with requests for help, but also with offers to join the assistance. Soon, she had developed a whole team of neighbors responding to folks in need. Today they are shopping, cooking, dropping things off, checking in on those alone. Yes, they’re being diligent, and keeping their distance and wearing protective gloves, but even with precautions, they’re building community among strangers instead of leaving each other wrapped in fear.

Her care network is unbinding the forces of death, and allowing people to experience life in the midst of the crisis. She claims the help she’s offering actually helps her, too. It’s as if she’s discovering that as she offers healing, she herself is being healed.

I believe that every act of kindness or hope we extend, every act of restorative justice, every hungry person fed, or lonely person greeted, every phone call checking in with an old friend brings life and wellness to the world, and to those of us who strive to offer it.

We don’t know how long this isolation and separation will last, but we do know that God calls each one of us out of every tomb we’ve ever found ourselves in. Day after day, no matter how long it takes, God calls us out into life, and invites us to reach out to unbind the grave cloths on our neighbors. I hope you’ll let me know how you do that this week.

Although we are separated from each other, we are still the body of Christ, and God continues to free us to unbind each other, and love one another into life everlasting.

Thanks be to God. Amen


[ii] John 11:1-45

[iii] John 9