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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Do you believe this? (Lent 5A)

I'm tired of hearing the raising of Lazarus over-spiritualized. I don't think it is primarily a spiritual gospel. Lazarus wasn't spiritually dead. If Jesus had just been preaching about life, then nobody would have had to kill him. Nobody wants to kill our priests when they preach. (Well, I have my moments, but that's another story.) Jesus raised Lazarus, and suddenly the leaders wanted him dead. I don't think it was his preaching that caused that. This gospel stands as a summons to all of us, a voice outside of our tombs, calling us to life now. What does it mean that Jesus is the resurrection and the life? What is life? The question haunts through the whole story. "Whoever believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"

Whose side am I on? Lots of people are taking life away these days. Death is a threat hanging over most of the planet on a daily basis: hunger, thirst, disease, war, neglect. Am I a life-giver or a death dealer? Or am I just watching? That's what a scrutiny is for. Whose side am I on?

The liturgy of the word that introduces the Third Scrutiny is the amazing pericope  Ezekiel, the prophecy over the dry bones. Then we hear about Lazarus being called back to life by his tardy friend Jesus. In all of these gospels about the signs, of which this is the last, John is interested in faith. But faith in whom? Faith in what? And the Church is interested in the faith of the elect. But faith in whom? Faith for what?

As I mentioned yesterday, the dry bones story is one of the most vivid in Scripture. Ezekiel is summoned to a killing field, the plain below Mount Megiddo (Har-megido, according to some, the origin of the word Armageddon, which appears in the book of Revelation.) In the years preceding the ministry of Ezekiel, a huge battle between the forces of the Judean king Josiah and Egypt took place there, and the army of Judah, along with its king, were destroyed. To Ezekiel, in his dream, it appeared that there was a field of sun-bleached bones as far as the eye could see. These bones bore mute witness to the destruction of Judah as a state and a people, and, in a sense, as a religious community, as there was no army now to deter Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon from seizing Judah as a vassal state. Carrying off its people, including Ezekiel, into exile, many would be tempted beyond their endurance to be absorbed into Babylonian society and worship their gods.

Here in the shadow of Har-megido, among the woeful remains of his nation's young dead, the Spirit of God asks Ezekiel, Can these bones live again? Ezekiel knows there is only one way that can happen: if the Lord's creating breath, the ruah of God, were to enter the bones, they would indeed live. It was, after all, the breath of God that gave things life in the first place; to the ancient Hebrew, there was only one kind of breath, and that was God's breath. If you had it, you lived. If you didn't have it, you were dead. Literally, not figuratively. "I will open your graves and have your rise from them," says the voice of the Lord over the dry bones of Judah, "I will put my ruah (breath, spirit) into you that you may live."

That is just what Jesus is up to in today's gospel. Spreading God's breath around to someone who really needed it. I always sort of shake my head when homilists make a big deal about one of the last lines in this gospel: "Untie him, and let him go free," as though the bystanders were able to do some huge service to Lazarus by removing the graveclothes. I mean, HELLO! He was DEAD. I'm sure the inconvenience of being bound hand and foot came in a distant second on Lazarus's list of problems the preceding day, which read something like this:

MY PROBLEMS, by Lazarus of Bethany
1. I'm dead and buried, and starting to decompose.
I mean, yes, for crying out loud, untie him and let him go free. But the lead on the nightly news was surely: LOCAL MAN LIVES AFTER BEING DEAD FOUR DAYS. Somewhere on page 7, it was buried in column 4, "Friends untie, free Lazarus."

My friend, Tom Conry, once preached on this gospel, and he quoted a passage from Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilych" that is so completely apropos of today's gospel that I feel the need to quote it again. Ilych is dying, and no one will acknowledge the truth of that:

What tormented Ivan Ilych most was the deception, the lie, which for some reason they all accepted, that he was not dying but was simply ill, and the only need keep quiet and undergo a treatment and then something very good would result. He however knew that do what they would nothing would come of it, only still more agonizing suffering and death. This deception tortured him — their not wishing to admit what they all knew and what he knew, but wanting to lie to him concerning his terrible condition, and wishing and forcing him to participate in that lie. Those lies... were a terrible agony for Ivan Ilych. And strangely enough, many times when they were going through their antics over him he had been within a hairbreadth of calling out to them: "Stop lying! You know and I know that I am dying. Then at least stop lying about it!" (Chapter 7. See the whole story online here.)
The connection between death and the need to lie, to ourselves and to each other, is at the heart of today's gospel. Conry opens up the gospel passage in the light of our ancient and modern dalliances with slavery and death thus:

...I think that the image of a man four days dead struggling out of his bandages is meant to provoke in us the shout of Ivan Illyitch; the knowledge of our own death, and not only ours, but the certain death of all those who love us, those who hate us, and those who will never know our names. The story means to make us cry out: ‘Stop your foolish lies! You know as well as I know that we are dying, and so at least stop lying!” Because to see Lazarus is to acknowledge our mortality... To admit that we are all dying is to admit that every human being is completely and radically equal in importance, and that our lives are brief and precious in the sight of the one who has made us and summoned us to this table.
"Stop the lying" has been the cry of Jesus from the beginning: "Turn away from sin, and believe the good news." To believe (that is, to lovingly, actively, live in) the truth that God is the God of life, who has nothing to do with death, and who has shown us in Christ that not even the grave separates us from the love of our brother, to believe this is to be free, is to begin to live resurrection life. It is a great paradox that it is this miracle of raising the dead man to life that starts the machinery in motion that will lead to Jesus's trial and crucifixion. Jesus has made a brief career out of calling, preaching to, healing, and dining with the untouchables. He has run into trouble with religious (tribal) power over this. He has called new disciples, and encouraged them to speak and do as he does. This event is the last straw, the "assault upon the order" that enrages the powers of Jerusalem to the point that they call the meeting that will lead to his arrest.

It's not that this is any news to us. People who take the side of life, the side that God has demonstrated in the resurrection of Jesus that God is on, are always crushed by the powers of the world. We've heard their names in our own lifetimes: Martin Luther King, Stephen Biko, Mohandas "Mahatma" Gandhi, Oscar Romero, John Paul II (though he survived the attempt on his life), and many others. Many everyday Catholics, too, who have stood up to the forces of death, without force, have been silenced by authorities. The forces of death and slavery and addiction need the threat of death to keep people doing what they want. If someone offers life, if someone says, "Wait a minute: God wants more for you than this - God wants you to have abundant life, here and now," so that people start thinking that maybe the fleshpots of their slavery are too little a patrimony for the children of God, then those people become a threat to Pharaoh, to the Sadducees, to the plantation owners, the straw bosses, the fashioners of apartheid, to the juntas of Guatemala, Nicaragua, Chile, and their advisors from Washington, the enemies of life and freedom for everyone in every time and place. Someone has to tell the Lazarus story and say, "They're lying." Someone has to keep saying, "God is on the side of life. Do you believe this?"

Who is Jesus? Brother to all, healer, reconciler of differences, forger of communal bonds, forgiver, table-partner, foot-washer, son of this God. Sender of the Spirit. "Whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"

This is what scrutinies are for. We've got to figure it out, decide. As long as we don't, the forces of death are having their way.