Crossroads: Going the Distance
Rev. Lindsay L. Fulmer
Ladera Community Church
April 10 2011
In all the stories I have heard from others about near death experiences, there’s a common thread. The person feels removed from their body, detached, some describe hovering above it. There is a sense of clarity, freedom and relief – accompanied by a stunning sense of the illusionary nature of the life left behind. Then, there’s this pull away from that place of peace back into the confines of the body, and of this life. People speak of coming back into consciousness with a lingering sense of sadness at leaving the light and peace and promise, of being awakened back into this troubled reality.
How did Lazarus feel about coming back? How far had he traveled in those four days, how deeply had he journeyed into eternal life? When Jesus stood calling outside the tomb, did Lazarus want to shout, No? I’ve been through all that; I’ve made it past the suffering…even for you, Master, please, no!
The story tells us that Jesus stood outside and shouted, he didn’t go into the tomb; he didn’t shake him, or lead him out, which put the resolve on Lazarus. Lazarus responded, stumbled out into the light, all bound up by his grave-clothes. After all he’d been through, the days of pain and fever, the days of listening to his sisters weeping somewhere in the house, after everything it took for him to finally let go of his old life and to surrender to death, after all this he had been called back into the light and must do it all again. He’d been brought back to life, but it’s a temporary reprieve. Sooner or later, he will go back into the grave. After he lurched back into life, we do not hear anymore about Lazarus. He doesn’t preach any sermons. We don’t know how he felt, how he lived the reclaimed days of his life, redeemed from death.
The story of the raising of Lazarus is a disturbing one. It’s disturbing to confront the stone cold reality of death. We all must, finally die. As fervently as we pray for healing and long life, as glad as we are on the occasions when these prayers are granted, we must all die, and it is the deepest, most troubling mystery any of us will face. We’d rather think about, talk about anything else. Like Mary and Martha, we would appeal to some power that might protect us from it. Jesus himself was deeply moved by it – a word that in the Greek means something much more akin to anger – anger and frustration that brought him to tears. Jesus wept. And we might imagine the tears were not only for the loss of his friend, not only out of compassion for Mary and Martha, but tears about the fragility of life, and the randomness of death. Tears of frustration that no one seemed to understand what he was about, much less believe it; tears over the enormity of what he had been given to do, and how utterly alone he was. Confronted with death, like Mary and Martha, we seek a reprieve, like Jesus we weep, like Lazarus, we have no words that can make sense of it.
Is there anything more in the world we would like to make sense of than death? To know the when, why and how of it, to understand where death fits in the divine economy of things? We fear death because we have no sure answers to these questions, and when we are afraid, the one word our hearts can be sure of crying is Why? Why this? Why, God, why? Fear itself can immobilize us, constrict and entomb us. Afraid, we will not love, because we fear rejection. Afraid, we will not dream because we fear disappointment. Afraid, we will not dare to act, because we fear failure. Fear seals shut the door. What does it take to roll the heavy stone of fear away?
One clue we have comes from all the little deaths that we experience throughout our days – the loss of a relationship, a job, a way of life, a physical ability, maybe even hope. As with Lazarus, the resolve to move past death to life must be ours, our choice, and our willingness to move back over the threshold of death and into life. Like Lazarus, we need the help of others to free us from whatever bondage still immobilizes us. If you have ever been seriously depressed, then you know that, even with all the will in the world, you need assistance and help from others to be freed. If you suffer the little deaths of guilt, jealousy, pettiness, division, and we all do, then you know you need the freeing of forgiveness. Roll the Stone away, Jesus said to those gathered around the tomb. Come out, Jesus cried to Lazarus. Unbind him, Jesus said to his friends, and let him go. In other words, the work of resurrection is not for God alone to accomplish, but asks our involvement, our efforts – to loosen the bonds, to forgive, to let go, to help others, as well as ourselves, move forward out of places of death and back into life.
The story of Lazarus would ask us to believe that nobody is too far gone for redemption, that there is no place beyond redemption, even in death. In John’s gospel, it is this story of life redeemed from death that precipitates Jesus’ arrest, trial and execution. Well might the powers of domination be threatened by the disturbing news of life delivered from death. What if people really believed? Believed that there was more life beyond any death, more redemption and grace than any sin, more reason to have faith than to fear? Life would cease to be lived in resignation and reservation. The bonds that diminish life and freedom would be broken. It would be so apparent that God is doing a new thing; the very air we breathe would be filled with the exhilarating fragrance of promise and possibility.
To have such faith in God, to have faith that we are in good hands, that whether or not we understand it, the universe makes sense that is the hardest choice any of us will ever make. We have no real proof, no concrete evidence but the adamant witness of our own hearts that it is so. We have this story, and the one that follows after, of Lazarus’ friend Jesus, who faced his own death with anguish and fear, who in his suffering, cried out why? Why? Jesus, who, even so, in the end was willing to forgive, to let go. People said they saw him later, and that he talked about peace, and about life beyond death, life everlasting, and about how it turned out there was nothing to fear after all. We have the witness of those whose lives were transformed by encounters with the living Christ, who, once afraid, now lived with joyful confidence. It all depends on whom we believe, and if we believe. It all depends on our willingness to go the unfathomable distance, to take those staggering steps from grief to gratitude, from fear to trust, to find our way, with God’s help, again and again, from death into life, life full of mystery, full of wonder. He has shown us the way. May we have the courage to go the distance. Amen.