Beyond Tragedy

John 11:1-6, 17-44

We are now entering the twilight zone.  We are now entering the world of the walking dead, the realm of zombies, spirits, ghosts, and near-death experiences. The world of the paranormal that lies beyond the rational mind and human control. (Of course, in this time of pandemic, we already feel as if we are in the twilight zone!)

A friend of mine tells the story of her son’s experience.  The ten year-old child’s grandmother was undergoing surgery with minimal risk but unexpectedly she died in the night.  That night, he had a dream, in which his now deceased grandmother told him “tell everyone it will be all right.”  He didn’t know his grandmother had died, but across time and space he received a communication.

One of my seminary students tells the story of  slipping on a rock, hitting her head, and being thrown into a swiftly flowing stream.  She recounts that as she was drowning, she had a vision –  of Jesus, angels, and heaven, and heard a voice  saying “I have much to teach you in this world.  Go back!” Somehow, she found herself on the shore.  Not knowing what to make of it, she knew she had to change her life.   She left her career in business and entered seminary.

These stories are amazing yet challenging and so is the story of Lazarus.  It takes us beyond the Outer Limits and Night Gallery into the Twilight Zone and beyond. Dead people simply don’t rise, except in horror films and Zombie musicals.  

And yet Lazarus has died and so will we.  The mortality rate is 100%.  As my ministerial internship supervisor George Tolman noted over 40 years ago,  “life is risky business, no one gets out alive.”  Some feel this more acutely these days!

The story of Lazarus is amazing, and we can’t explain the mechanics of his return to life.  It stretches our imagination and credulity.  We don’t see people rising up, reanimated, from the cemetery nor are our friends and family members revived. 

While we might be tempted to discount the story as a relic of an earlier era, I believe that we need to take the story seriously: it tells us about Jesus, God’s vision, and ourselves.

Jesus and Lazarus and his two sisters Mary and Martha are close friends.  Yet, when Jesus hears that Lazarus is dying, he holds back.  The author of John’s Gospel suggests Jesus had a plan for waiting, but he may have been prudent, looking for safe passage in a time in which there was a price on his head.  Finally, he comes, a few days too late.  His dear friends Mary and Martha ask the healer, “why didn’t you come earlier? You could have saved him.”

Confronted by the reality of Lazarus’ death and the grief he feels along with the pain of Lazarus’ sisters, Jesus does as we would do – he weeps.  Whatever miracle Jesus has in mind, Lazarus has died, and he feels the pain of his dear friends, the pain Lazarus felt on his death bed, and his own sense of loss.  We can’t minimize this reality: Jesus experienced grief and loss.  Jesus mourned his friend and God feels our pain.

German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer asserted that “only a suffering God can save.”  Alfred North Whitehead, a decade before, noted that God is” the fellow sufferer who understands.”  God feels our pain, experiences our joy and celebrates with us.  Can you imagine that God is touched by what goes on in our lives?  God cries with the child missing her mother, traumatized by her imprisonment on our borderlands.  God feels the hopelessness of a family struggling with a child’s substance use disorder, as well as the child who struggles with addiction.  Can you imagine God caring for us, hunkering down and anxious in our home?

God is elated when we find a new friend, recover from illness, and discover a way to love again.  As Eric Liddle says in Chariots of Fire, “God made me fast and when I run, I can feel God’s pleasure.”

Can you imagine that – God loves the world so much that he rejoices with joy of a right whale breaching, a young boy making a basket, a young girl getting a goal in soccer, the satisfaction of a job well done, or the experience of waking up to a beautiful day?  And God wants us to empathize with others’ joy and sorrow, too!

Jesus is a realist.  He knows about death, and perhaps he intuits that a Cross is on the horizon.  But while Jesus recognizes death is real, he knows that love is stronger than death.

Now we have our Lazarus moments: we have been to the graveside, mourning  our spouses and partners, our children and parents.  We have spread ashes on a local beach or a special place or have the remains of a beloved companion on our mantle. We have loved and lost and failed when we hoped for success.  We worry about virus, plague, and economic uncertainty, not to mention the impact of climate change on the future. Our dreams have been dashed by harsh reality, circumstances, and bad decisions.

But the story of Lazarus tells us that in the ashes of our lives, there is new life.  Ashes become the humus from which spring flowers burst forth.  Dry bones can live.  Lost years can be reclaimed, addiction can be healed, new possibilities can emerge from poor decision-making, and those we love will live on in God’s realm.

Jesus doesn’t give us the mechanics of the afterlife.  He simply says “I am the resurrection and the life.  If you trust me, you will never die.”  You and your loved ones are in God’s care and God hasn’t lost anyone yet!

My mother chose the hymn “It is well with my soul” for her funeral. I remember singing it when she was laid to rest almost 30 years ago.  You may know the song’s story. A successful attorney and real estate developer, Horatio Spafford lost almost everything. His two-year-old son died and then  the  Great Chicago Fire of 1871 ruined him financially – destroying most of his real estate investments. His business interests were further hit by the economic downturn of 1873, at which time he had planned to travel to Europe with his family on the SS Ville du Havre. In a late change of plans, he sent the family ahead while he was trying to resurrect his business. While crossing the Atlantic Ocean, the ship sank after a collision with a sea vessel, and all four of Spafford’s daughters died. His wife Anna survived, alerting him with the mournful telegram “Saved alone …”. Shortly afterwards, as Spafford traveled to meet his grieving wife, he was inspired to write these words as his ship passed near where his daughters had drowned.

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to know
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

We don’t know what lies ahead for us – personally, with the pandemic, or in our country.  But, in all the tragic beauty of life, we can hold fast to the amazing story of Lazarus and  Jesus’ resurrection promise, knowing that while we don’t know the future, the future is in God’s hands.  We don’t need to be afraid, we can confront the challenges of life courageously, we can protest injustice, and care for the vulnerable. We can reach out in times of social uncertainty.  For Jesus is the resurrection and the life. It is well with our souls.