Sunday, April 6, 2014

"Lazarus is Dead" - a sermon for the 5th Sunday of Lent

Preached by the Very Rev. Mike Kinman at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, April 6, 2014

Then Jesus told them plainly, "Lazarus is dead."

Jesus does something incredibly powerful in this morning’s Gospel. And it’s not what you think.

I'm not talking about raising the dead.

I'm talking about telling the truth.

Three words that Jesus said. Three words that Jesus was completely unafraid to say. Three words that made everything that happened after he said them possible.

Lazarus is dead.

Think that’s not so hard to say? Think again.

A recent article Forbes noted that nearly one-third of all Medicare expenditures come from the 5% of beneficiaries that die each year. The 5% most critically ill people, all of whom end up dying, eat up 30% of the resource cost. And 1/3 of that cost happens in the last month of life.

The author notes "It seems that no matter how much money you use during that last year or month, if the person is sick enough, the effort makes things worse. A lot of the money being spent is not only not helping, it is making that patient endure more bad experiences on a daily basis. The patient’s quality of life is being sacrificed by increasing the cost of death."

So why do we do it? Why do we pour such huge amounts of money into fruitless attempts to prolong life? Largely because we're afraid of the words Jesus was unafraid to say.

We're afraid to say:

"Lazarus is dead."

We are afraid of death, so we do everything we can to postpone and deny it. Most of us don't even use the word, "death." In fact we'll use anything to avoid it.

There are the common euphemisms

Passed away


Gone to a better place

Then there are the more creative ones:

Caught the big bus

Took a dirt nap

Basted the formaldehyde turkey.

And we start it early on. We don’t tell our children that their dog died, we say that she “went to a farm upstate where there’s lots of room to run around.”

Even doctors and nurses ... maybe especially doctors and nurses ... rarely say the word. In my hospital chaplaincy in seminary, deaths were called "Bradys."

“We had a Brady on two last night.”

In three months, I never once heard the actual word death said by a doctor or nurse despite witnessing death on almost a daily basis.

We fear death so much, we cannot even bring ourselves to say the word. And that’s why our efforts to try to provide health care in this country will never succeed as long as we treat it as a public policy crisis or even a humanitarian crisis. Because at its root, it is a crisis of faith.

As a nation, our fear is greater than our faith.

It’s not surprising. One of the byproducts of being the wealthiest society in the history of the world is that we are used to being able to control everything. And the more we live with the illusion of control, the more we become convinced that we should be able to control everything, the more we fear that which is beyond our control.

Death is the ultimate thing that is beyond our control. No matter what we do. No matter how much we strive for immortality through plastic surgery or fame or constant activity or any other means under the sun, death will find us.

And as Christians we know this. We even have beautiful, poetic words that affirm this. We began Lent saying, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We have words that fearlessly claim death as a natural transition from life to life. But instead of living those beautiful words: "For to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended," instead of proclaiming fearlessly “all we go down to the dust, but even at the grave we make our song, Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia,” instead of stepping out in faith with some of the most powerful words and certainly the most powerful truth our faith has to offer, mostly, we live in deep fear of the one thing that is an absolute certainty for us all.

And so the most remarkable thing that Jesus does in this story isn't raising Lazarus from the dead. The most remarkable thing that Jesus does, the thing that makes everything else possible is Jesus tells the truth. Jesus simply calls the patient.

Jesus says plainly: “Lazarus is dead.”

Jesus shows us how to live fully as the image of God that is each of us, and that means having faith that is greater than our fear. Jesus shows us who we can be, too. And so we notice that not only is Jesus unafraid to say his friend his dead, Jesus is not afraid to weep for his friend's death. Jesus is not afraid of anything, because he truly believes what we have all been promised -- that nothing, not even death, can separate us from the reach of the most powerful force in the cosmos ... the love of God.

All this Lent we have been talking about healing. But today we come face to face with those times in life where healing is no longer possible. Where Lazarus is not sick or asleep or woozy but dead. Lazarus is dead. He is in the tomb. Don’t move the stone because that body is going to stink. It’s over.

OK Jesus, what do we do now?

Well this morning, Jesus tells us. Jesus says don’t be afraid. Jesus tells us to say the words and speak the truth. This morning, Jesus calls us in the face of those scariest of things that are beyond our control to trust boldly in that love of God that is the most powerful force in the cosmos. Trust boldly enough to call the patient when death has occurred. To look ourselves and each other in the eye and say:

Lazarus is dead.

Sometimes Lazarus is a loved one with terminal illness who desperately needs to be able to meet death face-to-face with dignity.

Sometimes Lazarus is a marriage where the sacramental mutual love departed long ago and is never coming back, and life needs a chance to be changed, not ended.

Sometimes Lazarus is a faithful pet who has loved us long and whose death is our final act of merciful love in return.

Sometimes Lazarus is a friendship that has been so deeply damaged by betrayal that all that is left is to go our separate ways.

Sometimes Lazarus is a way of life precious to us that needs to die so that some new way of life can emerge.

One day Lazarus will be me. One day Lazarus will be you.

And it’s OK. All we go down to the dust. But Christ’s song is ever on our lips. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.

Being able to say “Lazarus is dead” is the key to everything that comes next. New life simply cannot emerge until those words of truth are said. Until those words are said, we are trapped in that place where maybe we haven’t admitted death but there certainly is not life.

Like those who pour their life’s savings into keeping the respirator going for one more week of agony, when we don’t acknowledge these deaths we actually make it worse. When we hold on to that which is already gone, we actually sacrifice our life by increasing the cost of death. Because as long as we keep holding on desperately to life when Lazarus is already dead, there can be no resurrection. As long as we do that, as long as we fear those precious words “Lazarus is dead,” we cannot grasp on to the new life that God has in store for each and all of us.

This is not easy. It was not easy for Jesus, and it’s not easy for us. Death is deep loss and we grieve loss, and Jesus does, too. Jesus wept over Lazarus. And we too should grieve these deaths. And we should hold onto each other and love each other through that grief. Because our grief is not a sign of faithlessness -- precisely the opposite – our grief is a sign that we are created in the faithful image of a God who weeps where there is pain.

But in our tears, we can still have hope. In our tears we will always have hope.

Because yes, Lazarus is dead.

And we can say those words. As followers and trusters in Jesus, we are strong enough in our faith to say those words that others fear to say. We are strong enough and faithful enough to weep as we say them because we don’t fear sorrow either.

We can say, “Lazarus is dead,” because we know the rest of the story. Not just Lazarus’ story but every story.

We can say, “Lazarus is dead,” because death is nothing to fear.

We can say, “Lazarus is dead” because we know that life is changed not ended, because even at the grave we make our song, because nothing, not even death can separate us from the love of God. Amen.

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