My dad finally came out of the closet not so long ago. I’d been carrying him around for a while. Not shut up in a tomb with a rock in the door like Lazarus, all that remained had been sitting on a shelf near the computer in an earth-colored bowl–a small ashy clump, topped by a little ceramic model of his cat, Rocky. They say hearing is the last sense to leave us, and Rocky had purred my father into eternity. So, finally, with my cat Oliver purring beside me, I took the few ashes I’d saved and buried them in my backyard under the oak leaf azalea a loving UCG member had given me years ago. No matter what I claim my Credo to be about life and death, it turns out, I hadn’t quite been willing to let him rest in peace. Doing that thing that complicated grief does, like Mary and Martha do in the story—ruminating, wringing hands, saying, if you’d only been here…if I’d done this or that, tried a different treatment, or less or more, or sooner or later, said this or that, he wouldn’t have died. It is what we do sometimes, when we really love someone and have to let her or him go. I have found that rehearsing what I believe about how I intend to let people and situations go, can help me prepare for the inevitable next time, but then I also find I behave differently in the moment sometimes from the way I believe. The concrete contradicts the credo. Maybe that happens to you, too.
In the final chapters of each of the Gospels, the four authors group together the Jesus stories in particular ways in order to communicate their various intentions and teachings. And in the case of the Gospel writer John, his intention is Credo. He wants us to believe the teachings, to grasp the hope, the truths and realities about the life of Spirit, the mysteries of love and loss, of entombment and resurrection, and the movement of the seasons. He is encouraging his readers to rehearse what they believe, to prepare the heart and mind and life for following God and for finding meaning in the face of death and when the various challenges of life bear down. His agenda is plain—he says it repeatedly throughout his Gospel: and in this story, he puts his message into the mouth of Jesus himself when he turns to Mary and Martha and says, “I am the resurrection and the life, the one who believes in me, though she dies, yet shall she live, and whoever lives and believes in me, shall never die.” And then John goes on to contrast that truth with the great power of Jesus’ enemies in the story who are preparing to stop the movement of the Spirit by murder. Often, that is the answer to mystery that the powers of the empire present: exclusion, denial, violence, and death.
But it is no accident that these stories occur in the northern hemisphere’s liturgical cycle now—just around the vernal equinox—the time when Earth seeks and renews her balance between shadow and light, the change of the seasons that ultimately portends the season of summer, new life, and harvest. These are old traditions, old roots in Deities renewing the world in spring. The spring goddess was named in northern European mythology, Ostara, from which we get the root for the word, Easter. Judaism and Christianity remember Passover in Spring. In Japan, amongst Buddhists, there is Higan, celebrated at the equinox, Higan means “the other shore—the time of year when the dead spirits reach Nirvana after crossing the river of life and death arriving in the land of enlightenment. In Iran the celebration of Now-Ruz–literally “new day” is celebrated during this equinox and involves cleaning the house and purchasing new clothes as a symbol of dedication to a new life. Bahais, too, the world over, celebrate March 21 as the beginning of the new year, and the Chinese and many others around the world celebrate the vernal equinox by balancing eggs on their end as symbol for fertility and prosperity, as well as equilibrium of spirit.
This beautiful story of the resurrection of Lazarus is about seeking balance, too. As Larry pointed out last week, it is another one of the prequel to Easter stories. It is a deeply human narrative about the balance between holding on and letting go. And, it’s that two-word Bible verse that compels most of us to stop and feel the poignancy of it–the longest, shortest verse in the whole Scripture…Jesus wept. Out of the depths, standing by the grave of his friend, knowing somehow, that he didn’t have long left on the journey himself, Jesus wept. The tears for all the deaths, large and small, the regrets for the missed times, the ill-conceived decisions and hurtful words—all are there in the images of the bound-up face and hands and feet.
The deep meaning of this story is compelling for me, filled with invitations to revisit the Credos of my life. When I picture Lazarus teetering there in the opening to his own grave, wrapped up in all the dirt and decay, unsure of what to do now that he’d survived death, I picture myself and all of us who struggle to put meaning around our various losses and the challenges of injustice and fear. I imagine the crowd, staring incredulously at the miracle of resurrection and ponder the times when the miraculous so often shows up in our lives, standing in the doorways of death, but shrouded and wrapped up. I feel my own unbelief. And then I hear again these great words of the spring rebirth opportunities of all of us, “Unbind him, unbind her, and let her go!”
The Gospel’s author is pushing his followers to understand that new life emerges constantly from out the old grave clothes of the past. New perspectives arise that interrupt our old habits. This is what John’s Jesus names as salvation: that God so loves the world that human transformation, occurs–arising from the old beliefs, the old ways, and the seed-like possibilities that will make all things new.
Where are you in the story? What do you believe about your own life, the big and small deaths that may have bound you, the fears that may have interfered with where you wanted to go in your journey?
Where are you in the story? Are you in the crowd, watching life and death passing by, uninvolved, angry, critical, fearful, hopeful, grieving helplessly? Are you all bound up like Lazarus, coming back to life, but oh, so restricted, yet. Are you weeping, but with life in your hands, like Jesus?
Yes, I’m there in the story this Lent, a little bit dead and dirty, a little bit hopeful, writing a new credo in spite of the world and myself. I see you and others in the story, too, full of new hope and life, streaming with tears and terror, moving in hope toward the mysterious call of the spring, the renewal of Earth and our very selves in this season that does not lie.
Death is there in spring. Spring is there in death. No mud, no lotus, no resurrection without death. For those we love still die, despite our best efforts, and they live again in us and are running around loose in the world, working goodness beyond their physical lives. The tragedies of hatred still work their worst and entomb the dead, but when we renew ourselves in spring then we remember and rehearse what we believe: about black lives that matter, about women who are determined and strong, about children who must have education and equity, about all persons being welcomed and included and deserving of safety and dignity. Our credo may very well be met by the empire as it was in this story, for at the end of the story, John says ominously, that after Lazarus came out, the powers got together and noted that Jesus’ power would help not only the people he’d come to help, but also, “he would show love for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one. 53 So from that day on they plotted to take his life.” What we believe, our credo has power. As we rehearse what we believe, then the credo becomes creation, then the credo becomes in-carnation.
It is credo that opens the tomb first. Jesus just stood there, weeping, and then he did what he could do to create a new life where the old life had been entombed. That’s what spring is about. That’s what our spring of resistance is about. The Spirit of unfurling green leaves and opening buds always weeps in the presence of our bound-up-ness and is always working to help us get free from the shrouds of death. That is the pain work of the Beloved One in this world—it is our work, too—this is what I believe—we go forth both weeping and working for rebirth and liberation—weeping like Jesus before the graves of all that and all those we have loved, weeping in genuine sorrow at how entrapped and entombed we and others can be, caught up in the caves of convention and the prisons of passivity, scared silent, our faces covered by the shrouds of death sometimes so that we cannot see or breathe. But the message of spring that is already bursting forth around us is that the Spirit of Love and Compassion is not overcome by death, that the spirit works in seeds and the shadows and the light and the warming ground and in our seemingly dead places, working always for rebirth, for liberation from all that binds us—injustice, self-loathing, violence, abuse, war, and fear. Beyond what we can see, in the mystery of the new season, Spirit moves, births, releases, unbinds, unwraps the layers of entrapment and separation that keep us down and dead and entombed and unable to fully experience life before and after Death. That is what I believe.
You know, my grandmother and then my mother used to say about any wisdom-imparting experience, “That’s what you learn by living.” Indeed, but as we begin this new season of equinox, equal night, equal light, as we stand by the tombs of so much of what we have seen go down, I think it is also true that we can say, “That’s what you learn by dying” too. I’ve always wondered about the character of Lazarus—how his brush with death changed him, how he learned and grew from it, as he came hopping out, disheveled and dirty, probably having to let go of his stinking thinking. Getting entombed by life and death and working out our own salvation can change our beliefs, no question. Think of all the ways just the past few months may have changed you. What will you do now, given this new day, the possibilities, looking back over the seasons of life and death in your own journey? How are you prepared by them to live into this new credo, this new season of spring, your new changes—your new chances to grow, and to live? May the stones of fear and ignorance be rolled away, and may you come out. Today. Amen.