The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Homecoming: Laz and the Naz

Posted by Ron George on March 11, 2008

Lazarus, by Carol L. Douglas

Lazarus, by Carol L. Douglas

A cynical reading of the story of the raising of Lazarus might conclude that it was a publicity stunt. After all, Jesus dawdled after getting word that his friend was deathly ill. He waited so long that Laz was stinking up his tomb by the time the Naz and his posse arrived. Then there’s that prayer “for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” Was Jesus just showing off? Yeah, I’ve got a problem with the know-it-all Jesus of John’s gospel, but the raising of Lazarus took my measure Sunday last.

Mary and I worshipped at Church of the Holy Innocents, Madisonville, on the Fifth Sunday of Lent. I had been lay pastor there about four years before returning to Corpus Christi 18 months ago. It was an invitation we couldn’t refuse, an opportunity for church as family-reunion among dear hearts and gentle people. About 55 people bunched-up in the little church on McIver Street with the Rt. Rev. Rayford High for Eucharist, two baptisms and two confirmations. It was a hugging convention. The Peace went on and on and on until the bishop finally called us to order. He invited me to pass the cup for communion, so once again we embraced, this time with Jesus in sacramental splendor at the rail. Then came an agape feast of major proportions, an outpouring of love from kitchens all over town, including Doris Davidson’s brisket, probably the best on the planet. We’re still aglow.

It hit me right at the end of the gospel lesson: “‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.'”

Lazarus still wasn’t out of the woods. He stank. He was bound in burial linen wrapped to keep his bones together after everything else had rotted away. (It usually took about a year; then the bones would be put in an ossuary, or bone box, for permanent placement in a niche of the family tomb.) Lazarus had been traumatized, having passed through death and beyond, only to be recalled. It’s staggering to think how that must have felt. We’re told Lazarus returned to somewhat normal life, although he remained a curiosity in Bethany. He and his sisters gave a dinner for Jesus, who was on his way to Jerusalem for the last time. We can only imagine what happened to Lazarus after that. Eventually, of course, he died. Again.

But, oh, how he had lived.

Lazarus’ life draws its meaning from his having been called forth from the tomb. His life was divided into two distinct parts, what came before and what came after his resuscitation. Lazarus was changed by his conversion from being dead. Whatever came after his being unbound from funereal linens, surely he was embued with a fearless sense of God’s power over life and death, the power of divine love over being and non-being. Lazarus is a prototype of conversion for generations of Jesus’ followers blessed to find themselves transfigured in the doorways of their tombs, called to new or renewed life by Jesus, whose will is that we not die before our time and vocations are fulfilled. If despair is sickness unto death, a place any of us may find ourselves when life goes south, then resurrection is the remedy that removes not only our fear of dying but also our fear of living.

Lazarus didn’t ask to be revived. It was a gift. Those who loved Lazarus prayed that he would be saved, restored to God’s purpose in life. Conversion seldom occurs in a vacuum. There always seems to be an infinite web of care and circumstance attending the miracle of God’s transforming power of love. Conversion is not an instant in time but a process of eternity breaking into our lives.

The image of Lazarus unbound nourishes our hope for salvation, not from hellfire and damnation but from despair and hopelessness in life, which is hell enough here and now. The image of Lazarus is a constant reminder that conversion is at hand even when we seem most entombed by fear and lovelessness. God in Christ is God not just near at hand but in our suffering. He not only bestows a healing hand but takes on the suffering as his own to bear it for us, not just with us. That is liberation like unto rising from the dead. It is the power of resurrection revealed in the life of Jesus, who became God through obedience to death, even death on a cross, and whose divine nature was ratified by resurrection from the dead.

What wonder there was at Holy Innocents on Sunday as we brought two children through the waters of baptism to participate in the life, death and resurrection of Christ as members of his body, the church. How empowered they will be, provided they are nourished by the faith of their elders to let themselves be loved by God who raises all of us from death into life. What wonder abounded, too, in the lives of so many at Holy Innocents who, like Lazarus, became entombed by life gone south only to be called forth, still stinking and bound but enabled by God’s grace to seek righteousness and its blessings.

Count me among them: Once entombed then called forth bound and still stinky but no less beloved of He who seeks lost ones strayed from the flock. If redemption means anything at all, it means this, the power of God to call forth the dying parts of me for healing and renewal, a soul rescued from self-inflicted pain and hopelessness. There is only one guarantee, that we are God’s whether we live or die. (See Romans 14:8.) The rest seems to be a continuous round of opportunities — some taken, some missed — for grace to abound on earth as it is in heaven.

It hit me Sunday that one such graceful opportunity in my life was the privilege of serving Holy Innocents as lay vicar, of having them now as sisters and brothers in remembrance of our common bond, and of knowing that I will be theirs and they will be mine forever.

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