We’re here today to breathe new life into a dying body – the body of God’s creation. It’s going to take the breath we have in us, and the breath of many, many others. Breathe in the breath of God, of life, and give it back – now, breathe! We’re going to need all the confidence we have that the act of breathing in and breathing out will continue – and we’re going to have to use as much hot air and vehemence as we can muster. Are you ready?
Jesus’ raising of Lazarus begins with several kinds of breathing – the calls for Jesus’ attention, then the sighs and sobs of the grieving, and hot words of reprimand: ‘if you’d only been here and paid attention…’! And then many more words trying to understand, more tears, and the charge to take away the stone.
The stone blocks the tomb, it keeps the dead dead and separate from the living. Never the twain shall meet, if the stone is doing its death-defying job. It’s not the stone’s fault, but it’s in the wrong place if we want to raise the dead. And there are far too many stones in the way.
There are stones in our shoes that cripple those who would run to heal. There is stone in the hearts of those who won’t hear the cries of fellow creatures, or see the growing chaos of a warming earth, or learn that stony hearts are killing the whole living system. There are little stones in our tear ducts that keep us from weeping, and specks in our eyes, and misplaced otoliths in our ears that block our hearing. Take away all the stones, O Lord, and give us hearts of flesh and organs of compassion, for your creation is suffering.
Let’s give thanks that the stones are beginning to be removed. That is still a work for divine breath – as Jesus acknowledges at the tomb, “thank you, God, for listening!” We know that God is always listening and breathing a response over the chaos around us. Resurrection and creative innovation are continually engaging the stuff of earth, bringing forth new life in spite of the tombs within us and around us. This city knows something about that, as so many hearts opened to strangers in recent days – may we all learn to listen and see and hope for healing and new liveliness in human communities and other parts of God’s creation. God is always delivering the dead from the tomb.
The body in the tomb is still called Lazarus. It means “God has helped.” God has always helped. We grieve the illness of the body of God’s creation, yet if we look at the long history of this body, we can see healing of the body in ages past, long before human beings were more than a dim glimmer in the DNA of creatures without backbones. The great extinction events caused by asteroids, shifts in planetary oxygen levels, or vast quantities of atmospheric dust give evidence of enormous and wide-ranging death, yet each time God’s creativity eventually brought forth new life. It was not immediate or sudden, but in God’s good time, the earth again knew riotous and flourishing diversity. The difference today is that we’re causing massive death through our own greed.
Creative breath has been displaced by a giant sucking sound, the vacuuming maw of our own emptiness. We seek to feed that desperate, gasping and grasping hunger with SUVs and more coal-fired power plants, and the latest imports of gadgets and gewgaws (and the 500 year history of that word is a reminder that this craving is not new). We feed ourselves out of season foods from far away, forgetting the delightful surprise of the first asparagus of spring or the first corn of summer. We crave houses so large they shut out the neighbors – with stones that block the sun from back yard gardens. The protection and prediction we insist on and strive for in all that accumulating frenzy ends in friendlessness, for we have no time to spend cultivating the earthy companionship for which we were created. That dying body is further burdened by our useless treatment of our own bodies – not just excessive food intake, but vain attempts to mold and remake the clay in others’ images, and remove every microbe from every surface and crevice. We are made in the image of God, uniquely gifted, beautiful, beloved, and profoundly social. What we think is human in ourselves is only a tenth of the cells in this communal organism – and the microscopic life within us feeds and nourishes and regulates our lives, until we meddle with its healthy balance. And then, quite literally, all hell breaks loose as one part of the whole exceeds its place and we find our guts revolting against us. That sick body, community that it is meant to be, is an apt reflection of the larger body of creation today.
If the stone is removed, and the way of life unblocked, what sort of Lazarus will emerge? Given what has already been done to that body, it will not be the same one that went in. Like gut microbes subjected to unrelenting courses of antibiotics, this will be a different community and system. The organ may still function, but it will do so in different ways.
The dead Lazarus may emerge, yet there will still be work to do in unbinding and turning the body loose to function creatively once more. The set points and equilibria have already moved, and it will take God’s time and divine creativity to establish new ones. Species have disappeared; others will emerge, over millennia, to take their places in the society of creation. The atmosphere has absorbed vast quantities of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping molecules. Some will be removed to ocean waters and plant tissues, but the whole system will be warmer than before, probably for geological lengths of time. The ocean creatures that live with carbonate shells and supports – like corals and some kinds of plankton – are already struggling to lay down those structures. They, too, may disappear into the fossil record, and the bigger creatures that feed on them – fish, shrimp, whales, birds – may not survive either. Something will undoubtedly evolve to replace them, but it will take more than the three or four days of Lazarus’ entombment. It will take something on the time scale of the days of the first Genesis creation story. God’s time is not our time, nor God’s ways our ways.
The gaping maw of our greed is already making life harder for our human sisters and brothers, as weather patterns shift and food crops repeatedly fail in traditional growing places. Deserts are expanding, water is evaporating, and there is less health and healing power in parts of this body. Disease organisms that have been in reasonable equilibrium will emerge with new virulence, as will pests afflicting our food crops. The results will cause suffering, want, anxiety insecurity. We know what will almost inevitably follow: conflict, violence, and war.
The stones are being moved away, the body is emerging, and it is time to unbind the body, and set it loose. For we have met that body and it is us. We, too, are Lazarus. The medieval word was lazar, and it referred to the figure in Luke 16:20, the poor man covered with sores, the leper on the sidewalk outside the rich man’s house. Samuel Johnson’s definition of a lazar is apt: “one deformed and nauseous with filthy and pestilential diseases.” The disease which afflicts lazars, the rich house-holder, and the body of this earth all has a common source – the stones that block awareness, compassion, sharing, mutuality, and love of neighbor – all our neighbors. The old word for those stones is skandaloi, stumbling blocks.
The mess we’re making of the body of creation is indeed a scandal, born of the temptation to put our individual selves in the place that belongs to the one who is beyond all of us. The good news is that we know something about the cure.
We are made in the image of God, creative and social beings meant for community. We routinely stumble over two kinds of scandalous stones – we forget that we were not created to be solitary individuals and we get stuck in understandings of community that are always too small. Jesus’ presence among us is incarnate evidence of our never-aloneness, and his ministry and death are about serving the whole of humanity and all creation. That’s why he feeds multitudes, and eats with anybody, even with germy hands, and that’s why he heals outcastes – including lepers and lazars!
Well, friends – friends of Jesus and of one another – we like to profess that we are his hands in this world. There is abundant healing work to do. It begins in discovering that our neighbors are far more numerous and diverse than we have heretofore imagined. From the microbes on our skin and in our guts to the yet-undescribed insects of tropical forests to the denizens of undersea thermal vents and the bacteria of Antarctic subglacial lakes, we are one body of creation. The health of the human part of God’s body of creation depends on all the members – we are created as a society, and we are created for productive and creative relationship with one another. We are meant to be friends. Unbinding Lazarus, and setting all the lazars free, is about restoring each to community and the possibility of redeeming friendship.
All of that takes some vulnerability – and a willingness to understand ourselves as less than omnipotent or omnicompetent. If we are social creatures, then it is only in community that we will be truly capable of breathing new life into dead and dying bodies. This body of humanity called the church has often been compared to a ship. Most ships have a compartment called a lazarette. The word probably comes from the ships that brought lepers to Italian hospitals in the middle ages, but in nautical terms a lazarette is a storage locker near the steering gear. That part of the ship is always vulnerable, close to the water, in a well near where the rudder or steering gear pierces the outer surface of the ship. A lazarette is where the emergency gear is stored – sort of a first aid kit for healing, repairing, and saving the ship and the people on it. In a very real sense, our task of unbinding is to be exposed, to be vulnerable to the force of the storm, and to be equipped and ready to heal and repair.
Friends – lazars! All hands to the lazarette! The storm is upon us, and the body may be threatened, yet we know there is also abundant possibility of new life. Let the wind of life blow in us, remove every stone, and call forth the dead and dying body. Open us to God breathing new life in us and every part of creation. Now! Breathe! Blow, bellow for Lazarus, bless and unbind that body, that it may be set free to renew the face of the earth.