Sermon for Lent 5 2017

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

As many of you know, I love fly-fishing, particularly for trout. I generally practice catch-and-release fishing, and if any of you happens to do the same, you will know that there is some technique involved in releasing trout to help them avoid mortality. One doesn’t simply casually toss the fish back into the stream, but holds the fish very gently underwater facing the current until it can swim away on its own power.

A couple of things usually occur to me whenever I take part in this sort of piscine resuscitation. First, I’m usually confused and amused by the amount of sympathy I feel for the trout. It is, after all, just a dumb fish; I’ve been assured that a fish’s nervous system doesn’t communicate pain in the same way that a mammal’s does, and I have no qualms at other times about killing, cooking, and eating the same fish. But there’s something about the intention with which I set out on a catch-and-release trip which causes me to have a great deal invested in the survival of this slippery, fishy-smelling thing in my hands.

Secondly, it occurs to me that this fish may well end up on someone else’s dinner table that night, or even perhaps my own on some later date. I wouldn’t say this reality particularly bothers me, but it does remind me of the rationale behind catch-and-release—namely, encouraging a healthy trout population—and releasing the fish becomes for me a sort of sign and symbol of my affirmation of that rationale. That the fish may well die later on in the same day is beside the point.

The raising of Lazarus in this morning’s Gospel is something like this. We often forget or else fail to consider the rather obvious fact that Lazarus eventually died again. We don’t know if it was a few weeks later or a few decades later, but Lazarus died, and remains to this day “stone dead.” Jesus knew he would eventually die, just as much as I know that trout was probably just somebody else’s dinner, but that’s beside the point- the point to which we shall arrive in a moment, but first let’s consider why we don’t talk about what eventually happened to Lazarus.

I wonder if our oversight is a result of the death denying culture in which we live. One needs only to turn on the television to see things he or she can buy to look or feel younger, which is to say farther away from being dead. In popular American religion there is a movement away from the recognition of death in funerals themselves, which are too often a mashup of anecdotes about the deceased and death denying speculation about the pie that surely awaits him in the sky by and by. There is, of course, nothing wrong with eulogizing a departed loved one or expressing the hope that we have for eternal life, but divorcing this from an acknowledgment of the reality of death—from the realization that even “in the midst of life we are in death”—fails to give the whole story and, what’s worse, belittles the grief of those who mourn.

You see, death is real and the tears we shed on the account of the dead and the prayers we utter on their behalf are just and good. Christ himself wept at the tomb of Lazarus; even in the mind of God death is not illusory. There is nothing about the way we are created that makes us invulnerable to it, so it’s not just a matter of our souls flying out of their earthly shells automatically because that’s what souls do or something. When we’re dead, we’re dead.

When Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, he’s not showing us that death is an illusion, but rather that though death is very real God has the power and the will to defeat death. An interesting thing to note about John’s Gospel, is that while in the other Gospels miracles tend to be a display of Christ’s power, in John they’re didactic. Indeed, John calls them “signs” rather than “miracles”, because they are meant to point to some truth more profound than the effect of the miracle itself. So, that Lazarus dies again later really isn’t all that important, because Jesus’ intention wasn’t just to ensure that Lazarus would go on living for ever, but to teach us that God has the power to raise us all from death to life.

The catch is that we haven’t seen it yet, at least in its fulness. We believe that Jesus raised Lazarus to continued life, and we believe that God raised Christ to eternal life, but we don’t have to back quickly away from the cemetery plot after a funeral so that the body can spring up. This means that we have to retain that theological virtue called hope.

If you’ve never noticed it before, pay close attention when we recite the Nicene Creed in just a minute. We believe in this and that, but when we get to the last bit we don’t say “we believe” but “we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” This distinction between faith and hope, between believing something and looking for it is really beyond the scope of this sermon, but it will suffice to say that the fact that the general Resurrection is a thing not yet accomplished means we approach its reality differently. Specifically, we hold these two truths which seem so contradictory together: that our old enemy death is real and it wins little victories every day, and at the same time death is defeated and we live eternally.

So, like all metaphors, the analogy with which I started the sermon—comparing the raising of Lazarus with catch-and-release fishing—breaks down at a certain point. I can hold that slippery, fishy smelling thing in my hands and feel some kind of connection with it just as Jesus can enter that smelly, dirty tomb and love the rotting thing in it. I can let the fish go knowing it’s just going to be somebody else’s supper and Jesus can raise Lazarus knowing he’s just going to be some worm’s supper eventually. But in the case of Lazarus and of all of us there is a blessed assurance that that’s not the end of the story. We have the capacity for mourning the dead and looking for their resurrection simultaneously. Indeed, that is not only our capacity but our obligation.

We are obliged to see the death all round us and not to lose hope. We are obliged to bury the dead and look for the day when the cemetery plot does burst open. We are obliged to prepare for our end and to know that it won’t always be the end, because our Lord who truly died is both resurrection and life, and though we shall likewise die yet shall we live.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.