This story of the resuscitation of Lazarus reminds me of the many funerals I’ve presided over. Some of them are still vivid in my memory. I remember a funeral I did for a man who died in his old age. He left behind a wife, children and grandchildren. They were a very close-knit family, and had a good sense of humor. The deceased was an inveterate gambler. He loved to go to the dog track. He loved to play poker. He made regular trips to Las Vegas to play the tables and slots. His family buried him with a deck of cards, a handful of poker chips and a betting sheet from Derby Lane. No Pharaoh of ancient Egypt was better prepared for the afterlife.
Another funeral I remember vividly was much less of a celebration, and much more of a tragedy. The week after I had been assigned as the new pastor to a parish a young boy drowned during his family’s Memorial Day party. He was just five years old. His family buried him with his baseball glove and cap and his T-ball jersey. It was one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen: that little jersey and glove and cap lying in that little coffin.
The elderly man who died had lived a long life, and was seriously ill for a long time. His family knew he was dying, and was prepared when the time came. The five year old had his whole life ahead of him; there was no way his family could have been prepared for what happened. In both cases, however, the families tried to give some gift to their deceased loved one: a remembrance of the joys of the person’s life. These were spontaneous gifts, given out of pure love.
In this Sunday’s Gospel reading Jesus also gives a gift of love to a dear friend. Lazarus was well and truly dead. Having been buried for four days, there was no question of being revived from a coma or any other temporary state. Lazarus was dead and decaying, and yet, at the call of Jesus he came forth out of the tomb.
The Gospel makes the understatement of the millennium about the effect this miracle had on those who witnessed it. The Gospel says, “Now many of the Jews who had come to Mary and seen what he had done began to believe in him.” (John 11:45) There aren’t many possible reactions one could have to witnessing a dead man called back into life. The obvious reaction would be to believe in Jesus, or alternately, to do what the Sanhedrin did: fear him. It was the resuscitation of Lazarus that sealed Jesus’ fate. After this event the Jerusalem religious leaders began to plot to kill Jesus.
Please notice, in all of these events I’ve mentioned, someone gave something that was a pure expression of themselves. The loved ones of the deceased man and boy gave gifts that represented their love for their deceased relatives. Jesus gave new life to his friend Lazarus. The Jerusalem religious leaders gave envy and death. In all of our interactions, we give what we have, that is, ourselves.
I’d like you to take a few moments to think back over your day thusfar, or perhaps, over the events of yesterday. Try to remember all the conversations you had. You probably spoke with family members, friends, and probably, a few strangers. Try to remember the content of those conversations: the content of your speech and the emotional content of your words.
You might feel gratified by some of those conversations; you might feel embarrassed by others. You might have given your attention to some people, but your disregard to others. Depending on whom you were speaking with, you might have given affection or praise or contempt or disinterest. In each instance, you gave what you had; you gave yourself. If there is any doubt in your mind about human nature’s need for God, an exercise like this should clear it up. Each of us brings much good into the world and into the lives of others. Each of us also brings the shameful and the selfish and the destructive. We give what we have, and there is no remedy for that unless we turn to God with our whole hearts.
There is a good reason, of course, that not all people are willing to put their faith in God. A life of faith is extraordinarily demanding. First and foremost, it demands that we make an honest assessment of our own shortcomings. Sadly, few people today are willing to take that action that leads to ultimate freedom: that affirmation of their own limitations and failings.
Those who acknowledge the limited good that is their life are the only ones capable of putting their faith in God. These are the ones who can receive what God gives. Just as we give what we have, so it is with God. God gives new life.