Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:17-27, 38-44

I’m not sure exactly what Jesus is talking about with this language of “the resurrection and life,” the word “resurrection” in particular. You may know it to be heaven, eternal life, or whatever. I don’t, necessarily. I’m too naturalistic to take it at face value, but I can’t reject it either. It’s enough for me, so far, to say that God gave me life the first time, and God can do it again. I don’t find self worrying about what that life is like. Maybe I will when someone closer to me dies, but that’s where I am today.

I say “when” someone close to me dies, or “when” my death is closer, because I know that will happen. I don’t feel this morbidly, I’m just just (so far) aware of it as the truth. And I think knowing that truth is healthy. If nothing else, it is true, and like much truth, knowing it is liberating. It’s life-giving.

I got to hear Walter Wangerin (author of the Book of the Dun Cow and other books) speak several months ago. He went off the day’s topic to acknowledge his lung cancer. He said, “I’ve been told I will eventually die of this. And the most remarkable thing is, now I have no fear. Nothing frightens me now.” As a pastor and a writer, Wangerin has had the privilege of a long time to get to know death. He now faces his own as an adventure.

We have that privilege too. Christians have long been known for a lack of fear toward death. We do fear it instinctively, like any animals concerned to preserve themselves, but humans are perhaps unique in that we know (even now) that our selves can’t ultimately be preserved. So our tradition prepares for it: baptism implies dying in order to be reborn; Lent begins with contemplating that “we are dust, and to dust we shall return;” our daily prayers teach us to “lay me down to sleep” with trust that God will take our souls in eternal care; the great hymns (especially those of the 19th century) often progress from a theological idea to the believer’s destination in heaven. Of course all this can embody fear, but it often builds up to an inexplicable peace.

Lazarus’ sisters knew death intimately. They dwelt deep in its darkness for several days. Lazarus’ death came as death does, with fear, shock, and anger. It came at the wrong time and under the wrong circumstances. We can’t know death without joining Martha and Mary in saying: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would still be alive!” Jesus’ response seems paltry: “Your brother will rise again.” Great, deny my grief by talking about the resurrection! Martha believes in the resurrection, of course – she acknowledges: “Yes, at the last day he’ll be raised” – but heaven is desperately far away when it’s your brother (or your sister, parent, spouse, or child) in the grave.

But Jesus is not just talking about heaven, not just some future “someday.” He says, “I Am the resurrection and the life. Living and believing in me is life itself.” The resurrection is not waiting until the “last day,” but the life of Christ is in the world already. Trusting in Jesus means no longer answering to death, because we live in a new life that doesn’t wait until heaven.

Christians have discovered this is through knowing that death will come and yet keeping that truth in the greater context of Christ’s love. The power of death is in its way of surprising us, coming at its own time and under its own circumstances. We overcome that boogeyman by looking it in the eye and calling it out of hiding. We acknowledge the fact of death and give it some of the concreteness it has for Walter Wangerin – then what can it do to us?

Nancy Galbraith taught me some of that truth. Her cancer was already terminal when I met her, and I asked her where I could be with her in this mystery. She smiled and said that the word “mystery” was right. She looked forward to its depth and the new discoveries to come. Nancy lived for quite some time more, and she discovered much along the way, even as much remained in mystery. She went with the rich blessings of hospice care and supportive family and friends. She went with joy.

The joy of hospice has everything to do with the richness of a life made clear by death. Others have had the same clarity in those moments, although death doesn’t have to be impending to give this clarity. Many of us already know that “you can’t take it with you,” and that awareness plays out in every decision we make to leave the world better for our grandchildren (and others’). Giving gifts to the future only makes sense because we know that we ultimately leave everything to someone else’s keeping. It’s almost magical – it’s truly mysterious – that living for a future we won’t see makes this moment more alive.

Jesus orders Lazarus untied. He doesn’t leave us bound by death, because life doesn’t ultimately answer to death. The resurrection doesn’t wait: in Christ we live right now. We are freed to give ourselves and all we have, because it’s ultimately not ours to keep. That’s what I think I mean by “resurrection” today. That’s what I think I still have to learn from our living tradition. That’s what I trust in from our risen Lord. Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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