Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Grace Redeems Trouble... in Four Pages (Lent 5A)

I'm a bit late posting Sunday's homily. It was on the readings for Year A, since we celebrated the Mass for the Third Scrutiny of those preparing for baptism at Easter. The Gospel, on which I preached, recounts the raising of Lazarus.

Most of you know I have a doctorate in canon law. This week I had a great visit with a West Vancouver minister with a doctorate in preaching. (I have no intention of telling you where to find his church, since I don’t want you running off to check him out.)

During our conversation he recommended three different books on preaching. I didn’t even know there were three books on preaching! But you will be happy to know that I ordered all of them.

One of them came already, and it offers an interesting approach. It says we should think of the sermon as four pages long: the first page is the trouble behind the scriptural text; the second page is the trouble in our world, the third the good news in the scripture text, and fourth the good news in our world.

This four-fold approach suits today’s Gospel to a “T.”

The text is packed with trouble, beginning with a serious illness. Not just any serious illness—the illness of a man whom Jesus loves, a dear friend. On top of that, answering the distress call of Martha and Mary is dangerous; Bethany is next door to Jerusalem, and the last time Jesus was in Jerusalem, people threatened to stone him.

Then the ultimate trouble—Lazarus dies. If that’s not enough to worry about, Jesus faces a tough welcome, a mixture of grief, confusion and faith: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Jesus has to confront his own feelings of grief, not to mention the disappointed or even critical comments made by some of the crowd.

Trouble in this Gospel passage? You bet—plenty of it.

Trouble in our world? The setting has changed, but the trouble is the same.  People we love get sick; and some of them die. We call for God to help, and he takes his time coming. And when we ask him “you opened the eyes of the blind, couldn’t you have kept this man or woman from dying?” he doesn’t seem to answer.

Only the very young or the very fortunate can’t make the jump from Bethany to here, from today's Gospel text to life today. In fact, our trouble seems greater than that Martha and Mary faced, since Jesus hasn’t brought back anyone from the tomb for a very long time. We’re troubled every time that God delays or doesn’t seem to show up at all.

But writing the third page of this homily—the good news in the scripture text—doesn’t require a doctorate in anything. The good news is not the raising of Lazarus, but the glory of God that it reveals to those who will believe. Lazarus is freed from his burial shroud, but this is of little importance compared to the promise Jesus makes to him and to every other disciple until the end of time: “Whoever believes in me, even though he die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

The good news—the great news—is Jesus revealed as both resurrection and life, of which the raising of Lazarus is the sign. John’s Gospel teems with life: in the famous chapter, Jesus tells Nicodemus that God sent his Son so that those who believe in him “may not perish but may have eternal life.” He gave the Samaritan woman “living water”—the water of life, and promised his disciples the Bread of Life. When Jesus rescued the woman caught in adultery, he told her accusers that those who followed him “will have the light of life.”

The sign that Jesus performs by bringing back Lazarus from the dead does two things at once: first, it proves his life-giving power. Second, it dramatizes the conversation between Martha and Jesus. It’s one thing to hear him say “I am the resurrection and the life,” but it’s quite another to see the truth of his promise that those who believe will not die unfolding before our eyes.

One scripture scholar adds that this miracle literally fulfills the words Jesus speaks in the fifth chapter of John’s Gospel: “the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice.” (5:28b)

“It is a sign, therefore, both of the final resurrection and of the rising from sin to grace that takes place in the soul of the believer.” (Jerome Biblical Commentary, 1st ed., n. 123, p. 446)

Which brings us directly to the fourth and final “page” of this homily—the good news for our world.

Listening to this long Gospel story, we naturally thought of the people in it—real people, with real sorrow and real questions, and at least one with deep and strong faith. But Jesus had you and me in mind at every moment of his conversations with the two sisters, when he wept over his friend, and when he called Lazarus back from the dead.

He heard men and women asking him to come to the bedside of their loved ones in every century past and still to come; he heard the lament “Lord, if you had been here my brother—or my parent, or my child, or my friend—would not have died” on a million lips.

To each sad cry and each fervent prayer, he responds “I am the resurrection” and he asks “Do you believe this?’

This is good news—the good news of grace. Good news that begins not at death, but now, with “the rising from sin to grace that takes place in the soul of the believer.” By God’s grace and mercy we are all unbound from the shroud of sin in which we’ve got tangled up, set free from those things that lock us up in tombs of our own making.

And all the while freed by Christ’s promise of eternal life from the overshadowing fear of death.

You might ask why I didn’t do the obvious thing this week and preach on the excitement that the election of Pope Francis brought to the Church and the world. I certainly intended to! But even the wonderful TV images of this engaging and simple man proved no match for the scene St. John described for us in the Gospel today.

Yesterday the Pope reminded journalists that the Church, although certainly also a human and historical institution, is essentially spiritual. It is the “holy people of God who walk toward the encounter with Jesus Christ. Only by putting oneself in this perspective can one fully explain how the Catholic Church works.”

As we encounter Jesus in the Gospel today, we better understand the heart of the Church’s mission—not to entertain the world with drama and ritual, but to help the world meet Christ, the Resurrection and the Life.

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