Sunday, April 6, 2014

no name unknown

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

I think it was the dictator and mass murderer Joseph Stalin who said something like that the death of one person was a tragedy, but the death of a million is a statistic. We have two such contrasting images of God's power over life and death in our readings today. One from the Old Testament on the grand scale, where thousands are restored to life, one from the New, where one man, Lazarus, a friend of Jesus and the brother of Martha and Mary is called forth from his tomb.

The first from the Old Testament is the well known story from Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones. The prophet stands -probably in  a vision - among the sun-bleached remains of thousands and thousands long dead and as he watches God restores sinew, flesh, skin, and breath of life and they stand up, a vast multitude. The story fills us with a sense of awe at the infinite power of God, but doesn't touch us on a personal level, I think. We don't know who these bones belonged to,  Are they the remains of an army, soldiers who died in battle and whose bodies were left to rot in the desert where they fell? Were they those of a great city who were destroyed by some great and sudden catastrophe that came upon them so suddenly that there was no time for the dead to be buried before all were consumed? We don't know. We don't know the names of those who died; we don't even know the name of the house or tribe of Israel they belonged to. They were, of course, known to God, but not to us.

But we know who Lazarus was and where he came from. We know he lived in Bethany, a pious and God fearing man, one who welcomed Jesus and his disciples into his home on many occasions; that he was the brother to two other important figures in the Gospels, Martha and Mary; Mary we are told by St John anointed the feet of Jesus with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; and St Luke tells us of the time when Mary sat at the feet of Jesus her sister Martha, harried by all the work she had to do in order to make thing ready for Jesus and his disciples, cried out to him, asking did he not care that her sister was leaving all the work to her? And his gentle reply to her was Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” 

These were people well known to the Lord; well known, indeed to us, because with him how many times have we entered in their home, how many times have we also been welcomed? Lazarus is not for us some anonymous dry bones lying in a valley somewhere; he is a flesh and blood human being in whose home we have been a guest, whose sisters have served us and made us welcome. We feel the sorrow of those two women at the death of their brother; the death of their protector in a society where the role of women was very different to that within our own. We feel the sorrow of Christ, who weeps at the tomb of his friend even though he knows that he will soon call him back to life out of that tomb. How many times have we heard that passage read at funeral services, reminding us that if Christ can mourn the death of a loved one, so may we? That it shows no lack of faith to weep and sorrow when we lose someone we love, for if Christ may do so, then so much more may we, we whose faith is so weak and small?

And how beautiful is the faith of Martha on this terrible day for her. Her brother has died; the one they thought would save him, as he had healed and saved others, did not come in time; yet she goes to him – Martha, the one who was overworked and harried on that other occasion, not Mary who had sat at his feet. There is sorrow in her words 'Lord if you had been here my brother would not have died' but such wonderful, marvelous faith in the words that follow 'But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.' She speaks these words ever before Christ's own resurrection from the dead, the foundation of our own faith. She has such faith in him. There is, perhaps, a moment of weakness when she stands before the tomb with Jesus and her sister and he tells the men to take away the stone, a worry about what they will find in the tomb after four days. But Jesus reassures, continues in his work, and her faith is rewarded.

Very dramatic, very personal, very intimate; if the death of one person is a tragedy, the restoration to life of one we know and love is a miracle, a joy, something that touches our very soul. And yet we all hope for that very miracle for ourselves. Through the reassurances we have through Christ's own resurrection, we hope that the day will come when we too are restored to life. As we say every time we pray the Creed: we believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. In the face of death – and realistically, we face death everyday, as we know not the day nor the hour – in the face of death we look beyond it to the time when Christ will call out our name, just as he did for Lazarus, and tell us to come out. And it won't matter on that day that there will be thousands, millions, billions. No one will a statistic that day, no one will be unknown, for all are known to God, and he will feel joy for each of us that he calls from the grave to eternal life with him – great is the joy in heaven over the sinner who repents. And we are all sinners. I pray that you will all repent and be called forth with joy on that last great and terrible day; and I ask that you pray the same for me. Amen

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