All Shall Be Well? (Lent 5)


“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

These words were written by Julian of Norwich, a Christian mystic and visionary of the 14th century. Julian was a woman well acquainted with suffering and death. As a child, she lived through the Black Death, a pandemic which swept Europe and claimed the lives of half the population of Julian’s home city of Norwich. Julian was an anchorite, which meant that she lived much of her life in seclusion, in a cell attached to St. Julian’s Church. As a young woman on what she thought was her deathbed, she received a series of visions. When she recovered from her serious illness, she wrote down her visions in a book entitled “Revelations of Divine Love”. Even in the face of death, she was able to see the glory of God, to see God’s power to bring new life, and to be convinced that nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God:

“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Our gospel reading today begins with the message that a close friend is nearing death. That is a message that some of us will receive in the coming weeks. How many of us receive that message will depend on the heroic work of our health care workers and the extent to which each one of us does our part, staying at home and practicing physical distancing. But the days are coming and will soon be here when many people in this country will be hospitalized with COVID-19.

I don’t say this because I want to scare you or because I am overly pessimistic. I say this because the time has come for us learn to see the way that Julian of Norwich was able to see, to develop the vision that allows us to stare death in the face, and to see beyond death to the new life that awaits. Our peculiar vocation as Christians is that we are called to be people who have hope, and who give hope, even in the face of death.

Our scripture readings are given to us this morning to help us with this task. Each one has the vision we need to stare death in the face and to see beyond it to the new life that is to come. The vision of Ezekiel. The lament of the psalmist. The theological declaration of Paul. The raising of Lazarus. All of our readings work on two levels. There is death as physical death, and there is also death as a metaphor for dislocation, loss and despair. But whether we understand the references to death physically or metaphorically, always, we get a vision of the new life that emerges.

In our first reading, we hear about the great vision of Ezekiel. God brings Ezekiel and sets him down in the middle of a valley, and it was full of bones, and they were very dry.

And Ezekiel knew exactly what it was that he was looking at. He had been forcibly removed from his home and taken into exile. He had lost his prominent position as a priest of the Temple in Jerusalem. His wife had died. He and his people had endured siege warfare in Jerusalem and suffered through two years of famine and disease. The Babylonian army had finally breached the city walls, destroyed the Temple, massacred thousands and reduced the city to rubble. A surviving remnant had been marched off through the desert to a foreign land, Ezekiel among them. They were a traumatized people. They were the walking dead, completely cut off, a people in exile. Dislocation, loss, despair. They were dry bones.

Then God says to the dry bones, “I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.” And there is a noise, a great rattling and the bones come together, and God breathes Spirit into them, and they come alive.

It is an image of the restoration of God’s people, of the return from exile, of a people who get to go back home, who can stand on their own two feet again. It’s a vision that sees through dislocation, loss and despair to the new life that God will bring. We are entering a time of dislocation, loss and despair. We too will pass through this to new life.

Our gospel reading begins with Jesus getting a message. “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” By the time Jesus arrives in Bethany, Lazarus is dead. As we shall soon hear, Jesus too will stare death in the face and see through it to new life. But let’s not get there too fast. Because death is real, and hard and scary and ugly. I don’t want to diminish the pain and grief of death in any way. Jesus doesn’t. He comes to the place of death and mourns with those who mourn. He shares their grief. He endures the “what if” questions that we all ask in the face of death. When he sees Mary and the others weeping, he is deeply moved and greatly disturbed. When Jesus sees death, he weeps.

It never ceases to amaze me that the one who has the power to raise Lazarus from the dead still weeps in solidarity with those who mourn. God weeps with us. We never have to suffer alone, because God is with us. God experienced our humanity in the person of Jesus, God gets our pain, and God suffers with us.

But this is most definitely not where the story ends. Jesus, still greatly disturbed by death, goes to the tomb, and calls to the one he loves, “Lazarus, come out.” And Lazarus comes out.

The gospel writer, John, he calls this a sign, not a miracle. And you know, I find that helpful, because when I think of the raising of Lazarus as a miracle, I start to ask all sorts of questions about what happened that I don’t find particularly helpful.

But when I think of Jesus raising Lazarus as a sign, then my question becomes, what does Jesus want me to see? What is he pointing to with this sign?

He wants me to see the glory of God. He wants me to see that God has the power to bring new life out of death. He wants me to see that death is not the end. He wants me to see that even in the face of death, the God who weeps is still God, is still the Creator, and the Creator will breath Spirit into us once more and give us new life. That’s what the sign is pointing to. That’s what he wants us to see. Can you see it?

We’ll get another sign that points to this same reality very soon. We will move into Holy Week, we will pass through Jesus’ death on the cross and then we will get the greatest sign of all. We are an Easter people, and the resurrection of Jesus is our sure sign of the life that awaits us beyond death.

Now I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know what the life that awaits us beyond death looks like. But here’s another of those things that I find quite amazing: when Jesus talks about the life that endures beyond the grave, most often he refers to it as eternal life. And when he talks about eternal life, he talks about it as a present reality, as something that begins now, a life that is available to us here and now. How can that be?

I think that it’s telling, that on the night when Jesus was facing his own death, he gathered his friends for one last meal and among the final words he spoke to them were these:

“Love one another.”

“Love one another the way that I have loved you”

I believe that love is the enduring essence of life that is eternal, the active element of this life that continues beyond the grave, the thread that connects this life to the next. Love, the love of God, is so strong that it bursts the constraints of time and space as we know them.

For those of us who are on this side of death, death can look quite final. Yet I believe with St. Paul, that nothing, neither death nor life, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth nor anything else in all of creation will be able to separate us from the love of God made known to us in Jesus.

This is our faith. This is our vision. This is our hope.

“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Amen.

Homily. Yr A Lent 5. March 29 2020, St. Albans

Readings: Ezekiel 37.1-14; Ps 130; Rom 8.6-11, 18-19, 35, 37-39; John 11.1-45

Image by Dan, Creative Commons

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