Archive for March, 1996

Sunday Week 5 of Lent Year A

It’s tough being dead—until you get used to it—though it’s a damned sight better than what goes before with the mess and the blood and the battle for every breath. Not to mention my sobbing sisters, wailing away—at least Mary—she’s never been one to hide her feelings. Martha’s different—she knows the strength in sparing words and getting on with it. Both beautiful in their own ways. Hard to leave them!

But strange, in those last moments, even with them there—and God knows how many else—I was lonely. In the end there’s just you as you drift alone into the dark. Strange too how the pain leaves you near the end—though it doesn’t make the going any easier—you can be weary as hell—and ready—but giving up the ghost is a struggle. To live! —right up to the end I wanted to live—to breathe one more breath—to cherish one more heartbeat.

Hard on Martha and Mary too. They never gave up hope —right till the end—that Jesus would turn up, unannounced, as he had so many times, and put things right in that easy way of his. Now, there’s someone so full of life. I just kept hoping he’d come to say goodbye.

Such a friend he’s been to me—did you know we both share a passion for the night sky? We do. Did. Sometimes, on a warm evening, we’d lie out on the roof for hours and star-gaze. And talk. The dark brings out secrets, you know, and you see another side of people. I think I was the first he told of his growing fear that all this was going to end in nothing. That all the hopes and all the cures and the fire in his bones and the passion in his heart … was going to come to nothing. He’d tell me, in those dark times, about the confrontations with power, the battles with blindness, the plots to trap him, even the risk he felt from his followers.

“All ahead is darkness,” he said. But with still a strange yearning to go on and go through it. To trust to God. Like a father to him, it sometimes seemed.

He even joked, there on the roof, with the sky like a black bag above, and offered odds on whether it would be the Romans that got him or our own people.

Yes. It’s tough being dead. But life can be harder. A second shot at it anyway. I remember dying—finally letting go of life. Then next thing the sharp stink of rot, and cold going through me like a knife, and the tangle of winding cloths, and a thought in my head—”I’m dead”—even as I knew I wasn’t—not any longer.

A sound of stone on stone grated through my confusion, and a shaft of light with dust dancing in it. Oh, and air that smelled of life and green things and growth. Flooded, I was, with fear and delight and surprise—every feeling you can imagine and none at all.

Then I heard his voice call my name: “Lazarus.” Yes, that’s me, still me. Can I move? Can I sit up? Does everything work again?

Again, “Lazarus,” this time more sharply, “Come out!” So sweet to me, that voice out of the light—calling me out of the dark, out of the cold. A friend’s voice, full of emotion. I lay there trying to guess the feelings in it. Grief, hope, doubt? Not really. A joy, an exultation, but fierce! I had to see his face and see the look on it. That’s what got me to move finally into the light—to see him better, and feel his warmth and smell his life.

So many faces—shocked, horrified, disbelieving, frightened, even some angry, of all things. But in the middle of it all, him. With a smile that spoke my name and drew me out to be unbound, to let my fingers curve around an offered cup, and arms embrace the weeping sisters.

Death changes you. But so does life. I remember the look in his eyes even now—and know now that a bargain had been struck, an exchange made, and gladly. I see that now—after the parties, after the laughter and dancing, after the story has been told a thousand times, after catching his eyes across the firelight. I see that now, now that they’ve arrested him—their people and ours—I should have taken his odds…

He knew that raising the dead was the last straw. My God! even coming here, near Passover, when he did, was a risk—let alone such a dramatic gesture! He knew what he was doing when he gave me back my life. He was buying his own death. I understood that look in his eyes when they took him, bound, and the smile on his lips.

Oh, they’ll kill him, there’s no doubt of that. They’ll have to have their way. “Better that one man should die than the rest suffer”—that’s what our people’ll say, making it a Passover bargain—a lamb for a life.

What more can you do for someone you love than trade your life for theirs? But what a gift to have to receive! Where does it leave me—to have been loved that much and to know the cost and, while he dies, to go on living?

It’s tough being alive. But it’s the gift he’s given me, an expensive gift, and one I’ll not refuse and I’ll not waste. We have traded places, he and I. I know his gift was freely given—hard to understand!—and I know the gift can only be returned.

March 24th, 1996

Sunday Week 2 of Lent Year A

Lent is a time to be selfish. And the problem we have is that we don’t really know how to be selfish. Selfishness just doesn’t come all that easily to us. We are not good at it!

In the spirit of election year I’d like to take a straw poll: Hands up those of you who are really selfish — See! — we are not good at it.

Each of the readings today speaks of blessing, and glory, and grace —and life — life promised to Abram, life given as gift through the gospel, and life shown to us in the transfigured body of Jesus. This Lent we are — each of us —promised the same blessing as Abram, we are — each of us — offered the same gift of life as the early disciples, and we are — each of us — being invited into the presence of the same glory as that seen by Peter, James, and John.

Three enormous offers of life … and we hear them as we’ve heard them so many times before, and hurry on past. Life, yeah, yeah, yeah … What is it that keeps us from grabbing this offer wholeheartedly? Do we not trust it? Do we think it too simple or too naïve? Is it that we don’t know what’s good for us? I think it’s simply that we are not selfish enough. You would think that if you were given a choice between something good and something bad you would choose the good. That would be simple selfishness — even laboratory rats can do that. But in human beings there is a mysterious streak of self-denial that runs through our nature so that given the choice between life and death we often settle for the easy familiarity of death rather to the risky pleasures of really living.

For example, I spend a lot of my time listening to people talk about their prayer. Let me give you a vignette — this is Carole talking: “there was a moment last week when I walked around the corner and saw the sky and my heart suddenly lifted and just for a second I thought ‘I’m alive and I like it.’ Stupid thought, I know but it seemed just then that God was smiling. I smiled back. Then the mood passed.” Where did it pass too? “Oh I found myself worrying again about the kids…”

Why doesn’t Carole stay with the moment of life? She enjoyed it. It lifted her heart. And then she went back to worrying. I’m sure its the same for us. Why don’t we stay with the life?

We find ourselves always in a mixture of life and death. Some things in us are thriving, are growing, are bearing fruit. Some things in us are drooping, are fading, are shrivelling up. And for some stupid reason we get mesmerised by the death and let the life skip by. We seem to think the death is more real than the life, more to be trusted, more fitting for humble people. But the words of the epistle go to the heart: “Jesus has robbed death of its power and has brought life.” It’s a matter of life and death. Lent is a time for life — if only we could grasp it and take it and hold on to it — if only we could be really selfish. Instead we find ourselves hanging onto death.

What is God doing in you this Lent? Is there something unlikely being blessed? Some gift being offered that just seems too risky to believe. Is there something that God is wanting to say to you, some way God is wanting to be for you, that seems unbelievable or too good to be true. Give yourselves permission — for a moment — to be selfish, to prefer life over death. Is there some deep desire being planted and nourished by God? Just for a moment, take it an hold it, and cherish it and gently set aside whatever gets in it’s way. What would life be like if life came to you this Lent?

Don’t let so-called realism blunt that. The readings today offer their life fully aware of the prospect of death.

It is Abram at seventy-five and childless who sets out on this ridiculous journey to new land, new family, and new life. Timothy knows only too well that the promise of life is made in the middle of the hardship that the gospel entails. And Jesus stands on a mountain top, glowing with glory, alive as no one had ever been before, precisely between prophesies of his death. The same Jesus who will at the end of his Lent go to his death and in it and through it find life for us all. “He has robbed death of its power and has brought life into clear light.”

On that mountain-top Jesus trusted life and trusted what God was doing for him. This Lent, our mission should we choose to accept it, is to learn to be as selfish as Jesus — to learn to trust life the way he did.

March 3rd, 1996


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