Here are the readings for Lent 5; both Episcopal and Lutheran churches use the Revised Common Lectionary.
“How could God let this happen?”
We hear this question all the time: after shootings, after tragic car accidents and plane crashes, after typhoons and mudslides and earthquakes. During the seven years I volunteered as a lay hospital chaplain, I heard it often. It is the agonized cry of faith in the face of tragedy, and it’s at the heart of this morning’s Gospel.
The raising of Lazarus is a dress rehearsal for Holy Week. Eleven verses before the beginning of this passage, the religious establishment of Judea threatens to stone Jesus for blasphemy, for claiming to be God. After Jesus escapes that threat, he learns that his beloved friend Lazarus is dying. So Jesus — knowing that a return to Judea will seal his death sentence — decides to go back, but only after he’s dawdled a few days, to make sure that Lazarus will be dead before he gets there. An ordinary healing won’t be enough this time. The stakes have been raised; the chips are down. Jesus is about to perform nothing less than a resurrection.
As a dress rehearsal for Holy Week, this story contains many familiar elements: an all-powerful God refusing, for seemingly inexplicable reasons, to prevent the death of a beloved; weeping women; a tomb sealed by a stone; and, finally, the death-shattering miracle of resurrection. The biggest difference is that Lazarus dies of natural causes, not by execution.
Or does he? If Jesus could have prevented Lazarus’ death and refuses to do so, isn’t it somehow his fault? Mary and Martha think so: both of them say, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Some of the mourners agree: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” How could God let this happen?
Jesus has earlier told his disciples, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.” But belief isn’t the main issue here. Mary and Martha, the other mourners, and the disciples already believe in Jesus. The issue is anger. If we believe in God, if we know that God can act to prevent suffering and forestall untimely death, we may become more angry at these things than non-believers would. People who don’t believe in God don’t wonder where God is in the middle of earthquakes and famines and tidal waves. They don’t rage at God when their loved ones die too soon or after too much pain. They don’t demand, “How could God let this happen?” For non-believers, such events constitute compelling -- indeed, crushing -- proof that there is no God.
But those of us who do believe, who have seen God working in our lives and those of our families, are left struggling for reasons, railing at God. “We knowyou can fix this. We’ve seen you do it before. So where were you this time? If you really love us as much as you say you do, how can you just sit there, cooling your heels, while our brother’s body is growing cold in his tomb? How could you let this happen?”
Jesus wept. This is, famously, the shortest verse in the Bible. Jesus weeps when he sees Mary and the mourners weeping. “He was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved,” the Gospel says. I always want to ask, “What did you expect, Jesus? Did you think the people who loved Lazarus wouldn't weep at his death? Did you think they’d tell each other, ‘Oh, don’t worry, Jesus will show up one of these days, when he gets around to it, so let’s have a party?’”
Any way you look at it, the situation stinks, just like Lazarus’ body stinks after four days in a hot Middle-Eastern tomb. And yet, having finally shown up, Jesus does indeed make everything right. He calls Lazarus out of the tomb, and he instructs Lazarus’ family and friends to unbind the burial cloths, to help Lazarus readjust to his new life. Any mourners who didn’t believe in Jesus before that little demonstration certainly believe in him afterwards.
Their belief is about to be tested yet again. The dress rehearsal is over. Holy Week is almost here. This time, even Jesus will cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Once again, there will be weeping women and a tomb sealed by a stone, a tomb from which God impossibly, miraculously, will call forth new life.
The story of Lazarus offers us at least three lessons. The first is that there are no shortcuts to resurrection, even for those who believe. The most steadfast faith will not protect us against grief and doubt and bitter trials. The most serene acceptance of God’s will cannot shield us from feeling, at times, as if God has abandoned us. All of that is human and holy. It is human and holy to get angry when we feel forsaken; it is human and holy to question God, to rail at God, to weep at God’s apparent absence. It is human and holy to mourn our dead. God weeps with us, and when the time comes, God will tell us how to unbind what has been resurrected. God will show us what we need to do to make that new life possible.
The second lesson is that resurrection is a process, even for those who believe. Look at this morning’s reading from Ezekiel, the famous Valley of Dry Bones. This is a resurrection story, too, but it happens in stages. Going from bones to rebirth isn’t like going zero to sixty. First you need breath; then you need muscle, sinews, skin. It’s like peeling an onion, but in reverse. Resurrection happens from the inside out, and it takes time.
That is why, every year, we make the long slow journey through Lent, walking through those forty days just as Jesus walked through the desert, just as he walked back into Judea to Lazarus’ tomb. We make such journeys at other times, too: whenever we have suffered grief or betrayal, whenever we feel abandoned by God or other people, whenever we gag at the stench of death in a place where we had prayed for rebirth. Rebirth can still happen. God’s time is not ours. Even as we weep and pray – our souls waiting for God more than watchmen for the morning – God journeys towards us, step by step, bringing resurrection.
But God needs our help. The third lesson of the Lazarus story is that resurrection is a community project. “Unbind him, and let him go,” Jesus tells the onlookers. Those who have been resurrected need to be helped by their neighbors and welcomed back into community. They need to be loved. They need to know that they matter.
My family’s resurrection story began on a winter day in 1964, when I was three years old. My sister, who was twelve, remembers watching our mother being wheeled out of the house on a gurney. She had been a chronic drinker for twenty years. My father had put her in fancy private psychiatric hospitals. They hadn’t helped. Several times she’d tried AA. It hadn’t helped. In 1964, residential treatment centers didn’t exist yet. Employee Assistance Programs were still in the future. AA and the psych wards were the only games in town.
And so my father, in despair, decided to send my mother to the state mental hospital, which wasn’t fancy at all. He didn’t think she’d ever get better, and neither did anyone else. Everyone thought she was dying. My sister, watching the gurney roll out of the house to the waiting ambulance, told herself that Mom was already dead. I’m sure she wept.
At the state hospital, the doctors said my mother’s case was hopeless. One recommended a lobotomy, a procedure that wasn’t banned until 1967. My father said no to the lobotomy, but he still planned to have my mother locked inside that building for the rest of her life.
Inside the hospital, my mother got hungry one night. Recovering alcoholics from the community had brought an AA meeting to the hospital, and Mom knew from her past AA experiences that there would be cookies there. She decided to go.
This time, it took. No one believed it; I don’t know if she believed it herself. But she kept going to meetings, and one evening a few weeks later, a visiting AA member sat down and talked to her. He learned that she was terrified of being committed for life, of never seeing her daughters again. He learned that no one in her family thought she would ever get better. They believed she was already dead.
The visitor went home and wrote a letter to my father. In an act that was even braver in 1964 than it would be now, he identified himself both as a prominent local businessman and as a recovering alcoholic. He told my father that he had been in a hospital like the one where my mother was. He told my father that sometimes it takes many attempts to get sober. And he asked my father to give Mom another chance, if only so that she could see her children.
“Unbind her, and let her go.”
My father agreed. This time, it worked. Five months later, the visitor wrote a second letter. This one, addressed to my mother, compliments her on her continued sobriety, on her new job, and on her joy at spending time with her daughters. The woman everyone expected to die when she was thirty-eight lived to be eighty-four. This past January 25 would have been her fiftieth anniversary of sobriety.
My mother’s drinking tested the strength and patience of everyone in the family. None of them were believers, but if they had been, I’m sure they would have said, “How could God let this happen?” Mom was brilliant and beautiful. It must have been agonizing to watch her killing herself.
And yet even at her lowest, when everyone who loved her had lost hope, good news was coming. The visitor was going about his own life: eating breakfast, going to work, getting ready to go to the state mental hospital. Even when my mother was locked up, trapped in a place where no movement seemed possible, she was already on a journey towards resurrection.
Her resurrection was a process. Her sobriety involved a lot of meetings and a lot of time on the phone with her sponsor. Because my father had divorced her, she had to find housing and get a job. To earn custody of her daughters, she had to stay well and keep functioning. Her vow of sobriety wasn’t enough: she had to put sinew and skin on those bones.
And her resurrection was a community project. My father and her doctors had to agree to release her. Her father and brother lent a great deal of practical and emotional support. Her AA friends were a constant blessing and source of strength, and my sister and I were her inspiration. When she died, I inherited the bracelet she always wore to AA meetings. It’s a gold chain with two charms: her AA 90-day pin, and a locket with pictures of me and my sister.
As people who believe in God, we are called to be patient with God, but we are also called to help release the resurrected from their winding sheets. We are Christ’s hands in the world. Because resurrection does not happen in an instant, we need to be faithful to the victims of violence and the survivors of disaster, to recovering addicts and alcoholics, to the lost and lonely, and to all who grieve. When we hear people demanding, “How could God let this happen?” our job is to go to them, to weep with them, and then to help them recognize and nurture the new life that God will call forth from their despair.
And if there are times on these journeys when our own belief is tested, that is part of the process, too. Resurrection is coming. It will arrive in God’s good time. Our doubt will become delight, and our pain will become praise, and belief will be reborn from the tomb of tears.