A Sermon for Covenant
“Lazarus Lurches to Life”
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
All Saints Day
November 4, 2012
Kyndall Rae Renfro
*Our apologies: no audio available for this sermon due to technical difficulties.
The thing that gets to me about Lazarus’ resurrection from the dead is how un-sanitized the whole affair is. When Jesus rises from the dead, the tomb is found empty, linens neatly folded. By the time Jesus makes his appearance to the women, you kind of assume he’s had enough time to arrive showered, dressed, and groomed. I have never, not once, pictured a stinky Jesus still oozing the stench of death on Easter Sunday. I imagine him bright-eyed and clean as a whistle come Resurrection Day.
Not so with Lazarus. He emerges looking more like a zombie than a Christ-figure, still wrapped from head to toe in a scene more aesthetically fitting for Halloween than for Easter, which is a good reminder that coming back to life is more shocking than it is beautiful, as disorienting as it is miraculous, and as untidy as it is holy.
I mean, can you imagine what it might have felt like to be Lazarus? Perhaps he came out glistening, good as new, but that’s not the picture the imagery lends itself to. So let’s just picture how stiff you would be if you had been laying in one position, wrapped up tight for four straight days. Imagine before those four days began, you were sick in bed, sick enough to die. Weeks of illness, days of death: imagine what it feels like to try and move now. You haven’t eaten. You haven’t had anything to drink. Your lips are cracked dry, you’ve got the smell of death lingering on your bandages, the linens are caked onto your skin. You are dusty and musty and crusty all around. Your head is a fog, like waking up from a coma, only worse. You open your eyes to the darkness of a cave, and when you turn towards the light, it nearly blinds you. You squint, and your eyes overwork themselves trying to adjust to the sudden exposure to light. You sit up awkwardly because your wrappings impede your movement. You try to walk, but your joints are so stiff you feel a hundred years old. You lurch forward and nearly trip your way into the sunlight.
People gasp, scream, a few people run away in complete hysterics. You think you’re happy to be here, but your legs are so stiff and your stomach is so hungry and your body is so weak and you are so light-headed and you can’t see or think straight and so you consider just plopping right down and dying all over again. It’s just too hard to focus. You try to get a whiff of your own body odor, because you imagine you’ve never smelled worse in all your life, and you would hate to see yourself in a mirror right now. It is miraculous that you’re standing and breathing at all, of course, but that doesn’t mean you are comfortable. You start to peal off the crusty linens, but it occurs to you, you just might be naked underneath, so you quit tugging at the strips and stand still, at a loss for what to do now that you’re alive.
Have you ever noticed that coming alive to your own life, or alive to God, or alive to the world can feel a lot like that? Wondrous and disorienting, fascinating and freaky all at the same time, like a necessary upheaval. Have you had an experience where the truth set you free, but the truth hurt like heck in the process? Like coming to terms with addiction or abuse or betrayal, a sin or a big decision or a life-altering discovery, the truth that will set you free does a lot of burning and scarring on its way to your heart.
Barbara Brown Taylor says, “God is the business of raising the dead, not all of whom are willing.” It just might scare you off, she explains, if you’ve ever witnessed the revival of a corpse, if you’ve seen the blue lips, heard the terrible pounding of the heart, smelled the fear in the air, listened to “the choked return of breath, like a drowned thing coming up for air.” When you’ve seen that—a resurrection Lazarus-style—you might as soon stay dead, “at least until someone can arrange a less painful way of coming back to life. Here is how I would like it, please” she says, “a soft kiss on the lips . . . a gentle rubbing of my hands and feet until the feeling comes back, then a warm bath, a soft robe, and a simple meal by candlelight. No talk. Just music. An oboe, if it can be arranged.”
Coming back to life is all well and good as long as the waking up happens as gracefully as it did to Sleeping Beauty, or as long as the scene stays clean with nothing creepy, as long as there are Easter bunnies and chocolate eggs to soften the shock of dead things living.
But waking back up from death isn’t always so pleasant. The daily buzzing of the alarm clock is one small but regular example: every day it would easier to stay asleep/dead to the world than it is to wake up and walk out. Most days we choose to wake up anyway.
Even though we wake, sometimes we live with as minimal aliveness as possible, which I think is to be expected now and again when life hits you upside the head, but such numbness is not the way to walk around on an ongoing basis. The spiritual journey is about waking up, all the way.
“Take off the grave clothes!” Jesus says, which seems like a trivial detail, an obvious next step hardly worth discussing. By the power of God, Lazarus was already alive. What more could there be? Well, there were grave clothes to be shed if Lazarus was going to fully participate in his aliveness. After he lurched his way out the tomb by the Spirit of God, Lazarus had some adjusting to do. Because he wasn’t a zombie, even though he looked the part. He was a full human being, back from the grave, and as odd as it was to suddenly find himself awake again, he had a life to go live. He had muscles to stretch and rebuild, he had relationships to rekindle, he had dreams to follow. He had whole world to enter with fresh perspective, just as soon as he unwound the bandages from around his head.
I mean, just imagine, his heart was pumping after a four-day lull, and for the first time ever he was hearing—literally hearing—every thud of pumping blood. Life so loud it pounded him with awe.
Which brings me to the matter of All Saints Day. The ironic thing about reading the Lazarus text on All Saints Day is that the Lazarus gets to come back to life in this world and our loved ones and the saints do not. Lazarus was in the grave only four days, which is admittedly long for a resuscitation, but not nearly so permanent as those loved ones who’ve left our presence for good. The connection between this text and All Saints Day is supposed to be the symbolism: the saints will rise again. It is our Christian confession, after all, that we believe in the bodily resurrection, and though a Lazarus resurrection is hardly what we expect when we attend a funeral, there’s a part of his story that gives us hope all the same.
But I also think the saints who’ve taught us the faith are like Lazarus in another way too. The saints are those people, who, when they lived on this earth, were fully alive to it. They shed their grave clothes; they walked the painful way of waking up. They kept coming back to life, no matter how many times life knocked them unconscious. They used no snooze buttons in order to coast their way through life in numbness; they woke all the way up, alert and receptive to every bit of life’s searing glory, the good and the bad. That’s what touched us the most about the saints we’ve known: their awake-ness. Their attentiveness to the mundane or messy details of our lives, their awareness of God in the small things, their appreciation for the life’s little blessings and love’s subtle expressions. The way they honored sacredness wherever they found it; the way they saw us and knew us with the intensity and intimacy of one with God-like vision. By the time they left this earth—whether young or old—there really wasn’t much they had missed, because they’d kept their eyes and ears open to God and open to others. They are the ones who taught us with their inconspicuous ways what it means to be alive all the way up until you die.
By the way, you and Lazarus and the saints aren’t the only ones to suffer your way through a resurrection. This event with Lazarus is probably Jesus’ most incredible and awe-inspiring miracle yet, and in the Gospel of John, it is this miracle that prompts the religious leaders to begin plotting Jesus’ death. It’s costly for God to keep waking people up, because believe it or not, people tend to the think someone with the power to resurrect must be evil, a force to be stopped. Mind you, it is the religious people, not the worldly ones, who get their feathers ruffled by a resurrection. Like I said, coming back to life is as untidy as it is holy, which means a lot of church people can’t see the holiness of it for the messiness of it clouds their view.
My friends, when the Lord God calls you up from the tomb of sleep, may you lurch forward into the light, may you shed the trappings and wrappings of death, and may you go forth to live your life until the Breath of Life leaves your lungs for good. It’s not always easy, coming to life, participating in your resurrection, breaking decorum by walking out of tombs, and it’s likely to cause a ruckus among family or friends. Come to life anyway. Like the saints of God who have gone before you, may you live awake, and like the saints of God who have gone on to be with the Lord, may you too depart this life in peace, knowing that you lived it well.
 From “Striving with God” in Gospel Medicine, 110.