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The Fifth Sunday of Lent
March 26, 2023

Watch this homily! (Begins at 37:35)

     If we can trust Google Search, Benjamin Franklin gets credit for the familiar saying, “In this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.” There’s no arguing the point, but for all their certainty, we avoid dealing with death and taxes as much as we can. April 15 gets in the way, of course, and when it comes to death, many people don’t even like to use the word, preferring euphemisms like “passed” and “passed away.” But no matter how much we may avoid the word, we can’t escape the reality, can we? Nor will we!

      As a priest, I deal a lot with death and, to be honest, I can get overwhelmed by it. I’m not talking about the thought of my own death. I think I’ve come to a place of peace there - most of the time! No, I’m overwhelmed not so much by that as by how often I have to deal with death and by the awful toll it takes - on the person dying and on family and loved ones. It’s a daunting and difficult thing to accompany the dying, and to walk with people in grief at the loss of a loved one. I find myself wishing I had a magic wand to wave and take it all away but, of course, there is no magic wand, and there really aren’t any words, either. Sometimes all I can do is to be silently and lovingly and prayerfully present, and leave the rest to God.

      In today’s story of the death and raising of Lazarus, we get a window onto what Jesus did in the face of death. But before I get into that, let me remind you that we are in John’s gospel and, as with all the great stories in John’s gospel, there is more than one layer of meaning. That was true of the story of the woman at the well two weeks ago, and of the story of the man born blind last week, and it’s true of this story. This is a story not only about Lazarus’ untimely death and Jesus raising him from the dead, it’s also a story about Jesus’ desire to bring people to faith. This is clear from the rather surprising little detail in the story where, after hearing that Lazarus was ill, Jesus waited for two whole days before going to him. The reason for this becomes clear from the words that Jesus prayed before he called Lazarus forth from the tomb. “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I know that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd that they may believe that you sent me.” So, this is not only a story of Jesus miraculously bringing his friend back from the dead, John also presents it as a sign, a sign that manifests the glory of God, a sign that has the power to bring people to faith. In him. (People like our Elect preparing for Baptism; people like ourselves!)

       Now, back to the window we get onto what Jesus did in the face of death. It’s best seen in the different ways Jesus dealt with Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus. You may have noticed that both of them, when they met Jesus, said the same thing to him: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would never have died.” But with Martha, Jesus seems almost removed, content to stay at the level of faith, telling her, “Your brother will rise again,” and “I am the resurrection and the life.” But when Mary, the more outwardly emotional of the two, falls at Jesus’ feet weeping, we are told that he was “troubled in spirit, moved by the deepest emotions.” And not only that, when he asked where the tomb was, we are told – in what must be the shortest verse in all the gospels – that “Jesus wept.” There is a lot packed into those two words, and you can see what I mean about getting a window onto Jesus. It’s easy to picture the scene, isn’t it? Jesus is very human there, touchingly so. He is clearly one of us. Vulnerable. At the mercy of very deep emotions.

      My friends, the Jesus we meet here is one I can easily relate to and I trust you can, too. I often think of that scene when I’m dealing with a dying parishioner or with the family of someone who has died, or with someone in my own family, for that matter. As with Jesus, tears do come – to my eyes often enough. Other times they overflow in my heart.
There is one other little window onto Jesus in the story. It’s in the words Jesus speaks after he calls Lazarus forth from the tomb. “Untie him,” he says, “and let him go free.” It’s one thing for Jesus to want his friend to live; it’s another for him to want him to be free, free from the things that get in the way of living life to the full, things that lessen a person’s lease on life: crippling things like sin, fear, doubt, worry, anxiety.

      My friends, I believe that Jesus speaks those same words to us: “Untie him, untie her. Let him go free. Let her go free.” (He speaks those words in a special way to our Elect who will soon be baptized.) He wants us (and he wants them) to be ‘untied,’ unbound, free - free to walk in the light of day, the light of faith, the light of life. There are so many things that can get in the way of this. Jesus wants us to be free of every one of them.
My friends, this freedom we will fully possess only when we come to terms with death – it’s finality, yes, but also its finitude. For even though death is inevitable and inescapable, it does not get the last word. Life does. It always does. That is our firm belief. It is the very foundation of our faith. We are Easter people, and we will be re-discovering that and celebrating that in the coming days. And it is what we celebrate now, and every time we gather together to break the Bread of the Eucharist, the Bread of Life. We who eat this Bread will live forever!

Father Michael G. Ryan





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Seattle, Washington  98104
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