A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent
Do you have a special place that you go to for peace and quiet? A place for refreshment and renewal? Maybe a room in your home or a park? Is there a place that has special meaning to you? Maybe even right here at Emmanuel.
For me, there are several special places, hallowed ground as it were. One is my college campus in Minnesota. The chapel there has a unique beauty and on the grounds there’s a fantastic view of Minnesota River Valley that can take your breath away. When I go back there I usually drag someone along, like my brother Josh, who often is not as taken with the view as I am, especially when it’s 20 below zero and the wind is whipping across the hill (since I’m usually only there in December), but nonetheless, to me it is very special. I’d even say that I feel God there.
Another favorite place for me is the Bethany Convent of the Sisters of St Anne in Arlington. The Sisters are Episcopalian nuns. You might not have known that we have Episcopal nuns, but we do. Here in Massachusetts there’s the Sisters of St Margaret who have active ministries in Boston, Duxbury, and in Haiti. And the Sisters of St. Anne. They have a quieter ministry. Today there’s just 5 of them at the house in Arlington—three from the Philippines, one born in New York, and one from the Bahamas, but in the past they have had ministries in downtown Boston and Cambridge, in England and in China, New Zealand, the Philippines, in New York and Chicago. The Sisters are just about the kindest, most thoughtful people you could meet.
I went there to the Bethany Convent in Arlington for Mass most Wednesday mornings when I was in seminary. It was a bit of an undertaking, since the service was first thing in the morning and one had to fight Cambridge traffic to get there. I didn’t have a car, so I was always dependent on a fellow student, usually my friend Patti, or sometimes, I even went with a professor—Lloyd Patterson—who would drive in from Belmont, pick me up at the seminary in Harvard Square, and then take us to the Convent. He had to be there by 7:30 to lead the service, so we set off from the seminary at 6:45 or so. It was always something of a crazy ride, because Lloyd had rather slow reflexes and sometimes drove awfully close to the cars in front of us. We did always made it in one piece, amazingly enough, but not without a scare or two. As harrowing as the ride was, though, once you step foot in the chapel, none of that mattered anymore because it was like stepping on sacred, holy ground. The convent chapel and the gardens feel like they are literally infused with a century of prayer, with a century of hospitality, with a century of love.
After Mass, whoever was there was invited to join the Sisters for breakfast in their refectory. The menu was always the same—coffee, juice, cereal, toast, and Sister Gloria's soft-boiled egg. I never had the egg—I don’t like them much—which disappointed the Sisters. I usually had cereal, and maybe toast with their delicious ginger preserves. If you are preparing to be a priest, it’s hard to imagine a more special way of beginning your day: a Eucharist in a gorgeous chapel, followed by breakfast with your favorite professor, a friend or two, and 5 to 7 of the most delightful nuns you could imagine.
One of my favorite memories of the Sisters was the time that they asked me to drive them out to Springfield for Patti’s ordination. I stayed overnight at the Convent—they were quite worried that I wouldn’t wake up on time, since I don’t tend to follow their rigorous monastic schedule, so they wanted me close by for good measure. They made sure I was comfortable for the night with a healthy supply of cookies. And then after breakfast we all piled into their large van and sped on toward the ordination. It’s quite the image, isn’t it? A 26 year old me driving a van full of nuns along the Mass Pike. The Sisters still talk about that day, and it makes me smile every time I think of it.
Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten there to the Bethany Convent too much in the past few years. Arlington is kind of a pain to get to from Quincy, truth be told, and even a little bit from Wakefield. But it’s comforting, and even inspiring, to know that it’s there, that the Sisters are welcoming others, and sharing the love of God with all who come in their doors. Well, yesterday, I returned to this special place with the vestry for our Lenten retreat. There was another group there, so we didn’t have use of the chapel. But it was a fantastic sunny day and we were able to spend lots of time outside—writing letters to God, as it happens. I won’t share what I wrote, but what I will say is that I discovered as I sat out there on a hundred year old bench how the stresses of my life seemed to fall away as I breathed in the fresh spring air, and also how much I had missed this special place—the Bethany Convent.
As it happens, the Convent in Arlington is named after the village of Bethany, featured in this morning’s gospel. That Bethany, the original Bethany, was located just outside Jerusalem and was the home of other sisters—not nuns, so far as we know, but Martha and Mary, and their brother Lazarus. Like the Convent for me (and for many others), it would seem that the original Bethany was also a special place of respite, for Jesus. He went there for rest, refreshment, and renewal. To spend time with friends, where he wasn’t so much the amazing preacher, teacher, healer, savior of the world, but a friend, someone who was loved and cherished, just because.
In this morning’s gospel reading, however, we learn that Lazarus, Jesus’ dear friend, has taken ill. Desperate for help, Lazarus’ sisters sent for Jesus in the hopes that he could arrive in time, to help somehow. But he didn’t make it. Not even close. According to the gospel account, Lazarus had been dead for four days by the time Jesus got around to getting there. It’s sort of a weird story, because on the one hand Jesus seems to know that Lazarus has died and so takes his sweet time getting to Bethany, to make a point. But then when he finally gets there, he’s upset by the whole thing. In fact, John writes that Jesus wept, he was so distraught over his friend’s death. We don’t usually think of Jesus getting all emotional like that--like us--but in this case anyway, he did. While we don’t know any of the details of their relationship, Jesus must have loved Lazarus very much.
And, it would seem, he was so overcome by his own emotion and that of his friends Martha and Mary, that he summoned up the power in himself to bring Lazarus back to life. It’s kind of a funny thing, since we don’t read that Jesus raised everyone who had ever died. He probably didn’t raise his grandparents or aunts and uncles or the friends he had known in his village. While there are other accounts of Jesus raising people in various places, he certainly didn’t do it willy-nilly. But somehow, it would seem, Jesus couldn’t stand the thought of life without his friend, and so he literally broke the rules of life and death, at least for a time, and he gave Lazarus a second chance.
Unfortunately, we don’t know what happened to Lazarus after that. We don’t know if he just resumed life as it had been or if he was changed somehow through this amazing experience. We don’t know if he lived in a different kind of way or altered his priorities. We don’t even know how long he lived in this round two of life. But presumably, it wasn’t forever. Presumably, he’s not still here somewhere—a 2,000 plus year old man, walking around. In all likelihood he died again. Maybe the next week or next year, or maybe 20 years later. But eventually.
So, the gift of new life to Lazarus was a temporary thing, if you think about it in terms of his physical body. And that’s what we usually think of as the miracle in this story. But, I wonder if there’s more to it than just that. Because if the story is just about a guy who was brought back to life 2,000 years ago and then died again, it doesn’t really have a lot of relevance for us now.
But what if the gift of new life was something deeper and more profound than just his physical body getting up and walking around again? What if this gospel story, if you dig deeply enough, is not so much about Lazarus, but instead about how we are all called to step outside the tombs we lock ourselves in. What if this story is really about how we are each given the opportunity to embrace life and live fully, freely and wholly, filled with the love and spirit of God, if only we dare? What if it’s about embracing the call to resurrection even now, even today, even in Lent?
I began by sharing some of my experience at the Bethany Convent—a decade ago when I was a student, and again just yesterday. And as I reflected on the gift of being there in the sunshine yesterday, surrounded by vestry members and the wonderful Sisters of St Anne, statues of Jesus, Mary, and Angels, holy sacred buildings, squirrels, birds and purple flowers, I realized how often I fail to go to Bethany—and by that I don’t mean just the Convent (though I should go there more often for my own spiritual well-being)—but to a place of refreshment and renewal where ever that might be—the place that helps me to grasp and hold onto the abundant, resurrection, new life that Jesus wants for me, and of course, that he wants for all of us.
It’s so easy, in our busy lives, to get distracted, to fill our days with stuff—some of it important, but a lot of it probably not so important—such that we don’t have any room or time left for the really meaningful aspects of life—like love, caring, openness, peace, God. And the sad thing is, when we do that, when we let our lives get cluttered with stuff, we find ourselves ending up a lot of the time like Lazarus, dead and locked away in his tomb.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, God doesn’t want it to be that way. God wants us to live, fully abundantly, openly—not only in the last day at the end of time, but today, and tomorrow, and always. God wants us to take time out, to go Bethany, where ever that may be, to the special places of our lives that give us peace, hope, and strength, so that we can live, so that we can be who we were meant to be from the first day of creation.
I thought I would close with a quotation by Sister Olga, one of our hosts at the vestry retreat yesterday. In a book celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Order of St Anne, she writes:
“In this twenty-first century world of shadows and fears, of hesitation to follow a dream, some things are luminously clear: a call from God, who knows each of us is whom he calls, and whose enthusiasm for what we are and what we can become is surely his greatest joy and hope.”
In our gospel reading Jesus said, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
May we, too, believe and then live, so that we can become God’s greatest joy and hope.
To whom be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell