This week I met an interesting woman called Viki Thondley. Among other things, she runs a business in Toowoomba, called Mind, Body, Food. As a holistic therapist, she thereby offers others opportunities to address the stresses of our bodies and lives so that we can all enjoy greater wellbeing. She invites us to look into ourselves and our lifestyles to let go of those things which hurt and to open ourselves to those which heal. In that way, as we understand better the intimate connections between our minds, bodies and food, we can find greater health and confidence. For it is as we better understand who we are, what we think, and what we feel, that we can grow in energy and empowerment. She herself is a good example. For like many great healers, Viki speaks from what she knows. As she has addressed her own self, her past and continuing wounds, so her being and actions speak volumes about the healing path.
Now, whilst she has wide understanding of much of the contemplative wisdom traditions of our world, Viki mainly works on the level of the natural. She is thereby accessible to many secular people, and to estranged Christians, who might find our Church’s paths to healing less easy to access. Yet this healing journey is at the heart of our Gospel, not least in the great story we have heard today. For our Gospel story today opens us up to what the 20th century Anglican monk, Father Harry Williams, called ‘true resurrection’...
Today’s Gospel story is about true resurrection. It is an immensely symbolic tale of how God, in Jesus Christ, can and does bring new life out of death: not just out of our physical death, but out of every other thing which is death-dealing in our lives and world. For, in our Gospel story today, Lazarus isn’t raised in an after-life. He is raised to new life right here and now. And, as he is raised to new life, so others also experience resurrection. His sisters and friends are no longer bound by sorrow and fear. They are also raised up to new and greater life and are called to share that new life with others. And that, my friends, is true resurrection. That is what we, as church, are called to experience, to live and be: and not just for ourselves, but for others.
Today’s Gospel story, like the whole of John’s Gospel is full of symbols and invitations to a spiritual journey. Yes, it may well be an account of an actual event. It is certainly intended to proclaim the glory of God in Jesus Christ. Yet is much more than this. It is a call to us too to open ourselves to the power of God’s new life, the power of true resurrection. There are, for instance, three great demands of Jesus in this passage: three demands which, with an Aboriginal friend of mine (Graeme Mundine), I have in the past written about as "the ‘Lazarus Demand’". They are applicable to wider aspects of our society and world, including Indigenous struggles for new life. They are also, as I will suggest in a moment, applicable to our struggles to welcome asylum seekers. They are, above all, however, applicable to each and every one of us, in our own struggles for life and wellbeing.
The first demand is to ‘take away the stone!’ Martha isn’t too impressed about that, is she?! With good reason: the stone has been put in front of the tomb to keep out the stench and all the horrors of death. Which is all very well, but how can Lazarus come out if the tomb is blocked? Our Gospel is saying is that this is the same for us. If we want to experience new life, true resurrection, then we have to be willing to roll the stones away from our own tombs: from all those things in our life which we would rather not look at. We have to be willing to uncover our sin and suffering so that God’s grace can work.
That, on a natural level, is what Viki Thondley tries to do. She tries to encourage others to take away the stones from the tombs in their lives, so that new life can break in. She walks with them in that difficult but essential process. So it is with us as church. We are called to encourage one another to take away the stones from our tombs and to walk with one another as we allow God’s grace to transform our deepest hurts and fear into new life.
For, secondly, Jesus says, to Lazarus, and to us, ‘come out!’ It is very tempting to stay in our tombs, because, fearful though they are, at least we know where we are and what is involved. To step out into the bright daylight, into the insecurities of a bigger life and world, is not easy. Much as often we say we like freedom, as human beings we are actually quite afraid of it. So we often prefer to stay within the tombs of our fears, our addictions, our hatred and envies, our sadnesses and our guilts, our sins and sufferings. True resurrection is actually quite scary. No wonder, as Richard Rohr says, we often run from it. Yet we know that this is the only path to the fullness of life. To avoid a living death, we ultimately have to step out in faith, trusting that there will be resurrection and it will be good. That is what church is also about: giving us strength to make that leap of faith into new life.
Which leads us, thirdly, to Jesus’ final demand in our Gospel story today. ‘Unbind him’, Jesus says, ‘and let him go!’ Even when the stone is rolled away, it is so hard for us to walk out of our tombs, out of the places of fear and death to which we are prone. We need the help of one another. Again, that is what church is for: to help us unbind one another, and others. We may be stuck in our versions of living death, like the Hebrew slaves in Egypt long ago. Yet, like Pharoah, we have power to unbind others and let God’s people go, so they may find their promised land: true resurrection. So what stones do we need to move in our lives? What part of our selves needs to come out of our tombs? Who might we help unbind and let go?
All of this begins, as Viki Thondley says, with ourselves. We can’t easily change others but we can change ourselves. We can refuse to live in sadness. We can face up, by God’s grace and the help of others, to our fears and woundedness. We can junk the ‘self-talk’ which says that this is ‘as good as it gets’ and we are not capable of new life. We can help unbind one another and let each other go. But there is more...
When I hear today’s Gospel in the context of recent events, I have to say that I start thinking of the plight of asylum seekers and of our current national policies towards them. This, for me, is not about politics but about our sense of compassion. When Jesus heard about Lazarus and thought about him, we are told he wept. When we open our ears and eyes to the appalling plight of the world’s asylum seekers, should we not be weeping too? - weeping, crying out and working for new life? Instead, I fear that we, as a nation, are in danger of simply reinforcing the door to the asylum seekers’ tomb. For it is a place of great fear and horror and death, and we would rather not smell the stench, never mind do much about it. Instead of opening up the path to new life for asylum seekers, we are therefore in danger of simply building new tombs for them, in places like PNG and Cambodia. With appropriate prudence, might we not do better to heed the words of Moses and Jesus: unbind them, and let them go!? For the problem with shutting up the stench of life, our fear and death, is that, in doing so, we also block off new life. Whether as individuals or as a nation, we deny ourselves the possibility of true resurrection. We may shut our fears away but they are still there. Our hearts know this and they will shrivel until we face them. We become lesser people, and a lesser nation, than we might be, and we undermine our compassion. May God set us free.
In the name of the One who was not afraid to face his fears, to weep and suffer, and to be all that he was called to be: in the name of the One, who was raised from the dead and raises all who trust in him to new life; in the name of the One who sought asylum with his family in a foreign land; in the name of Jesus, Amen.