I had some great ideas for this sermon. Then on Friday Pope Francis used up all my ideas in his powerful sermon in the Vatican and I was back to the drawing board. By Saturday lunchtime I scraped some other ideas, planning to turn them into a sermon, but then Bishop Hugh recorded and published on social media his powerful message, accidentally depriving me of my scraps. Usually, I wouldn’t bother too much about the Pope or the Bishop ‘stealing’ my homiletic ideas; I would simply carry on regardless. But nothing is usual here and now. It seems that massive chunks of our lives have moved to the internet; it’s not a great exaggeration to say that effectively we live in it now: children have classes, people work from home, hold working and social meetings. Even religious services are streamed online! In such circumstances, virtually everyone interested has heard or read the Pope’s sermon and heard Bishop Hugh’s message. So, if I stuck to my initial plans people would say that I’m recycling their ideas. That would make me look bad… Luckily for me, neither the Pope nor Bishop Hugh referred in their respective speeches to today’s gospel, so I can scrape this barrel.
‘This sickness will not end in death but in God’s glory’ is Jesus’ response to the news that his friend Lazarus has taken ill. When such words are uttered in such an authoritative manner, there’s great hope for the sick and their loved ones. Why? Because their attention would be drawn to the first part: ‘This sickness will not end in death’ and by preventing the death God would show himself victorious. Then Lazarus dies. Try to look at this situation without the benefit of hindsight. The strong prediction or promise Jesus made has obviously failed to materialise. To make things worse, Jesus seemed to drag his feet; he was in no haste to leave for Lazarus’ home and when he eventually arrives, it’s far too late – by then the buried body should stink. People’s doubts about Jesus are expressed in this question: ‘He opened the eyes of the blind man, could he not prevent this man’s death?’ It’s a good question; it’s been echoed many times over, in one form or another, over centuries and across the globe. When we face difficult situations or challenges; when our world is turned upside down, we tend to question God’s presence in our lives and whether He cares for us. We feel abandoned, left to our own devices. Such a sentiment is expressed by one of Lazarus’ sisters Martha when she says: ‘If you had been here my brother would not have died.’
Bishop Hugh in his message mentioned that luckily in this neck of the woods we are less affected by the actual viral infection, more by the restrictions designed to prevent its spread. Hopefully, this sickness will not end in death in our communities, close ones like families and friends, and broader ones, like our workplaces, neighbourhoods and the country. However, it will have been a missed opportunity if this sickness will not end […] in God’s glory. But, what does it actually mean? There’s a famous quote by St Irenaeus: The glory of God is man fully alive. The man and woman fully alive reflect the beauty and goodness of God. When God created man, he was made in God’s image and likeness. Sadly, that primal perfection was tainted and damaged by original sin and since then our lives are bloated by selfishness, fear and insecurities. We deal with them by filling our lives with things and attitudes that either drown them out or give us a false sense of safety and security. Empty shelves, mountains of hoarded toilet rolls, panic buy of tons of fresh food then thrown away or gallons of rancid milk flowing down the drains; these are just the most visible signs of our insecurities. By the way, when this is over, the government will have to bail out loo-rolls producers, because nobody will buy it for a couple of years…
‘I am the resurrection and the life […] whoever lives and believes in me will never die.’ This situation, affecting to various degrees everyone, is also a great opportunity to resurrect, to come back to a more meaningful life. Perhaps we need to re-learn to trust Jesus and his words. When we take Him seriously and live out what we believe, we will experience the simple joys of everyday life. We can see and appreciate those unsung, invisible or even despised heroes that keep our world going: cleaners, posties, shelf-stackers, and so on… The list is very long indeed, and I’d like to urge you to produce your own, and to have a word of appreciation for each of them. This situation is a great opportunity to harness our insatiable consumerism, the throw-away culture we indulged. Basically, this situation is a great opportunity to put into practice the fundamental, double-pronged commandment of loving God and neighbour.
In the gospel, Lazarus came back to life at Jesus’ behest. Fantastic! Where is he now? Oh, he died again… Bad luck! ‘If anyone believes in me, even though he dies he will live.’ Each one of us will eventually die. It might sound odd, but how and when we die is much less important than how we have lived. Life’s a terminal condition; hopefully, this sickness will not end in death but in God’s glory; the glory of God is man fully alive.