Sunday worship – March 29
Posted by FirstPresbyterian Regina on Sunday, March 29, 2020
“The End of the Story”
I don’t know about you, but I already feel like I’ve been hanging out in my house for a really long time now! I’ve been working from home. And although I have plenty to keep me occupied, time passes differently when we’re not following the usual patterns of our work, and family, and social lives.
Until a couple of days ago, the COVID-19 pandemic still felt a little bit virtual to me. We watched the constant news reports, and adjusted our lives to the latest recommendations for hygiene and physical distancing, but it still seemed like a far-away problem.
That was until I heard about friends who had contracted the virus. Two friends, both living in the UK. Neither one was serious enough to be hospitalized, but the symptoms one was experiencing sounded quite awful, while the other just lost her sense of smell.
And while I’m at home, not allowed to visit people in our local hospitals for good reason, my sister is working as a nurse in a Toronto hospital where they are already running short on supplies. Nurses on her ward are being rationed only two surgical masks per shift – an obvious risk both to their patients and to the nurses themselves.
We see scenes of devastation in other parts of the world on the news every night. Italian hospitals have been in dire straits for weeks now. Spain’s health care system is struggling, and the situation in New York City is getting out of control too. We shudder to think what things will look like when the virus hits less-developed countries, migrant communities, and refugee camps.
We keep seeing these graphs about the progress of the pandemic. The authorities are keeping close watch of the number of cases, and tracking how it is spreading. They’re talking about all the closures, cancellations, and physical distancing measures as our attempts to “flatten the curve.” We know that the virus is going to spread, but if we can slow it down and flatten the curve, perhaps many of our health care systems won’t be completely overwhelmed by it.
Some of the projections are very worrying. And sometimes they provide a little bit of hope in the midst of the crisis, like when BC announced on Friday that they could see their curve flattening just a little bit. But we don’t know how that curve will actually turn out for BC, for Saskatchewan, or for other more vulnerable parts of the world. It’s too early to know how things are going to turn out, no matter how much we might wish to know the end of the story.
So, I was thinking about that as I was reflecting on the story of the raising of Lazarus. From that title alone, we know the end of the story, right? It’s all about the fact that Jesus will eventually arrive, and he will raise Lazarus from death, calling him to come out of his tomb and live again.
But today I want to invite you to place yourself in the middle of the story for a moment. Imagine yourself as Martha or Mary before Jesus performs the great miracle.
Of course, we don’t know what kind of illness Lazarus had or how long he had suffered from it. But those of us who have cared for sick children or spouses or parents at home… those of us who have rushed our dear ones to hospital in emergency situations… those of us who have sat beside hospital beds, or paced in hospital hallways, or supported our friends through cancer treatments… We know some of the feelings that Mary and Martha must have felt as well:
Worry, anger, frustration, sadness, helplessness, even desperation…
I’ve witnessed a lot of those feelings among people with whom I’ve ministered over the years, and they are very normal and natural ways to be feeling in the midst of a medical crisis in your family or a pandemic in our world.
But I’ve also witnessed a lot of other feelings too. I’ve noticed people being encouraged by their faith and strengthened by the prayers of their community. Some have shared that they felt comforted by the care of health care workers or friends. They have felt blessed by the Spirit’s presence with them through a time of uncertainty. And sometimes they’ve even felt joyful at times of sharing and caring for their loved ones, even at the end of life.
When we set aside the end of Martha and Mary’s story, we may notice that in the midst of their crisis, Jesus shows up to share in their sorrow and bring them comfort and encouragement.
One commentator notes that “In the long and diverse history of theism, God has more often been imagined as distant and impassive, if not angry and punitive… Christians, steeped in a faith that assumes divine compassion, love, and even vulnerability, often forget how radically peculiar it is to ascribe such attributes to God, as seen here through Jesus.”
Jesus risked his own safety, and even set in motion the plot that would have him arrested and killed, when he returned to Judea to help his friends. We are told that “Jesus loved Martha and Mary and Lazarus,” and when he sees the sisters weeping, he is “greatly disturbed in spirit” – empathizing with their pain, I imagine.
Verse 35 of this chapter is famous as the shortest verse in the Bible. It simply says, “Jesus wept.” And although some might not think that would have helped at all, most of us have experienced the gift of those who stay with us in our sorrow, who cry with us, and share our grief.
There’s a Swedish proverb that I believe is true: “Shared joy is double joy; Shared sorrow is half a sorrow.”
When Mary and Martha were going through their crisis, they didn’t know the end of the story. I mean, they didn’t know that Jesus would eventually show up and raise their brother Lazarus from the grave.
They did, of course, know the final ending to the story. Martha expressed her faith and trust that her brother would “rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” They were people of faith who trusted God, and they had hope for everlasting life with God, even as they mourned the loss of their brother from this earthly life.
Have you ever wondered why Jesus raised Lazarus from the grave? Why him? Just because he was a good friend? Because he was more worthy than others who had died? Well, Jesus explains the reason himself at the beginning of the story, and then again just before he performs the miracle. He says that the reason for Lazarus’ illness is so that God’s glory will be shown and God’s Son will be revealed to the world. He says that he raises Lazarus from the grave so that the world will believe that God sent him.
Biblical scholars suggest that the miracles that are highlighted in John’s Gospel are SIGNS. Each one – whether turning water into wine, healing a blind man, walking on water, or raising Lazarus from the grave – is like a road sign, pointing us towards God, showing everyone God’s power and God’s love.
This one, of course, points us towards the end of Jesus’ story as well. Just as God has the power to raise Lazarus, so God will ultimately triumph over death, raising Jesus from the grave. Not simply resuscitating him to live and die again, but resurrecting him to live forever. And as Jesus will assure his disciples later in the same Gospel, because he lives, they (and we) will live also.
You see what he’s doing there? He’s telling us the end of the story. He’s showing us the end of the story. No matter what difficulties, or struggles, or illnesses, or griefs we may experience in our lives, the final end of our story is assured. Because Jesus loves us, and he has gone ahead of us. He has gone ahead to prepare a place for us.
Like Martha and Mary, we know that our story begins and ends in God. God is our Alpha & Omega. God is our Creator and our Redeemer. And God is our Sustainer too. I think it is in times like these that we must remember the presence and power of the Holy Spirit who sustains us through our struggles and our difficult days. Because even if we know the ultimate end of the story, we’re living right now in the middle part.
It’s the part where we don’t know how that curve is going to turn out. It’s the part where we don’t know how we’re going to get through this crisis or how much damage will be done before it’s over. Here in this middle part, we don’t know how Jesus will come to us with comfort, encouragement, and hope; how Christ will stand beside us in our sorrow and share in our grief; or how our Lord will bring help, healing, and new life to our communities and our world.
I love the way that God told the prophet Ezekiel to “prophesy to the bones, and say to them: ‘Hear the Word of the Lord!’” Ezekiel was a human being who was invited to participate in what God was about to do, breathing life and energy back into those broken and long-dead people.
That’s what Ezekiel was asked to do in the middle part of his story. After the crisis of his people being conquered and sent into exile, before the fullness of life restored when the exile came to an end, God told the prophet to get to work and to participate in what God’s Spirit was going to do to bring healing, hope, and restoration.
Here in the middle of our pandemic story, I think God is calling us to do the same. Of course, we can all begin by following the instructions of our Public Health Authorities to reduce the spread of the coronavirus by staying home as much as possible, washing our hands A LOT, and maintaining physical distancing from others. We can be a force for good, simply by making the adjustments in our lives that will help to flatten the curve.
But we can do more. We can care for each other and our community by watching out for those who are in need – for those who are lonely, for those who are afraid, for those who are particularly vulnerable to becoming socially isolated at this time.
Every Easter, our congregation chooses a worthy project and makes donations in memory of our loved ones. This year, our gifts will be sent to Kitchener and Albert Community Schools for their Wellness Packages. Our gifts will become another way for us to participate in what God is doing in this middle part of the COVID-19 story.
Our Mission & Outreach Committee explain that these neighbourhoods are especially hard-hit by school closures. Many children normally receive two daily meals at school, and some families also receive weekly food hampers from the schools. Teachers are very worried about their students over the long term. They know that several families won’t have enough to eat.
Low-income kids are also especially hard hit by recreation centre and playground closures, and many families don’t have internet access or basic supplies to keep their kids active and occupied.
Kitchener and Albert school staff have identified 115 families who need extra help during this current emergency. Wellness Packages are being assembled with non-perishable foods, milk and eggs, skipping ropes, balls, flash cards, and education games for the children.
Our donations to this Easter Season “In Memoriam” project will allow the schools to extend their small budget further and meet needs for a longer time period. All this information about the project, as well as the form for you to give the church office your “in memoriam” details, has been sent to you by email or by regular mail so that you can make your donations in the next couple of weeks.
We can have courage, and we can be generous with our gifts and resources in the middle of this COVID-19 crisis, because we know the end of the story. And because we know that God is with us, even here in the middle, by the power of the Holy Spirit.