If you had been there

29 March 2020 – Lent 5 – Year A

Ezek 37:1-14 – Ps 130 – John 11:1-45

Dr Jonathan White

Today we enter Passiontide; the final stretch of the Lenten feast before we plunge into the emotional depths of Holy Week. Side by side with the disciples, we will lament the death and absence of Jesus, and thus God, although we of course have all seen the movie spoiler and know there’s a happy ending – well normally anyway. Traditionally, crosses and statues would today be covered, symbolic of the absence of God before Jesus’ triumphant return at Easter.

When I first started preparing this sermon, several months ago now, I kept recalling that rather unassuming chorus from Mendelssohn’s Elijah: He that shall endure to the end. For those of you unfamiliar with this monumentally beautiful, though also rather long, oratorio, the positioning of this chorus is somewhat ironic – a good chunk of the way through the second half, when the end is in sight, but you’ve already heard a lot of music by this point, and you know there’s still a fair bit to go. Passion Sunday, as today is known, might, in any normal year, feel a bit like this, especially for those of you who thought that giving up chocolate and gin was a good idea. You’re close enough to see the end, but still far enough to wonder if choosing to cross those luxuries off your list for just over six weeks was all that clever.

Today, we face a very different kind of Lent. The passage of time will inexorably lead us into Holy Week, through the various days that mark all those significant Biblical events that most of us could pretty much recite verbatim, and headlong into Easter Sunday. And yet, with the most substantial government restrictions placed on modern society ever in peacetime, our Easter this year is going to be very different. The fierce spectre of the coronavirus has cast a dark shadow over the whole earth, and not just our Easter celebrations. We live in a society in lockdown, driven by panic and an even more pronounced suspicion of the other than ever before. Many of us have been separated from family, loved ones, and friends, forced to communicate with the rest of the world through various wonders of modern technology. At least, those of us who are lucky enough to have those are.

In times of crisis, the Church has often been a refuge and support for many. But how do we do that with our doors bolted shut, unable to meet as we normally would. Although, for years, we’ve been saying that you don’t need to go to church to be a Christian, perhaps we’re rapidly realising that, all rhetoric aside, it’s at least helpful to know you can go to church. How do we build community scattered abroad? How do we minister to the vulnerable, the homeless, the poor and the oppressed if we have to hide away behind closed doors? How can we continue to spread the good news, if there’s no one there to hear it?

Although our readings today contain a good deal of despair, their central theme is that of hope, and the transcendence of life. In our Old Testament reading, the prophet witnesses new life emerge from the breath of God in the desert. The Epistle reading that we would have heard speaks of how the spirit is our salvation, and in our Gospel Jesus not only shows his humility and extreme humanness in his weeping by the grave of Lazarus, but he too breathes new life into his friend’s body.

The psalmist, however, is in an altogether different frame of mind. ‘Out of the deep have I called unto thee, O Lord.’ Drowning in a world seemingly absent of God, he pleads with the almighty to relieve the crushing pain felt by the metaphorical leagues of water pressing down on him. Right now, I suspect many of us feel a bit like the psalmist, wondering where God is, and how we are going to get out of the mess in which we find ourselves. One can’t help but to recall Mary’s words in the Gospel either: ‘If you had been here, this wouldn’t have happened.’

This phrase has always made me wonder. I have heard this gospel more times than I care to recall, often used in the context of a funeral to console the bereaved. As a church musician I have already been to more than my fair share of these. The logic goes that Jesus wept for his friend, therefore God understands how you feel right now. Within the context of the funeral rite that reinforces the notion of eternal life, this does make sense, if you can join the dots together. And yet, I’ve always felt that this approach has been somewhat pastorally lacking. In England, where most of this happened, as in Canada also, we live in an increasingly secular society. The majority of people now only come into contact with church and religion at baptisms, weddings, and funerals: three of the great liminal moments of life. That isn’t to say that Bible passages cannot and should not be used to illustrate the good news of a Christian life, but I feel all too often the church misses the mark, neglecting to adapt to the ever-changing world around it.

Although my job title here is Director of Music, in reality I am a liturgist. My job involves weaving the multiplicity of threads that form our services together into an intricate tapestry, with significant help from my colleagues, in an attempt to translate the essence of our faith into a living act. The liturgy is Christianity in motion. It is a deeply profound act, but it is also a deeply profound performance. I have been reliably informed that when the search began for my position, the issue arose as to whether or not appointing a Christian was important. These days many church musicians have no faith of their own – they just love the music – but it was felt that, at least at Director level, having a faith here was important. And yet, believe it or not, there are certainly times when not having a faith would put me at an advantage. In crafting the liturgy, one must strike a balance between ensuring that the regular members present are fully immersed in the worship of God, but that it also has a way of reaching out to and touching those who are new, those who came in by accident, and those who thought they believed in nothing. The right choice of music, combination of lighting, subtle movement, and drama in the liturgy can totally overwhelm someone. This isn’t to say that I spend a lot of my professional life pretending that I don’t believe in anything – I save that for my spare time – but I do often have to think about what’s really going on here and how can I help our liturgy speak to the whole world, not just our congregation.

That brings me back to the gospel, and to those immortal words of Mary: ‘If you had been here’. No doubt, this is something that many grieving households around the world are already asking, and more to come now. Indeed, many Christians are probably asking that exact question now, maybe with the subtle adjustment: ‘Where are you, God, right now?’ To the non-believer, or maybe the critical believer, while Jesus wasn’t there when Lazarus died, surely God was? Did God not care? Why did Jesus instead? Furthermore, when Jesus says ‘For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe’ does this mean it was all part of some plan? And, if so, does this mean God was part of it, and let Lazarus’ family go through the emotional devastation of losing someone for Jesus’ self-glorification?

The issue of suffering has always been problematic for Christians. The bible tells us that God will hear and answer our prayers, and yet we know how many times we pray for something that never comes. Worse, we know that when we don’t get something, does that mean someone else’s prayers were answered instead? When the marriage canon failed to pass, was God listening to those who preached against equality? When children are being locked in cages on the Mexican border, does this mean God really is listening to Trump? As Christians, we can probably just about get our head around this problem, or we are at least willing to accept that it is one of those great mysteries of faith. But what about those who don’t believe? Or maybe the ones who want to believe, but need more than just that. If Jesus said to his own disciples that they need to be shown proof, is it all that unreasonable for someone today?

The simple answer is that God is there. God is always there, and whatever reasons we might look for to explain suffering, we need to accept that God is and always will be there. The church has lost sight of the need to justify our existence. ‘Thoughts and prayers’ are all very well and good, but simply standing back and trusting that God somehow will sort it out is not what the Christian vocation is all about. In this current crisis, this is all the more necessary than ever, made all the more complicated by the fact that the exact thing we are being asked to do is to stand back. And yet, in our physical absence, there is much we can do, and much we can stop ourselves from doing too. Being a Christian is not about spreading panic, it is about spreading love. It is about showing love and kindness to your neighbour whoever that might be, rather than giving into the overwhelming temptation to share the latest terrifying, yet uncorroborated, statistics about the steady march of the coronavirus. It is about being there, for whoever needs you – your family, your friends, your congregation, your cathedral – when they need you however you are able. While the fabric of society crumbles around us, and while global leaders struggle to navigate this crisis, let us rise and be counted. As Christina Rosetti wrote:

I will arise, repenting and in pain;
I will arise, and smite upon my breast
And turn to Thee again;
Thou choosest best,
Lead me along the road Thou makest plain.
Lead me a little way, and carry me
A little way, and listen to my sighs,
And store my tears with Thee,
And deign replies
To feeble prayers;–O Lord, I will arise.

We come, many of us weary, worn, and sad. Some of us might already be sick; many of us probably know someone who is. And while we cry ‘Out of the deep have I called unto thee O Lord, Lord hear my voice’ let us also remember that the psalmist says that ‘in your word is hope’. It is not just in resurrection that we can rise. Let us remember, we rise from those depths, from those depths from which we drink the living water of prayer; prayer that gives us hope, prayer that gives us strength, and prayer that allows us to say to God: ‘Here I am, what can I do?’ For whether in the midst of the coronavirus, or the dwindling of church attendance, a capital campaign in need of renewed energy, or just everyday life, the question is not where was God – but where were you?

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