Sermon

Romans 6:1-4

Lazarus Laughed

By Dr. Gilbert W. Bowen

A minister out in Wellesley, Massachusetts, Martin Copenhaver, reminded me of something about the Orthodox Church I had forgotten. In the east, Greece, Russia, Romania, etc. they celebrate Easter on Sunday and Monday, calling Monday Second Easter. In fact they do this in Germany as well. Monday is also a holiday with worship.

But in Orthodoxy with a difference. The people gather in the sanctuary for worship. And in the midst of the Eucharist with its chants and incense, the priest, looks out over his people and tells jokes. According to Copenhaver, jokes like what do Attila the Hun and John the Baptist have in common. The same middle name. Almost enough to make me want to become an Orthodox priest, if for no other reason than to tell better jokes.

The news of Easter, the news that God has foiled the evil forces of this world and conquered death, is celebrated as a reason for laughter. Reminds me of a play entitled, “Lazarus Laughed,” by Eugene O’Neill, the famous playwright, a play that he wrote in 1925. Strange play with its world premiere and only major production in Pasadena with 151 actors and 420 roles. But it is still a good read.

The story is what O’Neill believes happened to Lazarus, the first man to return from the dead The crowds listen intently to his words as he tells them that there is no death – only God’s eternal laughter. Lazarus, who to that point in his life is nothing but a bungling farmer is now transformed. He has become a man so sure of his experience that he has actually banished death from his world. He lives through a series of trials, the trial of old age, of failure, of suffering at the hands of the Roman Emperor Tiberius, but to the end his is a quiet laughter, a positive and joyous affirmation of life. At one point he says to the crowds, “I tell you, laugh in the mirror and see your life as joyful, then you may begin to live as a guest here, and not as one condemned.”

One has to wonder if we who profess faith in Jesus’ resurrection, really ever allow it to get hold of us and so shape our everyday lives. Pollster George Barna indicates that Americans are very comfortable with religious faith, but by their own testimony, their faith is rarely a critical factor in their life. Few people have a defined understanding of what they are hoping to become as followers of Jesus.”

Again and again both John, the evangelist, and Paul, the apostle, talk about death and resurrection not as end station but as a way of life, as a pattern and dynamic by which we are called to live our days here. He who trusts in the living Lord, never dies.

They bid us look at life not as a given quantity which inch by inch we watch drain away until we drop, not as something which we lose more of year by year until we are but a shell of the vitality we once knew. Rather they call us to see life as a continuum of death and resurrection, for each death some new ascent to fuller life, for each loss some new gain of greater living. So we move through death after death to ever greater life until that final death seems but a simple door to the life supreme.

And there are really at least three kinds of dyings that Paul and the New Testament talk about. There is first the dyings and risings of life’s seasons. The Apostle writes, “Forgetting those things that are behind I press on to the things that lie ahead.” And he means forgetting the good, his resume, his accomplishments. To truly live means to constantly let go of one season precisely in order to move on to the next. And right here is a place where our culture is in trouble. Young people fight to remain young and free and uncommitted, refuse to grow up and assume responsibility for their existence, recede into a quagmire of self-pity because the world won’t let them play any longer. The fact that our culture constantly tells them in so many ways that youth is the very best place to be, doesn’t help either.

There are the young marrieds who having children, refuse to become parents in any real sense, refuse to accept that they can no longer come and go as they like, but are tied to the dribble and diapers, the cries in the night. As Michael Novak has pointed out, “The trouble with having children is that you can no longer be one.”
Then there is the so-called mid-life crisis which is often nothing more than a refusal to let go of one’s immortality. Rather than come to terms with one’s stage and age, one acts out by regressing to trophy wife and sports model.

The reality is that every stage of life has its own treasures and joys, and in a very real sense the best you is always yet to be.

Didn’t you catch the Time magazine article about the brain. Research has proven that your brain power stays high right on through the senior years. And, if you exercise it, your brain actually gets bigger.

As I get older, I turn with great satisfaction to the words of Henry Jowett in a letter to a friend, “Though I am growing old, I maintain that the best part is yet to come – the time when one may see things more dispassionately and know oneself and others more truly, and perhaps be able to do more, and in religion rest centered in a very few simple truths. I do not want to ignore the other side, that one will not be able to see so well, or walk so far, or read so much. But there may be more peace within, more communion with God, more real light instead of distraction about many things, better relations with others, fewer mistakes.”

Barry Johnson tells of watching an older man playing with a group of children at a church pre-school. “Isn’t it a little different for a man to be working in a pre-school?” I asked. The director replied, “I suppose it is, but not for Bill. He sat in an executive suite at Ford Motor Company for forty years. But he knows what is really important. You know, some people really feel the rain; others just get wet. Bill’s a rain feeler!” Meaning, I suppose, Bill really lives where he is.

So you have to die to the sunshine to feel the rain, surrender one season to revel in an other, you have to lose in order to win. Seasons.

Sounds like death and resurrection. Does it not?

And sins. You have to die to sin. But that word is so badly mauled and mis-leading in today’s vocabulary that I hesitate to even use it. Paul talks about “dying to the self.” “I die daily,” he writes to friends. So what is this kind of dying all about. It is letting go a bit of our concern for, preoccupation with the self, with its needs and wants and desires, in the name of rising into a larger, fuller, more self-transcendent existence.

But we live in a culture of constant siren calls to indulge, to pity, to pamper the self. Even in our religion, even in our spirituality, which is why the word about sinning is unhelpful. It does not lead us to think of the manifold ways in which we are wrapped up in ourselves. In fact much so-called “New Age” religion mires people in self-centeredness and escapism.

For it appears that the many have long ago forgotten the ancient wisdom insisting that the goal of religion is not to “perfect ourselves,” or to “get in touch with ourselves,” but to get beyond ourselves, in an effort to find something far, far greater than our isolated little egos.

Robert Stevenson understood this to be so when he wrote in the 18th Century that, “In every corner of our life, to lose oneself is to be a gainer, to forget oneself is to be happy.” The Apostle Paul understood this to be so. “You must now see yourselves as being dead to self, but alive for God in Christ Jesus… think of yourselves as raised from death to life, as an instrument for doing the right and good.”

Real life that is vital and filled with purpose comes not as we are preoccupied with our happiness and self-fulfillment, but as we die to these and rise into larger life for God and others. A pre-school teacher tells of a time when she began to feel sorry for herself, wonder whether she was not “burned out.” She wondered whether there wasn’t something wrong with the current crop. They didn’t seem to respond to her as they used to.

Then her mother died. It was necessary for her to take a week off from her teaching duties to attend to her mother’s affairs and funeral. She had been very close to her mother, and following the funeral she needed some time to deal with her feelings. Her frustrations with pre-school seemed like an even heavier burden at this point in her life. After a weekend of aimless shopping, puttering in the garden and watching TV, she knew that she must return to her classroom. But she felt more like a soldier going into battle than a teacher of pre-schoolers.

The first day back was about what she expected. Her hurt and despair produced resentment that she carefully kept hidden. She smiled at the right times and was admirably patient considering her raw feelings. But then it happened. She came around the corner to discover Rachel picking the last Chrysanthemum from the pot in the hall. Rachel, the most distant, most disruptive child in the class. In a stern, trembling voice, the teacher demanded, “Rachel, what are you doing?”

Rachel held out in her little hand the flowers she had picked. “Mrs. Terrell, you used to be like a mother. Would these flowers help you to be like a mother again? I know you are fussed in your mind. Wouldn’t you like some flowers?” Mrs. Terrell thought, fussed in my mind? You mean it shows? To a five-year-old? She spoke, “Rachel, what is a mother like?”

“A mother is like you used to be,” Rachel said. “A mother likes being with children.” “But Rachel, I like being with children. I’ve just … well, I’ve been … well, Rachel, my mother… passed away, and…” Rachel meekly interrupted, “You mean she died?” “Yes, Rachel,” said her teacher sadly, “She died.” Rachel looked up at her teacher and asked, “Did she live until she died?”

Mrs. Terrell thought, what kind of question is that? “Well, honey, of course, all people live until they die, they…” Again Rachel interrupted her, “Oh please, Mrs. Terrell, don’t die just because your mother did.” Mrs. Terrell says that from little Rachel she learned that not only did she need to let her mother go, but she needed to let go of her self as well so that she might freely live and give again. Death and Resurrection.

We need to die to our seasons. We need to die to ourselves. We need to die to our suffering. That we may live again and again, rich and full lives. Here too, one must accept and embrace in order to move on. It sounds strange to modern ears to hear a man speak of sharing suffering so as to share resurrection. The Apostle writes, “My one desire is to share his sufferings in growing conformity to his death, to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.” But those who have gone through it testify that it is so. Only as they are able to embrace their particular suffering as their lot in life are they able to rise to new levels of life.

I find particularly impressive the witness of Dr. Arnold Beisser. He died a few years ago well into his sixties. At twenty-four he was a medical school graduate and a nationally ranked tennis player. But overnight a devastating bout of polio left him permanently paralyzed from the neck down and dependent on an iron lung to draw his next breath.

Polio robbed Arnold Beisser of his strength, his athletic ability and almost his life. Yet he discovered in this unthinkable trap not only the expected sadness and despair, but wonder, delight, and the pleasures of every day living. In his account entitled Flying Without Wings he tells of his search for new life and meaning as he comes to terms with his disability and then transcends it … to practice psychiatry, fall in love, truly to soar without wings.

Near the end of his story he says this. “If someone were to ask if I would like to return to being able-bodied, my first question would be: ‘What would I have to give up?’ If someone were to ask Rita and me if we would like to return to her pre-rheumatoid arthritis situation, our first question would also be: ‘What would we have to give up?’ We have received some disguised gifts from each of these traumatic events. I do not minimize their very traumatic nature. Things happened that we did not want, that we fought against to keep from happening, things that were painful and disruptive. But they brought unexpected opportunities once they happened, and there was no way of turning back. In order to see the opportunities, though, you must accept what happened as if you have chosen it.

But my reach must exceed my grasp. How I live here and now is determined by what I seek. I must have a reason for getting up in the morning, for doing what I am doing. I must be going someplace. The future that I move toward has only sketchy details for me. It is a future which I cannot fully comprehend, but which faith tells me exists, and which is worthwhile. It is not a future limited to my own destiny in my body and in my time, but something much larger. The whole universe revolves around something mysterious and awesome. But there are moments when all conventional terms pale in their attempts to describe what there is, for it is beyond peace, beyond joy, beyond tragedy, beyond comedy, and well beyond health and disability.”

The story sounds like suffering, and like resurrection beyond the suffering. With the call of Lazarus to life, Jesus says, “He who trusts in me and my way, will never really die.” Sounds like one who got the last laugh.

Copyright 2007 Gilbert W. Bowen.  Used by permission.