Names carry a very important function in our world. They not only identify us, sometimes they can describe or define a moment for us. Our parents chose our names for us which gives us an identity we spend the rest of our lives trying to understand, and I don't think we can ever forget the voice of our parents when we hear our name called. Our names are also used at baptism, when we are called by name to faith in Jesus Christ. Sometimes names are used to define times, like the Elizabethan Era, or more close to home COVID-19. Just saying the name releases all the fear, exhaustion, and challenge of what we are facing like a tsunami. I also believe, like Pope Francis in his extraordinary Urbi et Orbi Blessing on Friday, a rare blessing usually reserved for Christmas, Easter, and the election of a new pope only, that this time, this challenge, this COVID-19 pandemic has exposed each of us as emperors without clothes, at the invitation to live differently because of what we are experiencing.
You see friends, society teaches us that we should be self sufficient, we should be able to cope, to produce, and to achieve. We should be emperors of our own worlds, and yet in order to achieve this we often have to wear clothes, which are masks and images of ourselves to show the world who we are. How we dress matters, what we drive matters, how we eat matters, who we socialize with matters. And so we develop coping mechanisms to protect ourselves from the cruel reality of our world, a world where death, poverty, isolation, fear, and failure are all around us and in this moment. However in the face of COVID-19, we are starting to see how the clothes that we’ve chosen to wear to cope with the world don’t work. We are left bare in the face of this challenge, as we are learning to live differently in a deeper proximity to God, a position which is echoed in our readings this morning.
The death of Lazarus is one of those really human moments that we will all experience. At some point in our lives, we will be touched by the death of someone we love and it will crush us. This is the same feeling that Mary and Martha experience, and yet our scripture often makes it seem like it's another gentle scene of Christ teaching or even foretelling his own resurrection. However it's not that at all. The only real connection I believe that exists in the text with the crucifiction is the deep and human pain of separation felt, and that eternal question that often comes in response to death, God can’t exist when this kind of void exists. If God cared about us, he would have stopped this. What is telling is Christ’s response to this immense wall of human doubt and fear. He doesn't launch into some well spoken teaching on how to live, rather he cries. This is the shortest and most human sentence in all of scripture. Jesus wept. But his tears held more than just anguish, they held promise. A promise of proximity which has called you and I by name.
Throughout this story we hear and see signs of God's proximity of faithfulness to us, from the trust of Christ, to the belief of the disciples- while not wholly formed, to finally Lazarus walking out of the tomb after being in there four days. Throughout these moments, God has been with us in the tumult of human existence, with Mary and Martha in their grief, grieving alongside them. With the disciples as they try to follow Jesus, and finally with Jesus as he continues to put his whole trust in the mission God has given him to do among us, which is to show us how close God truly is to us. But what we needed on this last Sunday before Holy Week, in the midst of this pandemic, was a tomb moment, to have the rock of our own tombs, or places of death and fear, to be rolled away and be called out by name into the new life of God's faithful proximity to us. Yes, new life, even in the midst of COVID-19.
Even in the midst of COVID-19, we are seeing signs of God's faithfulness, God's presence with us in this. From the tireless work of our health care professionals, first responders, the janitors of our hospitals and care homes, and all those who take care of us, to our incredibly strong and inspirational provincial and national health advisory doctors to our elected civic, provincial and national leaders who are taking wise counsel and seeking to make the best decisions they can for our safety, to even you and I who are finally listening to the advice and staying home. We see God's proximity to us. We see this because of these individuals' desire to not abandon us or those who need care, just as you and I have chosen not to abandon each other. We find new ways to worship and to keep in touch, in the same way God has done for us over the generations. There are those who will see these restrictions as an infringement on our rights to be our own emperors, to be in control of our own lives, but I also thought that when my parents told me not to put my hand on the hot stove coil, until I did, and realized they were right and restricted me not to punish me but to keep me safe. God’s desire to be close to us, to be with us in this, is about being connected to us and helping us flourish in who and what we are. The greatest glory that God can ever proclaim is in seeing us totally connected to him, and free to who God made us to be in the vitality of our deepest passions. The glory of God is a human fully alive, alive in him who loved us into love. And he does this, like the gospel this morning, by calling us out of our tombs of fear and anxiety, of death and punishment, and into the newness of a world where we thrive when everyone thrives because we refuse to leave anyone behind, where life is sacred, the homeless have names, children laugh with joy, and all of our tables groan with an abundance of food almost too great to fathom. And this is not a pipe dream, it is totally possible.
You and I, together, are called to be witnesses to this proximity of God in the midst of the darkness we now feel all around us, and it is work we are already doing. We are calling each other, finding new ways to be together in community, shopping and helping each other, while taking this situation very seriously and listening to our health authorities about protocol and risk mitigation. Hearing your voices on the phone over the last week, or getting an email from you has illumined my heart, it has reminded me that this screen that is between us is not a barrier but a window into the possible, a possible that is showing not just us but the world that our voices are not in vain, that good things are happening. Social isolation is slowing the spread. Cities around the world are stopping at night to stand on their balconies and clap or cheer to show appreciation and solidarity for all the healthcare practitioners who are fighting on our behalf. Neighbours are checking on neighbours. Strangers are shopping for strangers, and while we are still anxious at the cough or the mask, still fearful of the name COVID-19 or even opening our door, God’s faithfulness is shining through all around us.
We may be able to close a building, but we cannot close the people of God, and this worship is a clear and abiding example of our faithfulness to God in a world that says death and fear are the only option, yet they have no dominion over us. Resurrection is real and is coming, not just in the life hereafter, but in our lives in the midst of this challenge. Today we roll away the stones over our own deaths, our fears, our isolation, or unknown, and we hear our names called out once more into a resurrected life. A life which shows the world the proximity of God's faithfulness because of how we choose to live in the midst of this challenge. Christ calls you and I from our tombs today, how will you respond?