Today we hear how Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Of all the stories unique to Saint John’s gospel, it’s the one most familiar to us. It’s what the Church wants us to focus on right before Holy Week, because Lazarus anticipates Christ’s own Resurrection. But in many ways it’s a difficult story for us, because you and I have trouble believing in miracles, believing in this case that our Lord could bring the dead back to life. Some try to get around its meaning by speculating that Lazarus only appeared to be dead, that he was really just in a deep coma. But that’s unsatisfying, because it’s so obviously an attempt to get around the clear thrust of the passage. + + +

Because of these difficulties, I want to tell you about Emily, a woman I knew 30 years ago, and then only for a month. Throughout her 49 years, Emily had managed to drink herself very close to death. Now she had come into the New Hampshire hospital where I was a chaplain, probably for her last admission. Her liver was failing, and her skin had turned an almost brilliant orange hue from the jaundice. That was bad enough, but Emily made it so much worse.

For Emily was the most self-centered, manipulative, and repellant human being I have ever met. The nurse warned me before I went to call on her the first time: “She’s the most impossible patient we’ve ever had.” From the moment she glimpsed my clerical collar, Emily began spewing forth complaints about her home parish and the many alleged failings of her rector. After ten minutes, having temporarily exhausted that topic, she moved on to the hospital staff, who were—in Emily’s view—falling far short of her standards of care. This was only a mild preview. Over the next three weeks I was treated daily to Emily’s stream of vituperation against her whole world. Never once in those three weeks did I hear her say anything good about anyone else.

Never before, or since, have I felt that I was so clearly in the presence of a person possessed by evil. Her family life was a shambles, of course, with two grown daughters to whom she hadn’t spoken in years. Within a few days, the malevolence had begun to work its way through the hospital, with fights breaking out between staff on the normally happy floor. It infected me, too, as I became more and more irritable and depressed during my daily hospital rounds.

Emily had been in the hospital for three weeks when, at two o’clock on Sunday morning, the night nurse called to say that Emily wanted to see me. Now two o’clock on Sunday morning is not a time when we clergy normally rejoice in phone calls. “Is she dying?” I asked, rather hopefully. “I don’t think so,” the nurse replied, “but I think you’d better come.” There’s lots of room in a hospital parking lot at two-thirty in the morning. As soon as I got up to the floor, I sensed that something had changed. When I paused to speak to the nurse, she said, very gently, “You’re not going to believe it.”
When I walked into her room, Emily was still the same frightening orange color, but now, for the first time, she was smiling. Immediately she reached out and took my hand and said, “I’m sorry to call you out at this hour. But, you see, I had to tell you. God came to me tonight. And my whole life is different.”

And her life was different, for she had become, almost literally, a new person. That night we talked for two hours, because she couldn’t stop listing all those things for which she was now thankful. I kept asking her about her experience of God, but she brushed aside my questions, saying that no one else could ever understand. She had been alone, it had happened about midnight, and a feeling of great peace had come over her. That was as much as I could ever learn.

But it was enough. Without being told, everyone noticed the change, even the orderly who swept out her room each day. By that same Sunday evening she had become reconciled with her two daughters. The next day—I remember her words very clearly, because I wrote them down as soon as I left her room—Emily said to me, “If the miracle should happen, and I should live, I’ll have to fight against arrogance every day of my life.” She was already worried that she might someday hold onto her experience as a sign of spiritual superiority.

Emily died four days later. The miracle that she had prayed for did not happen. But one had already occurred. When her daughters and I buried her ashes on a Vermont hillside the following Monday, both women told me again and again how grateful they were for the change in their mother. They saw it as a miracle. And it’s because of Emily that I, too, can believe in miracle, even in one as great as the raising of Lazarus.

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Now whether you believe in miracle or not, look at the way John ends his account: “The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’” These words of Jesus, it seems to me, are the point of the whole story. The newly revived Lazarus wasn’t free yet—he was swaddled in cloth bandages. Emily wasn’t free—she was locked in by an anger that had festered into an evil force. You and I aren’t free, either—we’re captives of our own hurt and sin. When Jesus says to his disciples, “Unbind him, and let him go,” I think he’s speaking to us. 

God freed Emily in a dramatic way. Notice how she responded to her freedom—that same day she reconciled herself with her daughters. You and I have only have two weeks of Lent left, but that’s more time than Emily had. Let’s use these two weeks to reconcile ourselves with those whom we have hurt, or who have hurt us. Let’s free them, and ourselves, from the prisons that our anger and resentment have erected. Let’s pull down those walls, for only then will we be ready, all of us together, to celebrate the Resurrection of Our Lord on Easter Sunday morning. Amen. 

Last Updated on Wednesday, 20 May 2009 13:33

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