The collect and readings for the Fifth Sunday in Lent may be found here. The appointed gospel is John 11:1-45, the raising of Lazarus.
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 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.”
Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
We called him Stinky George. He was a homeless man, unemployed, and often sick. He would occasionally show up at church. He liked the air conditioning, the pot-luck lunches, and the communion wine. On this particular Sunday he sat down right in front of me. I scooted down a bit. When the children came in from Sunday School my son passed right behind Stinky George. “Dad, something smells,” he said in a loud four year old’s voice. “Randy,” I whispered, “come sit down.” “Something stinks! What is it?” he continued. “Let’s just scoot down here,” I whispered. “Do you smell it too,” he asked. “Yes.” “Well, what is it?”
If I had been honest, really honest, I would have said, “Randy, that is the smell of homelessness and poverty. That is the smell of hunger and loneliness. That is the smell of alcoholism and illness. That is the smell of one who has no place to bathe and in many ways no reason to bathe. Randy, that is the smell of death.
In George the smell of death seemed more real than the fragrance of life. So most of us stayed away, afraid that the stink would get on us. What we did not know, did not want to know or admit, is that it was already within us. George was just more honest about it. If we really looked at our lives we would have seen the reality of death. It was there in our divorces and broken relationships, in our wounds and betrayals, in our fears, in our anger and resentment, in our addictions, in our sorrow and despair, in our excessive busyness and preoccupation with success, in things done and left undone. Deaths wraps around us like strips of cloth, grave clothes, and it stinks.
It seems death permeates our lives and world. Like Stinky George, it is in us. It hangs like a cloud over Japan. It blows through Afghanistan, Libya, the Ivory Coast, and countless other places filled with war and violence. It wafts into our lives taking those we love and cherish.
We want to avoid it. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” Martha and Mary say. But Jesus wasn’t there, at least not in the way they wanted. He wasn’t there for a purpose; so that they and we might believe. Believe what? The fragrance of life is greater than the stench of death. That is the choice before us every time we meet death whether it is in us, in others, or in the world. Do we trust the smell of death more than the fragrance of life?
It seems those gathered at the tomb trust the stench more than the fragrance. “Take away the stone,” Jesus says. His words echo Ezekiel’s prophecy that God will open our graves, bring us up from those graves, put his spirit within us, and we shall live. All of this happens in Jesus, the one who is resurrection and life. Martha protests. Death has filled her nostrils. “Lord already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” We too have said that. “He’s beyond help. It’s his own fault. Leave him alone. She’s always been like that; she’ll never change. It’s hopeless. It will always be like this. No matter what I do, how hard I try, nothing happens.” Our words may be different but the meaning is the same. Those are words of death, words that say we trust the stench more than the fragrance.
Jesus does not deny that death stinks. It does. It always has. Instead Jesus asks us to release the life, the fragrance, that is wrapped in death. “Unbind him, and let him go,” Jesus commands. To unbind another or let ourselves be unbound means we must trust the perfume of life more than the stink. They did that for Lazarus. With each strip of cloth they removed death trembled, knowing its days were numbered. The unbinding of Lazarus was a death sentence for death. That sentence was carried out in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ.
Every day we smell death and every day we have the opportunity, by the grace of God, to change and be changed, to unbind and be unbound, to let go and be let go.
I sometimes wonder what happened to Stinky George. More often I wonder what would have happened if I had followed Jesus’ words rather than my nose. What would have happened if I had invited George to lunch one day? What if I had helped George find an AA meeting, and the social services that could have provided medical care, a place to live, and food to eat. What if I had said, “George, tell me the stories you are always telling but that I have never listened to. I want to know you and your life.” What if when it came time to exchange the peace I put my arms around him, pulled him close and said, “The peace of Christ be with you.” I wonder what I would have unbound in George. I wonder what George would have unbound in me.