Hope strong enough for any pandemic

Today’s gospel reading that tells the story of Jesus raising a dead man seems especially timely during the COVID-19 pandemic.[1]

Morton Kelsey was an Episcopal priest, psychologist, and professor whose work focused on the spiritual life. In his book, The Other Side of Silence, he recounts an incident that occurred after he had preached for two consecutive Sundays on the story of Lazarus. Kelsey began his sermons by reminding his congregation that Jesus taught primarily by telling stories and parables. He then interpreted John 11 as a story that Jesus had told rather than as a factual narrative of Jesus literally restoring a dead Lazarus to life.[2] More than a century of oral transmission that crossed several generations, at least two cultures, and two languages can help to explain the conflation of a teaching story with actual historical people.

A young man whom Fr. Kelsey had been counseling – unsuccessfully - heard the sermons and, at his next counseling session recounted a dream he had had. In the dream, one of the young man's brothers has died

… and [Jesus] stood by the casket and raised the dead youth back to life. With only a little prompting, he realized that it was a part of himself that had died, and he soon found that it was his capacity to reach out to another with love and caring. He then went at the job of making the dream a reality, of bringing that capacity within himself back to life, and he was successful. The Biblical story unfolded in its deep meaning, and the parallel dream brought the young man to himself and was a turning point in his life. He learned to love, and his whole life changed. He came alive.[3]

By offering no hint why Lazarus died, this memorable story draws us into the narrative, implicitly inviting us to identify with Lazarus. Consider these evocative metaphors. The dead Lazarus was shut in a tomb, wrapped in burial shrouds. He had been dead for so long that he had begun to stink. If we're completely honest, who amongst us is not at least partially dead, perhaps feeling trapped in a tomb or tied up in unhealthy relationships for so long that we have begun to stink?

Importantly, the story offers clues about how we, like Lazarus, can experience a spiritual transformation to restore us to the fullness of life. First, remember Mary and Martha. New life comes when someone believes that the dead can be restored to life. Second, restoring the dead to life requires love. Jesus loved Lazarus. Third, healing love comes from God, the source of life and love.

When you feel more dead than alive, remember Lazarus. Enlist help - find your own Martha and Mary – and then reach out to God anticipating God’s loving, life-giving embrace. May Lazarus' story be our story, today and always. Amen.

Reflection offered at the Parish of St. Clement, Fifth Sunday in Lent
Honolulu, HI, March 29, 2020

[1] John 11:1-45.
[2] For a similar interpretation, cf. Philip Gulley, If the Church Were Christian: Rediscovering the Values of Jesus (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), Ch. 10.
[3] Morton T. Kelsey, The Other Side of Silence (Matawan, NJ: Paulist Press, 1976), p. 267.


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