Introduction and Call to Worship
Welcome to St Mary’s Vicarage for our Eucharistic Sunday worship. Even though we can’t gather today in our beautiful and historical church building, we share together as the body of Christ, the Church in a spiritual encounter with Jesus present among us. However much we are struggling in the face of the coronavirus crisis, each one of us can embrace and enjoy the possibilities of heaven.
First Reading Ezekiel 37:1-14
Israel has lost hope. They say that their bones have dried up. But Ezekiel has a vision of God taking those bones, clothing them with flesh and breathing life into them. A message of hope for a hopeless people.
Second Reading Romans 8:6-11
Paul explains to the Roman Christians that even though the power of sin and death is strong, the Spirit of Christ has conquered death and will win out in each one of them.
Gospel John 11:1-45
Jesus’ friend Lazarus dies, and Mary and Martha send for him. Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead and restores him to his family in an echo of Jesus’ own death and resurrection soon to come.
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (John 11:32)
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that life often surprises me. Just when you think things are a bit sorted, running nicely, something happens that changes everything, many things that I know I have taken for granted. Our lives have been turned upside down by COVID-19, with the impact across the world; a shared experience that scientist have warned about for decades. The response is that we, as individuals and families must be responsible for our actions. We must stay home and prevent the virus spreading – because that’s the point, the virus can’t spread itself, we do that for it. But this great need for self-restraint, staying home, brings with it all sorts of challenges, not least for charities such as Runnymede Foodbank and our Church community as we seek to relieve the struggle of social isolation. No doubt some are already feeling imprisoned in their own homes; not least those who don’t have access to the internet, the sick and those who receive care. I am blessed to live in a Vicarage with a large garden front and back (and much to be done at this time of year) but many others don’t have the privilege of outside space.
Today’s bible readings with the great prophet Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones and John’s Gospel and the raising of Lazarus by Jesus, speak into our current struggles. There is mourning – I fear much more to come, with the potential for many of us to be touched by the loss of loved ones. There is isolation, and a cry from our hearts which echoes the words of poor Martha, “Lord, if only you had been here.” Jesus is here, with us when we gather to pray and our Lord knows things in John’s Gospel that no-one else knows, just as he knows and hears the cry of our hearts. There are so many examples of Jesus knowing in the Gospels: Jesus knows all about Nathaniel before he meets him; our Lord knows about the various relationships of the woman of Samaria at the well; he knows how to feed the five thousand hungry people before the challenge is even raised by the disciples. And today, Jesus knows he will demonstrate God’s power even over death by raising Lazarus. He even delays going to the home of Mary and Martha in order to strengthen his point. Like many households today, there is very real pain, genuine fear, and grief in Bethany. People are asking why? Then, Jesus finally arrives, and he finds a family mourning for his friend Lazarus. Martha challenges him: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Perhaps we too have asked God a similar question at various times in our life and struggle. But Martha qualifies this question. She adds: “even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him”.
Jesus announces that her brother will rise again, and Martha, bravely trying to match what she believes (that is, that Jesus can do anything) with what she knows (that her brother is dead, and dead people usually stay that way), opts to understand that Lazarus will rise on the last day. But perhaps even in her grief she does honestly believe, because she goes on to make a statement of faith: “You are the Messiah.” We see something of our Lord’s own human condition, when the Gospel writer notes, “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” And, “Jesus began to weep.” (John 11: 33, 35) Jesus, our window onto God knows the depths of our hearts, our human condition. Therefore, God knows. The story of Lazarus shows us God weeps in the face of human pain and suffering, that God knows. The same God who longs to be in relationship with each one of us, knows. As people of faith, we often tread a tricky line between what we know we should believe and the reality of human life and times like this are just such an example, when everything is tested.
But in the story of Lazarus and Jesus’ tears we catch a glimpse of what is at the heart of our faith: God among us, the ultimate connection between the omnipotence of God and our own lives. This doesn’t answer all our questions or make it easier to understand why some things happen the way they do, but it does show us something essential if we are to survive this world: in our ongoing task of understanding how what we believe tallies with what we know, divine love is moved to tears. God’s otherness meets us, when we pray, when we join with others from our homes to worship, to reflect, to seek a spiritual re-charge of our waning batteries. God knows, God loves. Jesus loves us.
Friends in faith, there is nothing we can’t achieve if we are faithful in our prayers. The church may be scattered, but through technology, neighbourliness, kindness and compassion we can both keep ourselves and our families safe and reach out in love and faith to others. We may feel physically alone, but we need not be spiritually lonely as Jesus knows our innermost thoughts and fears and longs to comfort our hearts, to weep when we are weeping and to raise us in time to the glory of his eternal Kingdom. Amen.