, if you were with us last Sunday, I mentioned how I had been having a rich conversation with our church member, Gordon Stannis, who's here today, about pruning. Gordon is a gardener. And we were talking about how pruning is such a great metaphor for this season of Lent.
Gordon explained to me that when a gardener prunes a plant, they're literally cutting off a part of a living plant. But they're not doing it to harm the plant. They're doing it for the health of the plant, to help it grow stronger, so that the plant can experience new growth and new life.
Such a rich and beautiful metaphor.
So thank you, Gordon, for that. I explained to Gordon that I grew up in New York City. I'm a city kid. So I don't know a lot about plants. Our backyard where I grew up was literally a slab of concrete. Like when my mother said, “Kids! Go out and play!” That's where we played – on the concrete.
So I really wasn't around nature until Gregg and I moved here to Saugatuck. Now, we moved here in the winter. And that very first spring, around this time of year, I had to go to New York. My mother was very ill, and I needed to take care of her. And when I came back that first spring, I noticed there were all these beautiful tulips in front of our house. And I thanked Gregg, said “Gregg, thank you for planting the tulips while I was gone!” And he said I didn't plant those, the previous owners did. And I said, “Well, I'll have to thank them for doing that while I was away, that was so nice of them.” And Gregg said, “No, you fool, the tulips were in the ground, all winter.
And then I went to our backyard – we had a pond back there. Of course it was frozen when I left. Now it was unfrozen. When I looked in the pond, I saw there were fish. And again, I thanked Gregg. “Thank you so much for putting fish in the pond while I was away.” And of course, he explained that they had been there all winter, he didn't put them there.
And I've got to tell you, as strange as it may sound, for those of you who grew up around nature, for me that was such a spiritual awakening. Honestly, that really shook me to my core.
I came to think, “Wow, these plants are sustained in the ground through the cold and the snow, the ice and the darkness, the fish are still alive. How is that possible!” And then I came to understand that the same power that sustains those tulips in the ground, that sustains the fish through the winter is the same power that sustains me through the winter and darkness of my life. The times in my life where I have felt abandoned and hurt, where I have felt barren and lifeless and hopeless. There was a power and a presence that sustained me, the power of the Christ.
When I look out at the trees in the winter, of course they appear barren, they appear dead. There are no leaves on them. But we know they're not dead. They're just in process. I wish we understood that. During those times in our lives when we feel lifeless, it's just part of the process.
Think of a caterpillar that must to go into the cocoon. It needs to die to being a caterpillar in order for it to become a butterfly. And you can't rush it. It's a process. And that is why the church purposely placed Lent during this time of year. Lent is always that time between winter and the beginning of spring. It's a 40-day process to remind us of resurrection and new life.
Now some of you may be familiar with Pastor Rob Bell. Rob got his start right here in West Michigan. He was the pastor of Mars Hill in Grandville, and then went on to become a best selling author and writer, who appeared on Oprah. Rob is a wonderful pastor and writer. And in one of his most recent books, he said this,
“Look at the seasons. In the winter, everything dies. And then in the spring it comes back to life. It literally springs forth. Or take your cells – you have several billion cells in your body right now. And they're constantly dying, while your body is producing new ones to replace them, around 300 million cells in your body die and are replaced every minute. Death is the engine of life. All around us, all the time. This death and life rhythm is built into the fabric of all of creation.”
I love that – death is the engine of life. It's built into the fabric of all of creation. And that's what today's Gospel reading is all about for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, the raising of Lazarus.
Now, this is Jesus's very last miracle, before he himself will be crucified and put to death. And so this foreshadows his own death. Now, if you've been with us through the season of Lent, we're reading from the Gospel of John, and we've been explaining how that gospel is highly symbolic.
John's Gospel was the very last of the Gospels to be written, decades after Jesus lived. It's the only gospel in which we hear about the raising of Lazarus. Now, you would think if Jesus did something so extraordinary as raising someone from the dead, that the earlier gospel writers – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – would have written about it in their gospels. So some theologians have speculated that John's gospel is not really meant to be understood as literal history, but as symbolic stories, spiritual stories.
Now, I really don't know whether it actually happened or not. But to me, it doesn't really matter. Because regardless of how you understand this story, it speaks to a great spiritual truth. And what is that truth? Well, let's look at the symbolism of the story together.
Mary and Martha and Lazarus live in a town called Bethany. It's a symbolic place, the word Bethany means house of sorrows. My friends in our lifetime, we're going to be dwelling in Bethany, we're going to be living in the house of sorrows. We can't escape the human experience without it. Some of you are dwelling in Bethany right now.
Martha and Mary are in sorrow their brother has died. He's ill at this point, and they summon Jesus to come and be with him. And does Jesus drop everything and go running to be with his friend? No. He stays where he was for two more days. He's in no rush, because he understands the process. Now, when he gets there, of course, Martha and Mary are angry that Lazarus has died in that time. And they say to Jesus, “If only you would have been here, my brother wouldn't have died.” How many of us do that? When we're in the house of sorrow? How many of us call out to God for help? We don't get an answer right away. And we're like, where are you? And we see that Jesus weeps. God feels compassion for us. During those times of darkness. God hears our prayers. But maybe God also cries and weeps, because we haven't quite yet learned to trust in the process.
Jesus is saying, I'm with you. I'm here. And what does he do? He says, remove the stone. So that's my question for you. Today on the fifth Sunday in Lent. What's your stone? What is blocking you from the light, from experiencing life to the full?
Is it anger? Is it resentment? Is it lack, limitation? What is the block? You have to identify it. You have to call it out before you can remove it. And then after Jesus calls it out, it says he lifted up his eyes, which means he went to a place of higher consciousness.
Once we identify our block, we go to a place of higher consciousness, and prayer and meditation. And in that higher place, what do we do? We do what Jesus said, “Come out, Lazarus!”
We call forth the light that is within us. The name Lazarus is also symbolic. It means the one whom God has helped. You, my friends, you’re Lazarus, the one whom God has helped. If you look back on the times in your life when you were living in darkness, the power and presence of God was with you, even if you weren't aware of it. That's why Jesus says, “Here I am, the resurrection and the life.”
He's not speaking personally as Jesus of Nazareth, the “I” isn't a personal pronoun. He's speaking from his Christ nature, that “I am” that great “I am.” That's the resurrection and the life, that power in presence of the Christ. That's the power that keeps the tulip bulbs alive in the winter. That's the power that keeps the fish breathing in the winter, in the ice. It's the power that is with the caterpillar in the cocoon as it transforms into the butterfly.
And it is the power and presence that is with you and within you when you are going through the winters the darknesses of your life.
And so my friends, as we journey toward Holy Week, may you find time each and every day, to lift up your eyes, to rise up, to go to a place of higher consciousness where you can call out, summon forth your light. For the power, the presence, the light and life of God is with you. And within you. Summon it forth and be set free.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration & Guidance
Rev. Kelly Isola
The story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead is a wonderful Hebrew allegory that offers a way to see how we can engage with unimaginable challenges in life—moving through the fear, grief, and uncertainty accompanying any journey of transformation. The narrative invites us to ask, “How do I move through something that appears to be impossible?” One day everything is right with the world—the relationship is solid, the job is fun, life is meaningful and rewarding, and there are no clouds on the horizon to threaten your sense of well-being and flow of blessings. Then suddenly life begins to unwind and nothing is secure, not even life itself. Chaos and fear reign, you are rocked to your core, and nothing seems right with your world. Growing up Catholic, I walked the Stations of the Cross each year during Lent, one of the oldest devotions in Christianity. They are 14 depictions of Jesus’ final hours. We would walk silently and slowly, stopping at each one. The Stations represent the universal understanding of the presence of pain we all experience in life. We all endure suffering, dying daily to things in life in order to be brought to a resurrection of living life more fully and abundantly. In Jesus’ journey, he suffered injustice, and betrayal, had his faith challenged, and felt alone, and afraid. However, time and again he met someone to help him carry his burden, affirm his faith, wash his wounds, remind him he wasn’t alone, wipe away his tears, and give him the strength to take another step. Do we not experience the same things in our own lives? Every difficulty in life calls us to look again with new eyes, to stretch our souls beyond what we can imagine. Doing the impossible means awakening to the power of God acting in and through us. It’s a journey that stretches beyond what we know, but ultimately brings us to a place of wholeness, resurrection, and new life.
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