A Tender Balance – Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith Nelson

Ezekiel 37:1-14 & John 11:1-45

Lord, he whom you love is ill.
Mortal, can these bones live?
This illness does not lead to death.
And they lived and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

The words of Scripture we hear on this Fifth Sunday in Lent vibrate with a unique beauty, power, and density. Bones and sinew; breath and skin and stench; illness and tears; rattling and sighing and loud, crying voices; graves opened, hands unbound, feet planted on native soil. These scenes from Ezekiel and the gospel of John captivate us again and again because the intensifying momentum of their drama unfolds amid the props and set pieces of the everyday. These are passages filled with the raw materials of familiar, sensory experience: bones fit together and sinews stretch; tears tremble and spill over; stench assaults and offends; breath makes hair stand on end. Bones and sinew, breath and tears orient us on the way through stories that become slowly less familiar, more surreal, more densely charged with a mysterious meaning rising from the deep. We blink and stare in disbelief as the invisible power, beauty, and density of God’s ways is made visible – so undeniably visible that our gawking melts into gazing as it is met by the unblinking eyes of Love. In John’s vocabulary, this is glory: the manifest presence of God. 

Lord, he whom you love is ill.
Mortal, can these bones live?
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.

At the present moment, in this world and under these circumstances, the poignancy and intensity of these pages in my prayer nearly deafens me; I intuit that the same is true for you. But in this world and under these circumstances – a global crisis whose epicenter is illness – the same poignancy and intensity leaves me disoriented as a preacher. More than disoriented: drowning, out of my depth, struggling to stay afloat and speak a word. Because after that clean and well-lit introduction, I cannot preach the same sermon that I (or any of us) would have preached on the raising of Lazarus at any moment prior to this one. This illness does not lead to death. Jesus, your words are so confident, and usually so reassuring. But I shudder when I imagine how they may sound in the ears of the living relatives and friends of the 30,352 people who have died, among them now the first reported infant death in this country. I ache with a compassion that feels rather impotent for the more than 651, 600 people with the virus, whose healthy friends and relatives are sending forth the message – consciously or unconsciously – Lord, the one whom you love is ill. So I have to grope and fumble, because I am in the dark. Though the way we follow is lit by the one who is Light and Life, there’s a long shadow in my range of vision and I cannot tell where the Light is leading. In such a situation, I can only rehearse what I have known and cherished about this eleventh chapter of John, and the ways it has oriented me toward the one who is the Resurrection. I must take the everyday familiarity that scripture holds out to me, see what mysterious meanings rise from the deep for us, and beg your patience. 

Lord, he whom you love is ill. In the sisters’ message, Lazarus is not identified by name. His primary identity is, then, one beloved by the Lord, like the “beloved disciple” whose iconic presence means so much to us. Secondary to this is his present circumstance: he is ill. The sisters draw attention to the first reality as a way of moving Jesus to act under the circumstances. There are echoes of the words of Jesus’s mother at the wedding in Cana: “They have no wine,” a simple, transparent statement of need with a request for action left implicit, entrusted to the compassionate discernment of Jesus.

But Jesus doesn’t act. Or, rather, he doesn’t seem to. His deliberate delay, his intentional inaction, his shelter-in-place in the place where he was is his way of acting. This is not naïve optimism: Everything is going to be fine, I’ll get there when I get there. This is not paralyzed fear: the denial of an uncomfortable situation and the resulting procrastination. This is: Jesus taking a tragic situation happening to three of his most beloved friends; holding it squarely in both hands; consenting to the inevitable consequences; and choosing to reveal the manifest presence of God in the hopeless aftermath. Lazarus’s illness does not lead to death, but Jesus knows that it will lead through death. Death is not its terminus, but it is a long, dark tunnel through which the train must pass. The gospel writer takes pains to assure us that is he really and truly dead – four days dead, and stinking like death. When Jesus “awakens” Lazarus, this is not a resurrection, because Lazarus will die again, at the end of his natural lifespan. But it is for God’s glory in at least two ways: All who witness it will stand dumbfounded at the undeniable, manifest presence of God in Jesus. And it will be the significant catalyst for the Judean authorities to crucify Jesus. The crucifixion and resurrection share in a seamless, paradoxical glory in John; the glory manifest in the raising of Lazarus sets this final arc of glory in motion. Jesus lays down his life for a friend by bringing that friend back to life in an action that will guarantee his own death. 

With my praying mind I adore the richness, the symmetry, the subtext of this whole passage. In my heart I cling to the promise of ultimate Life that it holds – Life which death cannot touch or tarnish, Life eternal living in us even now by the Spirit of the risen Christ. No virus can change that, however pandemic in its reach. I can only imagine how grateful we will be for Eastertide this year: a whole season to fix our entire hope on the reality of resurrection that defeats death. 

Here and now, as we seek to live day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment on this side of the grave, on this side of Good Friday, and in the shadow of dramatic changes that we cannot yet fit together into a picture that makes sense, there is one element of this story that is speaking a new word to me. It is the words of Mary and Martha to Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” I think it is significant that both sisters are so honest in claiming their version of what-might-have-been. These are transparent confessions of grief. To know someone like Jesus, let alone to be his personal friend, opened them to a new world of joyful possibilities – and in this case, agonizing hope. In the moment when they most needed him to hold open the door of possibility, he was nowhere to be found. They watched the door close and the lock click shut – and as they did, the irony must have been very bitter. Countless strangers had known Jesus’ healing power and had walked away without believing. Yet they, who loved and were loved by him personally, who followed his way and trusted his teaching, were left helpless. 

There is a tender balance of grief and hope held side by side in the hearts of Mary and Martha. There is a tender balance of suffering and trust that speaks to intimately to the present moment. It is the reminder of this tender balance that I have to offer this morning as the good news as I see it. 

Who among us has not buried a Lazarus? Who among us is not burying a Lazarus, or weeping outside his tomb right now? Your Lazarus may be literal. You know someone who has died, or who is dying, or who is in grave danger of death if something does not happen soon. 

Your Lazarus may be someone from whom you are cut off, separated by necessary precaution, by walls or by distance, and the suffering feels like dying because the connection and courage you both need feel impossible to sustain in the space between. 

Your Lazarus may be an opportunity, a way of life, a vocation or a livelihood or that of someone whose life is bound to yours. This opportunity, way of life, vocation or livelihood may now be dead, or dying, or in grave danger of death of something does not happen soon. 

There are other Lazaruses that you and I have yet to discover in the coming months and years. Some will be common to us all. 

At a certain point, it is impossible to maintain hope that is tangible, hope that is meaningful, hope that is Christian, if there is grieving that has not been brought into the light of God’s presence. Feelings of pain or loss buried under naïve optimism or paralyzed fear can lead to an amorphous and generalized grief. At best, the hope that helps us stay sane in such circumstance will be an amorphous and generalized hope – which is not our calling as followers of Christ. Because we are called to a concrete and specific hope – the hope of the Resurrection – we must engage with concrete and specific grief, and help one another to get concrete and specific. Feelings of pain and loss clarified, named, spoken aloud and lamented over have never had more of a role to play in our life of faith, corporately and individually, than right now. Martha and Mary of Bethany are a double icon of the suffering trust of Christian hope in this moment: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now, even now, I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”

Jesus encourages us again and again to enter into his own undaunted hope: “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” But to do this he also enters into our grief: “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved… Jesus began to weep.” In his most tender compassion for the losses we suffer in this human pilgrimage, Jesus sees our tears and makes them his own. Jesus hopes for us and hopes in us because Jesus weeps alongside us and within us. We blink and stare in disbelief as the invisible power, beauty, and density of God’s ways is made visible – so undeniably visible that our gawking melts into gazing at it is met by the unblinking eyes of Love. 

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  1. Brent on March 29, 2021 at 22:43

    A year later, so much loss. The deaths themselves, the lingering illness, the fear. The struggling student I worked with–remotely–this morning, who missed the personal contact with teachers all through this lost year. The businesses and careers, among them my son’s, that may not come back. I try to bring all this to God’s altar, as you suggest. Your words, and Jesus’s tears, give me hope. Thank you.

  2. Sharon on March 29, 2021 at 08:48

    And a year later, the pain is deeper and different as well. I do what I can to keep going. I try to bring some cheer and material comfort where I can. I pray more than I did. Hope comes and goes. Thank you .

  3. Jane C on March 29, 2021 at 07:32

    It is a year later since you wrote and spoke these words — and nearly 550,000 have died in the US alone. I grieve for each life lost and each suffering friend, family member and colleague. My broader grief is for the many acts of vanity, pride, power-seeking and lying that have magnified the virus’ destruction. Yet, I am also grateful for the selflessness, courage and fortitude of the many who worked (and still work) to aid, comfort and heal; to create and deliver vaccines; to sustain all that we need to live within the circumstances of a pandemic; and to tend our spiritual selves as you brothers do.

    Many speak of naming our gratitude — this is the first I’ve been taught to name specific grief. Thank you.

  4. Kate Achelpohl on March 29, 2021 at 06:51

    One year later and the words still ring true. Thank you.

  5. The Rev. Deacon Maryan Davis on April 3, 2020 at 08:04

    This was amazingly honest Brother Keith, and so helpful to those of us identifying with the circumstances.
    My deepest appreciation for your truthful compassionate words.

    • Rick Trites on April 4, 2020 at 08:32

      Thank you,


  6. Jeff McGuire on April 2, 2020 at 14:35

    Thank you!

  7. Bobbi Fisher on April 2, 2020 at 14:33

    Thank you, Brother Keith. And let the people say AMEN.

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