The Fifth Sunday in Lent
March 26, 2023
In the final chapter of his book The God We Never Knew, theologian Marcus Borg traces the meaning of salvation in the Bible. Borg titled this chapter “Salvation: What on Earth Do We Mean?” to make the point that the primary biblical understanding of salvation has to do with our present life – not with an afterlife. In the Hebrew scriptures, a belief in life after death is not clearly stated until the book of Daniel, only about 165 years before the birth of Jesus. The Christian scriptures also affirm the belief in an afterlife, but that’s not what salvation means. Borg says, “
An initial clue is provided by the linguistic root of the English word. Salvation comes from the same root as ‘salve,’ a healing ointment. Salvation thus has to do with healing the wounds of existence. This is no small matter, for the wounds of existence are many and deep. Some of these wounds are inflicted on us, some are the result of our own doing, and some we inflict on others.
The scriptures use many images for salvation, Borg says, in terms of both God’s actions with us and our experience. Images like liberation from bondage – think of the Exodus; reconciliation after being separated from a person or a community to which we belong – this is the Exile and return. Other images are salvation as forgiveness; as knowing God directly, the way one knows a person in relationship; and salvation as the kingdom of God, the image Jesus used most often, which is both a vision of a future society and a powerful reality, already present here and now.
During this Lenten season we have heard stories from John’s gospel that give us four more images of salvation.
On the second Sunday of Lent we heard the story of Nicodemus, to whom Jesus says, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” This is salvation as rebirth.
The third Sunday gave us the image of living water, in the story of the Samaritan woman. “Those that drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.”
Last Sunday we heard about salvation as enlightenment, in the healing of the man born blind. Jacqie’s sermon enlightened us about “the wonderful interplay of so many possible ways of seeing and being blind,” including physical, psychological, social, and spiritual.
Today’s story of the death of Lazarus presents another image: salvation as resurrection. In the scriptures resurrection, like salvation, sometimes refers to a life beyond physical death. But it can also mean renewal in the midst of this life. Borg says,
For this image of salvation, death has a twofold meaning. On the one hand, death is the corresponding image of the human condition: we can be “dead” in the midst of life. Jesus spoke of people who live in the land of the dead when he said, “Leave the dead to bury the dead” (Luke 9:60). … On the other hand, death is also a metaphor for the means of entry into resurrection life. One must die to an old way of being in order to enter a new way of being. 
In the gospel story, when Jesus hears that Lazarus is sick, he says, “This sickness will not end in death; it is happening for God’s glory, so that God’s Only Begotten may be glorified because of it.” Lazarus is dead already when Jesus says this, but he knows that the end of this will not be death, but the glory of God. Also, Jesus is aware that the events told in this chapter are going to set the religious leaders in their determination to kill Jesus.
It seems that, as with blindness and sight, there are many possible ways of being dead or alive.
I wonder, what is dead and rotting inside me, that Jesus calls to come out into the light of day and be unbound and set free?
My older brother, David, has a chronic illness. Although his illness sometimes causes physical symptoms, it primarily affects his thoughts and moods and behavior. He has some disability, to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the current phase of his illness and, often, depending on who is making the judgment of disability and what questions they are asking.
Where am I holding unconscious assumptions buried within me – assumptions about class, race, gender, age, or ability – that keep certain people outside of my circle of love?
To tell you about David’s diagnosis, I’m going to read a quote from the book Bipolar Expeditions: Mania and Depression in American Culture, by anthropologist Emily Martin. She writes:
I deliberately use the phrase “living under the description of manic depression (or bipolar disorder)” to refer to people who have received this medical diagnosis. The phrase is meant to reflect the social fact that they have been given a diagnosis. At the same time, it calls attention to another social fact: the diagnosis is only one description of a person among many. 
This quote appears in a book titled Finding Jesus in the Storm: The Spiritual Lives of Christians with Mental Health Challenges, by John Swinton. Much of the book is about how we describe things. Swinton says, “For the ways in which we describe the world determine what we think we see. What we think we see determines how we respond … . How we respond to what we think we see is a measure of our faithfulness. Language and description matter.”  He says that Emily Martin’s use of the phrase living under a description means that “bipolar disorder” is only one among many descriptions that can be made of the life of a person.
“It is quite possible,” Swinton says, “to argue that factors in mental health challenges are biological and cultural and spiritual–all at the same time. Nevertheless, we give certain descriptions more social and clinical power than others.” 
I have been David’s part-time caregiver for the past 10½ years, and the time and attention and care that I give him have varied based on his condition of the moment and on my understanding of his needs, which can be mistaken. Along the way I’ve made lots of judgments about his illness and abilities, and I’ve worked with the best answers I could find.
Last month, David left the nursing home where he had been living for the past two years. The nursing home was one of my mistakes. It seemed like the only option at a time when he was too depressed to get out of bed, at all.
The social worker called me at about 4:00 p.m. on February 16th, when he was at the door carrying a heavy backpack, ready to go. I spoke with him briefly, and later the nursing home discharged him after making him sign a form stating that he was leaving against medical advice. His plan was to take Greyhound buses to Phoenix, but first he spent a week in a D.C. hotel. Finally, on February 22nd or 23rd, he boarded a bus heading west. With many adventures and missed buses along the way, he ended up in Oklahoma City.
Three of David’s friends are involved in this story. There’s Andy, in Phoenix, who had invited David to come live with him until, frustrated with some of David’s behavior, he withdrew the invitation. There’s Kevin, in Los Angeles, whom David had known in South Korea in the 1980s, who then immigrated to the United States. When David was teaching at Chosun University in South Korea he had several months annual vacation, and he spent much of that time with Kevin and his family in Los Angeles. Finally there is Michael, in Hong Kong, another longtime friend. Michael started a group chat on WhatsApp for himself, Andy, and me, which he named “David’s Search Team.”
While still in the nursing home, David told Michael that he had stopped taking his medications, spitting out the pills when the nurse wasn’t looking. He also started going out on his own without permission. I knew about this because I would get calls from the staff. It’s not a locked facility, so they couldn’t stop him. One night he stayed out at a bar until 3:00 a.m., as he confessed to me the following morning. Ironically, because he was sound asleep when I arrived that morning, he missed a scheduled meeting that he had requested with his social worked in order to get official permission for his outings. I met with the social worker myself and told her what I observed, that his symptoms of mania were increasing.
In the early days of David’s Greyhound bus journey, Andy and Michael were sending him money, trying to facilitate his getting to Phoenix or Los Angeles. Kevin, who owes David money, was making deposits for him but refusing to receive him in Los Angeles. David’s plans changed every day. At one point, he had flown to Denver but had to return to Oklahoma City because his luggage was still there.
By March 6th, he had lost everything that connects a person to the structures of society: his Maryland ID card, his cell phone, his credit card, his debit card. On March 10th, he was at the Oklahoma City airport asking Andy for money to fly to Phoenix. The next day, he picked up a Tracfone that Andy had bought for him at a Best Buy store, but Andy was not successful in talking David through setting up the phone. He told me that David couldn’t hear him. I suspect also that David’s mind was racing so fast that he couldn’t follow the steps Andy tried to communicate.
So many of our problems start with miscommunication. First we don’t hear what each other is saying, and then we don’t understand the other one. This happens to me every day when I try to communicate with my husband.
Last Sunday David called me from a restaurant where they let him use the phone, and asked me to send him his passport. I’m in possession of his only valid form of identification, and it doesn’t feel safe to me to send it to whatever address he gives me. Love doesn’t mean no boundaries. I think it does mean that I set my boundaries thoughtfully and communicate them clearly and kindly.
So I told him to call me again when he has decided that he really wants to stop drinking. In the past, I’ve made that decision for him, and it hasn’t worked. In Al-Anon Family Groups, where I am a grateful member, I have learned that when my thoughts begin with “He should” or “She shouldn’t” I am off track. To quote from the Al-Anon book Courage to Change, “I don’t know what is best for others because I don’t know the lessons their Higher Power is offering them. I only know that, if I’m caught up in what they should or should not do, I have lost my humility.” 
What is the loving response? What would Jesus do? The only thing I’m fairly certain Jesus would do is to respond to this one person, in all their complex mix of ability and disability, with the healing love that this person needs.
To what person does Jesus respond, in the gospel story? To Lazarus? I don’t think so. Lazarus is dead and buried. Let’s look again at verses 32 to 35.
11:32 When Mary got to Jesus she fell at his feet and said, “If you had been here, Lazarus never would have died.”
11:33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the other mourners as well, he was troubled in spirit, moved by the deepest emotions.
11:34 “Where have you laid him?” Jesus asked. “Come and see,” they said.
11:35 And Jesus wept.
Jesus is deeply moved. There is a lot of scholarly commentary on the translation of these verses, especially the word that describes what Jesus is feeling. He is not just sad – his reaction is a visceral, gut-wrenching one. And Jesus weeps. To make sure we don’t miss the meaning of this, in the next verse John tells us the other mourners said, “See how much he loved him!”
How might God be calling me to grow in love?
Several years ago, Peter wrote “A Practice for Lent” and printed it on a business-size card. The practice lists six actions. In closing, I would like to read each action and add a little prayer.
Learn to know that the real issue is within. Jesus, wherever we are dead within, call us out to life and love in your Spirit.
Develop the capacity to take hostility. Help me to set boundaries with courage and kindness, and to let go of my need to be right.
Learn to accept others as they are. Keep me mindful that the person next to me is a sacred being.
Practice sorting little issues from big ones. Jesus, calm the storm of my fears.
Be willing to fail … and let others fail. Do not let my discomfort stop me from walking alongside em.
Care for people … all people … and may we all be united in love. Amen.
 Marcus J. Borg, The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), 157.
 Ibid., 164.
 Emily Martin, Bipolar Expeditions: Mania and Depression in American Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 10.
 John Swinton, Finding Jesus in the Storm: The Spiritual Lives of Christians with Mental Health Challenges (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2020), 3-4.
 Ibid., 12, italics in original.
 Courage to Change: One Day at a Time in Al-Anon II (Virginia Beach, VA: Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., 1992), 79.