4.6.14 Shedding Old Skin

Lent 5A 2014                                                   April 6, 2014


In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


Here’s a quote to consider from the great 20th century writer and philosopher Albert Camus:  “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”   I love this quote for many reasons, not the least of which is that it speaks to all that long winter weather we’ve just crawled out of.  But I love it also because it’s one of the lessons we might gain from meditating on today’s readings from Scripture.  “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”


But before we get to that nice invincible summer part, first we have to travel through the winter a little more.  We must walk through Valley of the Shadow of Death.  After all, that is the route taken by Lazarus.  It’s also the route taken by the people Israel as they were in exile in Babylon—that is the setting for our first reading about the dry bones from the prophet Ezekiel.


So let’s think about Lazarus walking through that dark place.  Listen to this creepy poem about what it might have been like for him to come back to life in the tomb in the rock.  It’s written by

Angela Alaimo O'Donnell


He knit him self up, a cable-stitch of skin.

Pushed his left eye in its socket, then his right.

Cracked the knuckles in his fingers (now so thin!).

Raised him self from the dirt and stood up right.

.  .  .

He licks his lips and wags his muscled tongue.

Flexes each foot till the warm blood comes.

Turns from the darkness and moves toward the sun.

A step. A shamble. A dead-out run.


I just love the deliciously creepy images in this poem.  I think it’s a successful poem because of these images.  They just grab us and gross us out.  And that’s probably because they play on our innate fear of death and decay.  Our fear of total obliteration.  Our fear that when we end, that’s it, period.


Now, the sculpture that’s pictured on the bulletin cover is similarly creepy.  A friend told me that when she saw it in the chapel in England, it made her nauseated.  She couldn’t look at it for very long or she’d get sick. 


I found myself fascinated by the angle at which the sculptor put Lazarus’ head.  It’s a very weird, almost impossible angle.  But it’s so effective.  When you’re in the dark chapel you realize that Lazarus is looking back at the dark, almost longingly.  His body is headed out into the light but he’s looking back into the dark.  It’s as if he’s of two minds, summoned out into light and life, but yearning for the dark at some level.  Ambivalent.


The gospel story we have today gives us the outline of how Jesus demonstrated his power over death, even before it was his turn to die.  He brought Lazarus back to his family as a sign that God can do anything.  God can break through our boundaries.  God can go beyond the possible, and to the end of our own despair and hopelessness to show that nothing is ever beyond his reach. 


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Lazarus had been dead for 4 days.  That is really significant, as Jewish belief at that time was that the soul hung around the body for 3 days after death, and that after that it was gone.  It was final.  The person was really, irrevocably, dead.  And so Jesus waited till Lazarus was dead 4 days.  He waited until it was a foregone conclusion that there was nothing to be done to change things.  But change things he did.


Jesus went into the area of the impossible.  There is nothing beyond God’s reach.  No desperate situation, no deep well of despair or depression, no impossibility that God cannot reach.


Listen to the reflections of Suzanne Guthrie, who is the priest who led our Deanery-sponsored Lenten Quiet Day a few weeks ago.  She writes,

“I overheard an older friend once describe my early twenties conversion experience this way:  ‘She’s Lazarus come out of the tomb.’  In a way it was true, the first of a series of conversions and awakenings, like a hermit crab molting, leaving behind an exoskeleton time after time and, in successive increments living for something unseen and beyond myself.  Life in Christ demands successive deaths and re-births.  Maturing, growing in consciousness, requires painful re-engagements with life-cycles of rebirth, self-sacrifice, transformation, dying, and being born again.”


And she ends with a great question, “Am I due for another molting?”   [At the Edge of the Enclosure for April 6, 2014, www.edgeofenclosure.org]


I like her image of molting, of shedding skin or growing out of what held us together when we were less mature… and I like it applied to the way we grow spiritually.  Spiritual progress involves hearing a call to grow up a little more, perhaps to recognize painful things about ourselves we’d rather not see.  It involves a huge challenge—which is to accept the uncomfortable truth and do what we can, with God’s help, to change.  It involves shedding old notions and old prejudices once we see that they are no longer healthful.  It most definitely requires the Holy Spirit’s guidance.  It’s an iterative process.  It happens over and over and over again. 


It’s like being called out of a tomb each time we go through one of these spiritual iterations.  Called to shed the old grave clothes and have another, higher shot at LIFE.


So think back to your own experience.  Can you recall some times when you’ve grown out of old skin, old bindings, and been resurrected to a new life?  It may have been a turning point.  It may have been a serious crisis of some kind. 


I hope each one of us has at least one of those experiences, for they produce often-stunning spiritual growth.


And the same is true for parishes and other organizations.  Hitting crises, overcoming challenges, facing truths and hard facts—each one of these kinds of experiences helps a parish mature and own its own mission more and more carefully, with the help of the Holy Spirit.  Each one is an experience of being called forth out of a tomb into a higher life.


And that’s what Albert Camus was talking about when he said:  “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”  Successive times of learning and shedding old skin.  Successive resurrections in this life until that great resurrection in the next.  New summers after winter is gone.


And so I’d like Suzanne Guthrie to have the last word once again.  She writes,

“Once the creative life emerges . . . you can’t go back / any more than you can change your mind about having a baby when you are in labor.  I know I’m called, like Lazarus, to come out of my tomb, to become fully alive, again and again.”