September 22, 2019

“In Memory”

By Rev. Katrina Pekich-Bundy

John 11.1-44

Jeremiah 8.18-9.1

September 22, 2019

In seminary I was required, along with my peers, to be in CPE, or Clinical Pastoral Education. This is training as a chaplain, typically in a hospital setting. The work included visiting people in hospital rooms, those who had gone through chemotherapy, who had just gone through surgery, those who were in the emergency room, and any other reason you can imagine being in a hospital. Our classes involved lessons on death and life issues and grief. Each morning we sat in a classroom together before we did our rounds, and before we began, we were to recite a scripture verse that we had memorized. I remember some of my colleagues joked about memorizing one of the passages we read today – John 11.35: “Jesus wept.” They memorized it because it is the shortest verse in the Bible – just two words – and simple to remember. It may be the shortest, but certainly has much to unpack in those two words.

I thought of this as I reread this scripture passage at the Summer Institute of Theology and Disability conference I attended in May. At this event I heard a new interpretation of the Lazarus passage. You might know the traditional reading of this story. Lazarus becomes ill, and his sisters, good friends of Jesus, call him to come back and heal Lazarus. Jesus does not seem too worried, or at least is not in a hurry. When he returns, Lazarus is dead, and Jesus raises him from the dead, stating that Jesus is “the resurrection.” We see not only that Jesus has this power to raise the dead, but also know that Jesus’ death and resurrection are just around the corner.[1] This is not about Lazarus’ death, but the healing and resurrecting power of Jesus. Resurrection means that god overcomes death.

Of course, the passage does not tie up nicely, and we are left with questions. Did Lazarus die again after he was resurrected? Can we explain this miracle scientifically? Did it really happen? Recently at a meeting I heard someone say: “If you came to live in a tomb, this isn’t the place for you.” I believe this is good news for the church – if you came to a faith community expecting to live in a tomb, to be stuck in a spiral of negativity that does not build the body of Christ up, then this isn’t the place for you. The message of Christ leads to resurrection, not death as an end. If you came for life abundant, this is definitely the place for you!

So, as I remembered these passages we had to memorize for CPE, I listened to Dr. Talitha Cooreman at the Summer Institute speak about a new way to look at this passage.[2] She began by citing Jean Vanier, a man who worked with people with intellectual disabilities, especially in faith communities. Vanier died earlier this year. He suggested that perhaps Lazarus had an intellectual disability. Dr. Cooreman built on that, suggesting specifically that Lazarus might have had dementia or Alzheimer’s. This is an interesting way to view this passage, so we might walk through it again to see why she suggests this new interpretation.

First, Jesus responds to Mary’s plea with the fact that his illness will not result in death. A person with Alzheimer’s or dementia does not usually die from that illness, but from other health complications. At the same time, some have viewed dementia as a diagnosis that might as well be the end. Dr. Cooreman’s work especially dealt with the friendship of people with dementia, and how difficult life can be with someone who cannot retain new information, or have a memory of more than a few minutes. Some people view those with cognitive impairments as being socially dead, but Jesus does not – and encourages the crowd not to view people that way, either. As difficult as it might be at times for people to talk with someone with dementia, imagine how challenging it can be on their end, when confusion sets in and it seems no one seems to understand them. People with dementia need friendship more than ever as their memory begins failing them.

So, Jesus heard about Lazarus and then arrived a few days later. He works on his own timeline, never jumping right away at a request.[3] We probably know this in our own lives. We pray the same prayers each week. We see that the family of Lazarus is not the only family in need of healing, but that our entire world is in need of healing. We see that this is not a specific person, but is people everywhere.

So, we keep this in mind as we reconsider Lazarus with dementia. When Jesus arrives, he sees that Lazarus has been put in a tomb. Jesus weeps. This is more than tears – he is angry, or “greatly disturbed.”[4] Dr. Cooreman said, according to the original Greek, it is the equivalent of the snorting of a horse – and this is because the people have isolated him – they have put him in a tomb before he is dead.

She made note that this is not a criticism of assisted living situations – that caring for someone with dementia or Alzheimer’s does not mean 24-hour home care, but finding the right situation for all involved, including keeping safety in mind. The point she wants to make is that a severing of relationships shouldn’t happen just because memory has changed. The decision of care for anyone is not easy. I have seen those decisions made here in this congregation. I have seen the care on different levels, of spouses, siblings, parents, loved ones. I have seen how difficult those decisions are, and how difficult the care is, and I have also seen how lovingly you make those decisions, and how you continue to walk beside those with dementia and Alzheimer’s, because they are not in a tomb. They are not dead. I commend this congregation for the ways you have befriended those who often feel friendless. Jesus was angry because the community cut off Lazarus and he was separated from the fold.

So, Jesus called him out. Dr. Cooreman mentions that the headwrap remained on his head – perhaps symbolically to remind us, the readers, that Jesus heals communities – but often the ailment remains. When we pray for healing, sometimes we are praying for physical healing. Sometimes we want someone to gain strength and health. Sometimes we know that physically that prayer isn’t possible, and maybe we are praying for our own understanding, patience, and peace. We know that God doesn’t erase all the aches and pains we have. That doesn’t mean God doesn’t work miracles, it means that usually we are the ones who are changed.

If only there was a cure – if there was a balm that could fix the physical ailments in our lives. The Jeremiah passage brings to mind the hymn we will sing next in the service. The hymn tells us there is a balm, but the author of Jeremiah raises it more as a question. The people have broken their relationship with one another and with God.[5] This is not an easy fix, like many wounds. We cannot just slap a band-aid on it or rub ointment on the wound and pray it heals quickly. We know this in our world – we cannot just solve homelessness or stop mass shootings or decrease drug use with a quick fix. We cannot pass out some food and tell ourselves it is solved. We cannot become friends with people of color and pretend racism doesn’t exist. We cannot rub salve on the problem of poverty and assume everyone will be ok. Like many wounds, we need time to air it out, space. We need space to be able to share experiences, grieve, and feel our emotions.[6] If we do not create a sacred space for these emotions, they come out unexpectedly in our interactions and they come out in social media and in ways we don’t plan. We have to create space for people to be mad at systems that fail them. We have to create space for people to grieve the loss of someone they know, even when they are still alive. We have to create space for people to be themselves and still be friends with them – still support them, because that is what people need. When Jesus is snorting anger outside the tomb he is mad that the people just turned their backs on Lazarus, and didn’t create space for friendship, or create space to grieve the loss of the person they knew. They wrapped him up in graveclothes so quickly they didn’t pay attention to what was being wrapped up within it – their hopes, their dreams, their memories, their understanding of the world.

What grave wrappings need to be set aside in our lives so that we can grieve? What needs to be laid down in the tomb, so that we can celebrate the resurrection? Amen.



[1] Fred B. Craddock, John H. Hayes, Carl R. Holladay, Gene M. Tucker, Preaching Through the Christian Year: A, (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992), 178.

[2] Talitha Cooreman, Ph.D., “Cognitive Impairment, Friendship, and Spirituality: A Reading of Lazarus from a Dementia Perspective,” Summer Institute of Theology and Disability, May 2019.

[3] Craddock, et. al, 178.

[4] Rene Kieffer, “John” in The Oxford Bible Commentary, eds. John Barton and John Muddiman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 982.

[5] Stephen Brock Reid, “Jeremiah 8.18-9.1” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 76.

[6] Ibid., 78.