April 2, 2017

5th Sunday of Lent

John 11:1-45


In the funerals that I have conducted, the climax is always the time when I stand behind the coffin, touch it, and say the words:

            “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust...”

When the funeral is outdoors, I usually take a handful of soil/sand, when it’s possible, and pour it on the coffin as I say the words.

The act brings finality to the whole process. It brings finality to the life of the deceased. It brings closure to the family. It is a proclamation that life, for the person buried/cremated, has come to an end.

One practice that people do during Ash Wednesday, which is the Wednesday before the beginning of the Lenten season, is to make the symbol of the cross on their foreheads, using ashes, as they hear these words spoken to them:

            “You are dust and to dust you shall return...”

Indeed, there is no escaping death. Death is final and we all will end up there no matter who we are or what we have done in our life.

The same can be said of Lazarus. When Jesus asked people to open his tomb, he had already been dead for four days. No, he wasn’t in a coma, like some people suggested. Lazarus was dead and Jesus didn’t perform resuscitation. Terrible stench emanated from his dead body and Martha correctly warned Jesus about the stench.

Of course she was concerned that Jesus would be disgusted by the unpleasant, stinking smell of a body dead for days. But there was another reason why she warned Jesus about the stench. She must have thought that what Jesus was about to do was futile. Both she and her sister, Mary, had said to Jesus earlier, “If you had been here, Lazarus wouldn’t have to die”. In other words, they were saying to Jesus, “It’s too late now. There is not point of doing anything because he was gone.”

But death couldn’t stop Jesus. He is the life and the resurrection. He is beyond death and he saw something that Mary and Martha didn’t or couldn’t see. He saw life even when death was certain.

He called Lazarus and he came back to life. It wasn’t resuscitation. Lazarus was raised from the dead. Jesus then asked people to unbind him and let him go. But his order was not only for Lazarus; it was also for Mary and Martha and for us. Like Mary and Martha, we too need to be unbound and set free from our limited vision and small faith. Like Mary and Martha, we too need to repent and learn to see that, when Christ is present, life, in whatever form, is always possible.

March 15, 2017 marked the sixth anniversary of the Syrian civil war. What began as peaceful demonstrations demanding for more freedom has descended into chaos. Within those six years, a quarter of a million of Syrians had been killed and millions had been displaced. The once proud Syrian cities and neighborhoods have now been demolished and deserted. When we see photos of the war zones in Syria like this one, we see only death and destruction. It is a human tragedy on a massive scale.

It is out of the ground of the ruined cities and neighborhoods of Syria that a seed of life is born. It is born in the form of a group of volunteers, from different backgrounds and professions, who dedicate their lives to save the lives of others. Their mission is to rescue whomever they can find under the rubbles of war. When people see only death, these people see life, no matter how weak the sign of life is.

Every day, there are hundreds of bombs dropped in Syria and these people are the first responders. When other people run away from danger, they run towards it. They pulled all kinds of people from under the rubbles: old and young, boys and girls, even babies. When people have already given up hope, they keep whatever hope they have left to find survivors. They search. They dig. They risk their lives to save others. Some even pay the ultimate price. One of them, Khaled Omar, became a hero when he rescued a 10-day-old baby boy out of rubble. But he himself would be killed later in a mortar attack. He was only 31 years old. He left behind a wife and two young daughters.

These people are known as the White Helmets (because of the colour of the helmets that they wear). But their helmets do not protect them from danger. No. Because of their helmets, they have become targets of the Syrian regime who consider them as rebel accomplices.

But their selfless acts of heroism are frozen in time in many videos and photos for the world to witness. Their work was recognized when they were nominated to receive last year’s Nobel Peace prize. It was further recognized when a documentary about their work won the 2017 Academy Award for Short Subject Documentary.

But they don’t do their work to receive these accolades. Their leader, Raed Saleh, says that the work is hard, but one thing that keeps them from quitting is to rescue children from under the rubbles. That alone gives them the hope, motivation, and incentive to keep working.[1] Indeed, their work is based on a verse in the Qur’an that says:

“To save the life of one person is to save the entire humanity.”

That’s why they never give up digging and searching and rescuing because one life, for them, is sacred.

Friends, just like Jesus saw life even when everyone else could only smell the stench of death, the White Helmets see life under the rubbles of human tragedy. They refuse to be limited by what their eyes can see, or their ears can hear, or their nose can smell. They see life when other people see only death and destruction.

Today, we too are invited to see life when everything seems to fall apart; to be the agent of life in the midst of death. Today, we too are invited to have enough hope, enough faith that even when death seems to be too powerful, life can be found again; life can be renewed, reborn, and even flourish.

Our God, who lives in Jesus, is the God of life and resurrection. May our life be a reflection of the God whom we worship. Amen.

[1] Jared Malsin, Syria's White Helmets Didn't Get the Nobel. But Their Rescue Work Continues, on http://time.com/4522709/white-helmets-syria-nobel-peace-prize/ (October 7, 2016)