Visualization. Bishop Scarfe mentioned it near the beginning of his sermon at 8am this past Sunday. He was commenting how visualization is often a sports technique utilized by Olympic athletes. Curlers visualize their stones bending into the house before they throw them. Skiers often go through all the turns of a slalom or downhill before they ever leave the gate. He even noted how basketball players will see the ball going through the basket before the game ever starts. I started laughing (internally I hope) some of my coaches’ attempts to teach visualization.
The best coach I ever had at teaching visualization was responsible for linebackers. Most of my time on the football field was spent in line play. Except for one year in high school and a couple in college, I dealt more in the realities of leverage than in seeing and reacting. One year, a coach was tasked with the responsibility of turning me into a weak side linebacker. All here know there is no “former NFL linebacker” on my resume or profile pic, so you can all imagine the outcome. It sounds really strange to say it, but some who play football are comfortable in space while others are comfortable in the scrum. To each his own, I guess we might say.
Anyway, this coach believed mightily in the power of visualization. Looking back it makes sense. We used to love it because it was twenty to thirty minutes of not sweating. We were kids and did not appreciate the value. Of all my coaches, I would say this coach was most overt in his faith. Sometimes, especially when we were in the car with him on the back roads of West Virginia and he was looking at us in the backseat instead of ahead in the road, we thought he was a little too overt, a little too anxious to see our Lord face to face. But this coach had us visualize the line play over and over and over again. We did it so much, we practiced it so many times, that I can still hear his excited voice. Your guard is blocking down. What do you do? Look to my tackle. He’s blocking out on the DE. What do you do? Fill the hole. What do you do? Fill the hole. Are you sure? Fill the hole and meet the FB and plug or tackle the HB. What if the QB keeps it and scampers around the end? Somebody else has him. When the guard blocks down and the tackle blocks out, I fill the hole. That’s my job. If we got all the scenarios right, we usually got a water break. I often got my keys right, but, as I said earlier, there is no “former NFL linebacker” attached to my name.
Why the focus on visualization? As Bishop Scarfe mentioned the word, not only was I reminded of our efforts to visualize in high school and college, but I knew immediately where his sermon was going to go, in light of many conversations I have had with parishioners these 7+ years about the Healing Service. I was so wishing that this person and that person were at early church to hear what he was going to say in answer to their questions about Healing. There is a certain amount of frustration with God in some people’s minds and hearts. Some have prayed, seemingly futilely, for a particular healing that seems never to occur. If I mention that faith the size of a mustard seed will enable us to move mountains, I get a couple well, if that’s true, what doesn’t God . . . If I remark that we are inheritors of incredible power to accomplish miracles in His name, I get a few except for this. In darker moments, the seeming lack of healing causes some among us to begin to doubt of standing with God. The Enemy uses our seeming inability to get healing for the cause that we bring to God month after month, year after year, to begin to convince us that we do not share in the inheritance, the promises, the hope of God. There is something wrong with me. God does not really love me.
Our Gospel and Old Testament lessons this week, as the bishop noted, are of incredible importance for those traveling through the valleys and shadows of life. Think where the story occurs in our timeline. A message is sent to Jesus that Lazarus is sick. Jesus tells His disciples that Lazarus will die but that God will be glorified in Lazarus’ death. There He goes again, Jesus is breathing too much incense. How can God be glorified in the death of a disciple? Imagine, too, the emotions of Mary and Martha. Both tell Jesus that, had He been there, they know that their brother would still be alive. After all, if You can give sight to the blind, You can sure cure a little sickness. Besides, we have seen You heal all kinds of illnesses. What’s one more? Even Thomas, you know, the one we call the Doubter, expects that Jesus is risking death by returning to Judea. The little pack of disciples is working through a number of emotions. Much as are we when we gather.
Notice Jesus’ response to all those emotions. He teaches Mary and Martha and us. Martha believes that God answers whatever Jesus asks of Him. When Jesus tells her that Lazarus will rise again, she mistakenly looks toward the Day of the Lord. I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day. Jesus announces to her and all within earshot that He is Resurrection and He is Life. It seems a crazy statement. Lazarus is dead, and He claims to be life and resurrection? You can well imagine the fingers circling the temple of surrounding heads noting that Jesus is crazy. Amazingly, Martha accepts His words as true. In a confession not unlike Peter’s, Martha tells Jesus she believes He is the Messiah, the one coming into the world. The lesson He teaches Mary is one of compassion and intent. I often tell people at times of mourning that our Lord is mourning with them. How do I know? This passage. Jesus weeps at the death of Lazarus. Jesus knows, knows that this is not what God intended when He created the world. We were not supposed to know death. We were not supposed to know hurt. We were not supposed to know sadness. And that knowledge, and the hurt of those around Him, causes our Lord to weep and His soul to be greatly disturbed.
What follows is, perhaps, the second greatest miracle in the Bible. Jesus tells Lazarus to come out of the tomb. Amazingly, Lazarus, who has been dead for four days, comes out of the tomb. Jesus tells those who witness the event to unbind him and let him go. Such is the power of this miracle that even some of the Jews, who wanted to stone Him a few verses earlier and who were watching events transpire, are moved to believe in Him!
It is, as Bishop Scarfe noted, an important miracle. In a few short days, Jesus will seemingly be overcome by the powers of the world. In less than two weeks, they and we will see Him betrayed, scourged, mocked, tortured, crucified, dead, and buried. Their world will be so upturned that the disciples will be scattered. Day will become as night. God will seem powerless to prevent death, even the death of one of His prophets. Thomas will go from willing martyr to doubter. Peter will go from one who Confesses Him the Christ to becoming one who denies even knowing Him. Talk about unhinged. Talk about losing their anchor in the storm! This amazing story should have served as a reminder to them that God can conquer even death! His power is in no way limited. He can restore sight to the blind. He can feed a multitude from a few loaves and fishes. Just a touch of His hem can heal. And, oh yeah, even death cannot thwart His will!
The Healing Service that we celebrate each month, as well as the Eucharists that we celebrate multiple times each week, ought to be for us an attempt at visualization, a reminder of who it is that we serve and what He intends for each of us. Just like the raising of Lazarus ought to have given some confidence to His disciples in the face of His own death, our participation in this rite ought to reassure us that we are loved deeply by Him and that He will be glorified in us. The valleys that we face, brothers and sisters, are every bit as dark, every bit as deep as we believe them to be. Some of us are dealing with dangerous diseases; others of us are dealing with broken relationships; still others are worried about job security or physical strength; my list could go on and on and on. The troubles which we face are every bit as dark and oppressing as we think they are. The consequences of sin, both those of our own and those of others, threaten to overwhelm us just as death did the family of Lazarus and our Lord’s did to the disciples. That is why the lesson from John this week is so important, so instructive.
Prior to that dark path to Calvary, our Lord gave His disciples a number of signs which demonstrated who He was. To the blind, He gave sight. To the deaf, He gave hearing. To the teacher of the Law He imparted wisdom. To the outcasts, He gave the opportunity to share in His glorious inheritance. And to all those, both those who followed Him and those Jews who were ready to stone Him, He demonstrated God’s unconquerable power! Though Lazarus had been dead four days, nothing could keep him from answering the Master’s call. A body that should have begun to smell from decay could not thwart God’s will, nor could a plot by those who hoped to retain power, nor could even a misunderstood faith.
But His voice does not end there! He also instructed us that we should gather for the Eucharist, gather for prayer, and to gather for Healing. You see, brothers and sisters, this, all this around us is fleeting, no matter how painful or how exciting. For reasons known only to our Lord, He has chosen to bind Himself to us and us to Him. That means our honor is His honor; our dishonor His dishonor; our ridicule His ridicule; our sufferings His sufferings. Don’t believe it? How did He respond to Lazarus’ death? How did He respond to the grief of those present? He wept. He wept, and then He redeemed. That same tender voice that sought to encourage Martha and Mary in their grief, that same instructive voice that sought to teach His disciples that the journey back to Judea would lead to God’s glory, that voice is the One that calls you and me and everyone to faith. It is that voice which claims to be the Resurrection and the Life. It is that voice which will one day command each one of us to stand before Him, a voice whose command and authority cannot ignored. It is that voice from which we all long to hear the words “Well done, good and faithful servant. Come. See what the Father has prepared for you.” He is calling you; He is comforting you; He will one day redeem all that you have suffered.
Brothers and sister, that same voice which command Lazarus to come out also instructed our spiritual ancestors to share in the Eucharist and to gather in prayer for one another, anointing with oil and the laying on of hands. When we come together in worship, to give thanks and to ask for help, we are visualizing, no matter how imperfectly nor how shadowy, the hope that we have in Him. Confident that He will one day redeem all this and restore us to the glory with which He created us, we come to the Table and to the rail, beseeching Him to come and redeem now. Sometimes He comes, and gives us what we want now. Always He comes and gives us what we need. Some days it is strength; other days it is patience; still other days it may be healing; still other days it may be understanding that our suffering serves His redemptive purposes. One day, though, one day, you and I and all who call Him Lord will experience that wonderful response of our brother Lazarus. Can you see it? Can you hear it? Can you anticipate it? One day, He will call us out and say to those around us, “Take off the grave clothes, set him/her free.” That is the promise we share in. That, brothers and sisters, is the hope of this and every pledge He makes! That is the vision in which we all share!