Fifth Sunday of Lent (Third Scrutiny of the Elect)
Many of you may be familiar with, or might be regular watchers, of the A&E show Hoarders. The show is a documentary series about people who suffer from compulsive hoarding disorder. Each episode allows us to peer into the chaos of a life taken over by the need to acquire more stuff and a refusal to part with any of it. Very often these are men and women like us, who live in nice apartments and houses. But when the cameras bring us inside, when we see the mountains of garbage and filth filling the hallways, animal droppings and vermin running through the house, we feel both disgust and agitation. It’s difficult to understand how anyone could live under these conditions and we are forced to wonder why it is only now with the cameras rolling that this person is receiving help.
Family members are often interviewed as part of the show. They share memories of how their mother or father once made this house into a home, and they share how hoarding has taken over the loved one’s life. Often, it’s hard to miss their anger, resentment, and deep sorrow. Sometimes they blame themselves, or one another; sometimes when they blame each other we hear in their voices an echo of Mary’s frustration with Jesus: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” For the family and friends of the hoarders, too, mourn the loss of their mom or dad, sister or brother, who has become quite literally buried alive. What was once a home filled with life and laughter has, tragically, become a tomb.
Yet hope is not extinguished. In each episode, a rescue mission is mounted, first, to assist the hoarder in recognizing the toll their actions have taken on themselves and others. Second, even though it is often scary and painful, the hoarder is empowered to let go of the clutter and allow what was once a tomb to be turned back into a home. As mountains of garbage and debris are taken from the house, as hallways are cleared and bedrooms made livable again, the person is gradually restored to a new life.
Now, our own houses and apartments may not be filled with garbage and clutter. Our hearts, however, frequently tell quite a different story. Piles of resentment, mounds of anger, and the droppings left by jealousy and lust can clog up and take over our spiritual lives. We can hoard so many things in our heart – dead things, rotten things – that it can seem, sometimes, that our very hearts are suffocating. Saint Paul’s words sting us: have I hoarded so much over the years that I have crowded out the Spirit? If I long for new life, if I can see that my heart buckles beneath the enormous weight of grief and hurt and bitterness, how can I let go of these things that bring death in order to make room for the Spirit of Life?
Our hope, as it was for Ezekiel, is in the power of God who can raise even dry bones to life. Our hope is in Jesus Christ for whom the death of a dear friend can be transformed into a moment of glory for God. Our hope is in the one who proclaims to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life,” the one who weeps before his friend’s tomb before calling Lazarus from the clutches of death, before restoring him to life. Our hope is that not even death can withstand the presence of Jesus, the one who gives each of us here and now a taste of eternal life.
There is, I believe, a little bit of Lazarus in all of us. And today, Jesus calls each one of us out of our tombs and restores us to life in God’s Spirit. Whenever and wherever any one of us is liberated from the clutches of death and restored to life, we have an opportunity to testify to God’s transforming love. For some of us, grace will release us from the tomb built of bricks of resentment, bitterness, and anger. For others, grace loosens the chains of addiction or the grip of grief or the grasp of shame. Jesus’ command to come out of the tomb, whenever and wherever it is heard, restores us to life.
Be warned: this gift comes with a cost. As we emerge from our tombs, as we rejoice in God’s mercy, we are called into action. Like those gathered at the tomb, we must untie those who come after us. We have to help them shed the burial bands, the signs of death, so that they can walk freely. Where the death caused by ageism, sexism, or racism holds people in the tomb: we must unbind them. Wherever hunger or injustice prevents others from living the fullness of life: we must unbind them. Wherever sorrow or alienation, prejudice or hatred, alienates and marginalizes another: we must unbind them because we desire for them to know the joy of being a part of the Body of Christ.
Today, we celebrate the Third Scrutiny of the Elect, a time of prayer and reflection with and for our sisters and brothers who are preparing to for full incorporation into the Body of Christ. Together we pray for the strength to peer into the tombs of our hearts and to uncover whatever is weak, defective, or sinful. We pray for the courage to recognize how we are in need of God’s love and mercy and we invite that mercy to restore us to life. We pray, finally, that God’s grace strengthen all that is upright and good within us and sustain each one of us in our lives as disciples. As companions of Jesus, our friend who calls us from the tomb, let us continue our Lenten pilgrimage toward the Cross where Jesus conquers death and transforms a sign of torture into a beacon of hope guiding our pilgrim journey and encouraging us to unbind others to walk freely and joyfully with the Lord.