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Sunday, March 29, 2020

Magic and Miracles

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Magic and Miracles
Lent V - Lazarus Sunday - March 28, 2020
Morning Prayer on Facebook Live

“Unbind him and let him go.” (John 11:1-45)

When our kids were little, they heard the story of Lazarus in church and were absolutely enthralled by it. I'm not sure why, but I think, to a child's mind, it was closer to hearing about a Zombie in church than they imagined possible. 

I remember one occasion, the fifth Sunday in Lent, when the kids came home from church and, after lunch, re-enacted the story in our living room.

They slightly adapted their ‘sofa fort’ for the performance. Now, if you don’t know what a ‘sofa fort’ is, you might want to learn. It’s a great place to sit while you shut out the rest of the world and, perhaps, read a book or listen to music, or take a nap.

One way is to take all the pillows off the couch – back and bottom – to form a structure. Or, you can take two chairs from the kitchen and put them on either end of the sofa. Then throw a large, preferably king sized sheet or blanket over the sofa and chairs and, voila! You have a sofa fort.

In our kid’s version, one of them was chosen by short straw lottery to be Lazarus and got all bound up with another sheet and had to lie in the sofa fort.  As I remember it, there was a scene where Jesus came in and the ones who played Mary and Martha were quite adept at wailing loudly.

At the appointed time, Jesus stood in front of the sofa fort . . . I mean tomb. . . and yelled, very loudly, “Abracadabra!” 

I winced and considered whispering the appropriate words but, before I could muster the courage, two of the kids whooshed off the blanket with great dramatic flare and panache and helped the little pint-sized Lazarus stand upright and emerge from the . . . er, um . . . tomb.

And then Jesus yelled, “Man, do you stink! Take that stinkin’ sheet off him!” And, they did and then everyone yelled, “Hooray!” and “Welcome back!” and they applauded and then took great deep bows.

I did try to tell them that what Jesus actually said was, “Lazarus, come out!” and not “Abracadabra!” and, “Unbind him and let him go!” and not “Take that stinkin’ sheet off him,” but they weren’t buying it. They insisted that what we heard in the gospel lessons was the ‘cleaned up’ adult version and what they were saying was closer to the truth.

I let it go, figuring that, when they got older, we’d have a conversation about antiquity and modernity and the difference between magic and miracles.

These days, these past three weeks, have sometimes seemed like a scene out of antiquity, hasn’t it? So many things we’ve taken for granted have been taken from us. Simple things, like: 

Having coffee with a friend at a café, Meeting someone at the diner for lunch. Going to the movies. Heck, going to work! Shopping for a special something for Easter Day. Easter Day. Actually, the whole of Holy Week and Easter Day.

We’d love nothing more than for someone to wave their arms around and say, ‘Abracadabra!’ and roll the heavy stone of this COVID-19 virus and quarantine and – just like that – make this whole pandemic go away.

That’s the difference between magic and miracles. As we grow older and mature, we come to know that there really isn’t much magic to magic. It’s a matter of convincing the observer or participant that the person – known as the magician – has harnessed supernatural forces to make impossible things happen. 

Sometimes, good things. Sometimes, not so good things.

A miracle, on the other hand, is defined as “a surprising and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore considered to be the work of a divine agency.”

Here’s a very shorthand difference: Magic points to YOU. Miracles point to GOD.

There’s a great deal of magical thinking in these days of the pandemic. I don’t know about you but my email and Facebook messenger and other Social Media feeds are filled with easy answers to get rid of the complicated and confounding new virus. The effects of COVID-19 is much like one of the plagues we read about in scripture and history.

The logic of modern magical thinking goes something like this: COVID-19 came about in the midst of the cold of winter, therefore, COVID-19 must hate heat. So, the best way to not get COVID-19 is to stay out in the sun or move to a sunny, hot climate. One of my friends says he’s gotten invitations from his friends in Africa to come and stay with them. Or, if you can’t travel, one should just sip hot liquids every 15 minutes.

Except, of course, people in Florida and Louisiana have very high rates of COVID-19 infection and the infection and death rates in Africa are, unfortunately, exploding.

Magic points to YOU. Miracles point to GOD.

There are three things about this story of Lazarus that always strike me. The first is that Jesus asked the people to roll away the stone that was covering the tomb. Now, had he wanted, Jesus could have moved that stone all by himself. And, that would have been impressive. Magical, in fact.

He could have just waved his arms and shouted “Abracadabra!” Instead, Jesus asks for the stone to be rolled away. It takes several very strong people to do that.

Secondly, Jesus calls to Lazarus to come out. Ever wonder why Lazarus didn’t just hear the stone rolling away (I would have made lots of noise), and see daylight come into the tomb and get up and start walking out on his own? No, actually, Jesus calls him out.

Finally, once Lazarus is out of the tomb, Jesus calls to the people, “Unbind him and let him go.” Now, a good magician would have already had two scantily clad women come out from behind the tomb, each taking part of the stinky rags that bound him, and, with great dramatic flare and no small amount of panache, whirled him out of his burial cloth. Ta da! Instead, Jesus again asked the people for their help, their participation in the miracle.

I think there are three very important lessons we can learn from this ancient miracle story that we can apply in this time of pandemic.

First, we are all going to have to do some heavy lifting. Each and every one of us is a participant in the story that will be told about this pandemic. We're all going to have to roll the stones away that keep us bound in anxiety and fear.

Governor Cuomo of New York has said that each one of us is a first responder. By that, he means that each one of us can help “flatten the curve” of the incidences of infection and disease by staying home, practicing “social distancing,” washing our hands – and, well, you know the rest of the drill.  Be a first-responder in this pandemic. It's not easy, but #Stayhome.

Second, there is a spiritual vocational aspect of these days of pandemic. I believe we are being called by Jesus, out of the tombs of the parts of our faith which have died and into the Light of the Gospel.

Our vocation is to call on our families, friends and neighbors to see how they are doing, if they need anything; to check in on the kids and make sure they are being fed; to stretch ourselves and learn new ways to stay in touch – like this Facebook live way of being in worship together.

This is a call from Jesus to us, “Come out!” of the darkness of our old, ingrained ways of thinking. Come out into the daylight of compassion and care. Come out into the new light of critical thought and use your creativity and imagination to do good, to be kind, to bring justice and peace.

Finally, Jesus is asking us to participate in the miracle of healing. Indeed, I would go so far as to risk blasphemy and say that the miracle is incomplete without the help of the community. Jesus heals, but it is our hands that care for the one who has been healed. The miracle can still be bound in the shroud of death. We are called to unbind the miracle and make it known.

Just as Jesus required the participation of the whole community in the miracle he performed, so, too, are we all required to participate in the healing of the nation, the healing of the world, from the effects of this pandemic.

We all have work to do. It’s not magic. But, it is a miracle. That’s because, ultimately, this does not point to YOU or ME or US. The healing of this pandemic points to God.

So, here’s my thought for whatever time that lies in front of us until this ends. Build a sofa fort

Just a little bit of whimsy in the middle of your home where you can go alone or with your partner or spouse or the kids. 

Turn the TV off and take turns in it, or pile the whole family in, just for a session of tickles and giggles.

Make it a ‘safe place’ where you can retreat from time to time. Where you can, as my aunts used to say, “Take a load off.” Take a breath. 

Whether a soft fort or not, create a safe place where you can stimulate your brain cells that have been temporarily suspended by the free-floating anxiety in the air. A place where you can fire your imagination and set loose your creativity and ability to play well with others and do good for others.

Create in your home a place where you can take some time away from the fretting and anxiety and pray and listen to what God might be calling you to do.

For I believe we each have been placed here, unlikely a choice as we are – just as Esther was – for such a time as this. So, listen to Jesus. Unbind yourself and let yourself go deeper into the miracles that await us. 

For I believe that we will emerge from the tomb of this pandemic changed and transformed and will never again be the same, with new life and a new vision for a new world.



Bex said...

Thanks for posting this. I heard it this morning, but wanted to read it too. Just FYI, Fr. James Martin has a Bible study for all of us in lockdown @ 3 p.m. EST Sun-Fri. on Facebook. He is writing a book on Lazarus and he says he is "up to his eyeballs" in research. If interested, you can watch live on your newsfeed if you follow him on FB. If not, the videos are posted on his FB page. The study is based on the RC gospel of the day.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you, Bex. I love Fr. Martin's work. He's brave and bold, intelligent and Ignatian, with a true Jesuit spirit. I'll look him up.

Jeffri Harre said...

Thank you, Elizabeth. I loved the retelling of your kids sharing the story of Lazarus--their own bit of Midrash. You warned us that a pillow fort might be involved, and here it is! A miracle points to God. Yes!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Love you, Jeffri!

Jennifer M. Phillips said...

Loved this one, Elizabeth. May you all be well!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Jennifer. I appreciate that. We are all well here. Hope you stay safe and well.