Lent 5 sermon: “The Resurrectionist”

I struggled with this week’s Revised Common Lectionary this week, and decided to expand it to be on the raising of Lazarus, which is actually a subject I have never preached on before.  The lections are Isaiah 43:16-21; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 11:1-27, 38-44, 54-57; and 12:1-11.

I’ve been reading a book titled The Italian Boy by Sarah Wise, which is a book about the public exposure of the dark side of urban expansion in London in the early 1830s, namely, the business that emerged for body snatching.  Body snatchers were thieves who stole corpses from graves.  The population of London exploded in the first three decades of the 19th century, and these years also saw an expansion of interest in the medical sciences and a new demand for medical workers.

To go back in time a little, fifty years prior, the English Parliament declared in the Murder Act of 1751 that the practice of “gibbeting” was expanded to allow judges to not only order an execution as punishment for murder, but that the executed corpse would be placed on display in a very public place, usually along a highway or at a busy crossroads.  The idea was to deter the growing problem of murders in London by treating the bodies of murderers in the same way the royalty would treat the bodies of those who commit treason against the King—traitors—and pirates.

The very next year, another Murder Act was passed by Parliament, the Murder Act of 1752.  The Murder Act of 1752 was designed again to further deter murder crimes by making clear that those who commit murder will not be buried after execution, and that their remains must be either displayed by gibbeting, with the body publicly hanging in chains, or—and this is the innovation—the body will be turned over to scientists for “public dissection.”  As a result, murder convicts’ bodies could be turned over to medical colleges for use in teaching.

With the expansion of medical education and research, however, there were not enough felons whose bodies ended up on the dissection tables.  As a result, a somewhat lucrative black market emerged for fresh bodies to be sold in secret to medical colleges.  Body snatchers or corpse thieves became known as “resurrectionists,” who would dig out fresh graves from the ground.  There is even some evidence that medical students became involved with grave robbery, using the money they would receive for stealing the corpses to pay for their medical classes where they would be supervised in the dissection of the same bodies.  Those who made their livings as resurrectionists were known to be making good money and were part of a new middle class that emerged in early 19th century London.

Younger men who wanted to learn the trade secrets of grave robbery even paid other professionals to train them.  Resurrectionists who were experienced could open a traditional grave and be on their way in 30 minutes, and paid gratuities to church sextons, local officials, cemetery security, police, and informants to get away with their theft.  Doctors and medical professors would not cooperate with the law because doing so would limit the number of students the colleges could enroll.  Furthermore, the law usually took a blind eye to grave stealing, because their crime was only the destruction of property of the grave, since the body technically belonged to no one.  If caught, resurrectionists might have been whipped, but generally speaking the law looked the other way.

The mortuary industry responded to try to deter body thieves.  Instead of closing a grave with dirt, graves were filled with stones to deter people trying to dig them out.  Family members would watch a grave at night for long enough that the body would be worthless for sale.  This led to resurrectionists actually constructing tunnels, and sometimes sytems of tunnels, through cemeteries and pulling out graves from the sides rather than from the top of the coffins.  In response, coffin designers tried all sorts of things, including finding ways to buckle the deceased into a coffin using iron straps, and even burying coffins in iron cages, some of which were so large they rose above ground level as a signal to resurrectionists not to even try to exhume this grave.  For those who could not afford these kinds of devises and contraptions, resurrectionists countered by paying professional mourners to pose as family members of the deceased in cemeteries to tip them off to the schedules of family members coming and going from graves and to be lookouts for other family members.

This all came to a head when two Irishmen, William Burke and William Hare, committed a series of murders to sell to a physician.  After Burke was executed, his body was given to science for dissection by order of the judge, even more people got into the resurrectionist business because it came out publically how much money was made from the business.  This increased activity soon led to the public discovery of organized group of body snatchers when King’s College School of Anatomy reported to police that a resurrectionist attempted to deliver the body of a boy who looked as if he was murdered.  Other murders were then reported by grave robbers.  Parliament then passed a law called the Anatomy Act of 1832 which required anatomy teachers to be licensed and that unclaimed bodies, prisoners, and others may elect their body to be given to science, sometimes in exchange for bodies to be properly buried after being used for science.

Now, what does this have to do with our long Bible readings today?  Our reading from Isaiah 43 says, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”  This sense of “perception” is for me the sense of smell:  When it rains in the Spring, is there not a new smell in the air?  You can smell the pavement or the macadam after a spring rain, but you can also smell the life bursting all around you.  The New Creation is not just something we see, but something we smell, and something we can taste in the air, just as we can taste Spring coming if we open our nostrils up and go beyond what we simply see and hear.

Old things have a smell, too.  Saint Paul writes in our other scripture lesson in Philippians 3.  While talking about his sacrifice of all things on account of this new life in Christ, Paul says he has “suffered the loss of all things and I regard them as rubbish.”  That which is of the old ways, those things of the past, are “rubbish,” sometimes in other translations of the Bible it is translated as “garbage.”  The Greek word here is skubala, which is not just trash, but is the Greek word for crap.  This word is also used in the book of Sirach (24:7), written about 200 years before, as different than manure, and is clearly a vulgar, slang word used for human excrement.  The point is that the old smells like shh-skubala, and the new smells like, the New.  We can tell when something is old or when something is new with our noses.

And then in our Jesus story, Jesus goes to the tomb of Lazarus, whose body has been decomposing for four days, and when the tomb is opened, the crowd is offended by the stench of death.  This is the smell of the old.  Jesus does not retreat but enters the tomb of death and revives Lazarus not just to life, but to new life, a new life that is touched by the love and compassion of God through Jesus.

Later, while Jesus is eating in the home of Lazarus, Mary takes what the Bible says is “costly perfume made of pure nard,” and “anointed Jesus’ feet,” wiping his feet with her hair.  What the Greeks called “nard” is what we today would call lavender; and the smell was said to fill the whole house.  The smell of New Life was this expensive perfume.  Judas immediately quips that the nard was wasted and the money should have been given to the poor, and Jesus defends her, welcoming her blessing and hospitality, and making an allusion that this nard would be used to preserve Jesus’ body for death.

What is interesting about this is that if we are to read the Gospel of John seriously, we know later that a character named Nicodemus provides the burial agents for Jesus later (John 19:39), but we can see this episode as Jesus foreshadowing his death and that being blessed by the women is preparing him for his death.

But there is more to this.  Those hearing the Gospel of John would have known that nard was not an agent used for burial.  Nard or “spikenard” is mentioned a few times in the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) as “Ketoret” or altar incense described in Exodus (Ex. 25, 30, 35), Leviticus (16:12-13), 1 and 2 Chronicles (28:18; 2:4 and 13:11).  This Ketoret, or mixture of spices, would have been brought by everyone in the congregation together to be burned as part of the sacrifices offered on the altar for the worship of God, a practice that began early with the Jews and continued into the period of the Second Temple, the temple that was destroyed shortly after the Gospel of John was written.

The point of this is to say that with the temple gone, there was nowhere to sacrifice your spices and perfumes.  By wiping the flesh of Jesus’ feet with nard, Mary is performing an act of total submission to Jesus’ flesh as the new altar of God.  With nowhere else left to genuinely worship God, the flesh of Jesus’ feet is all that is left, she worships his flesh with her most costly perfume and with her hair.

So the symbolism of this story is that the perfume of the nard is not just symbolic of Jesus’ eventual death, but symbolic that Jesus is the living God standing before them.  This dichotomy of what life is and what death is, is precisely what Paul’s writing is trying to get at, if you go back and study this passage again after worship this morning.  The old life is “old,” and the new life is “new,” even if I am living one continuous life:  I do not need to die to experience the love and acceptance of Christ, because I can worship and experience God now, in this world, and experience God through the flesh of Jesus and in my own flesh, and give praise and honor God through my senses, especially my sense of smell.

But now to push this even further:  nard would have also been understood by the Jews hearing and reading the Gospel of John as a somewhat common spice that was used in Roman cuisine during ancient times. In other words, Mary is not only wiping Jesus’ feet with nard as an act of worship, and as a symbolic act of preparation for burial, but also as spicing his flesh to be consumed.  Just as John the Baptists’ head was served on a platter, presented as food before the local Roman imperialist representative, Jesus is making the case that he is being prepared to be similarly executed as the enemy of the Roman Empire.  Except, as we know, Jesus reverses this symbolism and he presents to us his body and blood to consume, as we are empowered as the enfleshed remnants of God, through the Holy Spirit, to enact justice and the Kingdom in the here and now.

So when Lazarus is called out of his tomb, he is not simply resurrecting life into a body that is dead, but the entire scene of death is interrupted and inverted.  It’s quite likely that the reason why a crowd had gathered there was because there were mourners there with other graves, and some of the mourners were actually professional mourners, people who were paid to sit in graveyards. There is evidence of this mentioned in the Bible as a Jewish practice, but it was common throughout ancient cultures in the Near East.  The mourners were there for the money, and even the poorest families might have felt pressure to have at least one professional mourner present, crying, and praying, and singing.  We have probably felt the experience of going to a funeral and not too many people showing up—the first funeral I officiated was a man who died in a prison who had no family.  It was me, the muslim prison chaplain from another jail, and men from a lower security prison there to dig the hole in the cemetery beyond the state prison.  On that day we were all professional mourners, we all had a job to do.  Professional mourners were often highly trained in ritual and scripture, and were hired to ensure there was a proper burial.

So who among the living gathered at the tomb is he interrupting?  It’s worth noting that Jesus orders “them,” as in those in the crowds, the professional mourners, to assist the raised Lazarus out of the tomb.  Imagine how this made the professional mourners react!  Here comes along this guy into my workplace—God knows who he is!—and he starts raising people from the dead?  Not only is this religiously suspicious but he is going to put the professional mourners out of business!

So word gets out—back of course to the religious zealots who plot to kill Jesus and later, to, of all things, kill Lazarus, who had just been rescued from death!


We live in a culture of death, do we not?  The more we learn and discover about our past, we realize that our culture is not one that has always been a noble source of life—to the point that we resort to stealing the dead to make a living.  And it is inevitable that stealing the dead leads to murdering others, and then children, simply to make a living.  But we don’t need to use these analogies or really look that far  to see the lust for death that surrounds us everywhere: from the war machine to the poverty machines we support and endorse through ours and other governments to the exploitation we see of children though the way their clothing commodifies their bodies:  clothing made by children exploited by capitalism on the other side of the planet!

The philosopher Nietzsche said of his religious culture that all he could see around him was the stench of death, but it was not just the overwhelming stench of death in culture but it was the decomposition of God.  When we look the other way of injustice, and do not love our neighbor, and when we sell God out for silver and gold, and when we posture a care for the poor but yet do nothing, we are participating in the pervasive death that surrounds us.

The Good News is not that if we believe that Jesus is the answer, that we are saved. The Good News is that it is not ever enough to believe, but our call and challenge is to act.  We can believe all day that Jesus brings about a New Creation and saves us from death and brings us into new life, but we know that this is what we call “cheap grace.”  The Way of the Cross, which is the way of God, is one of self-sacrifice, and denial, and practicing what we preach.  It is to bring hope to places that have none, it is bring new life into realms of death—through small gestures and big events.  Both small and large actions and life-giving speech have the power to change the world.

Jesus is teaching us how we are to encounter Easter when we dis-cover it.  When we open the tomb, that is to say, when we encounter death, we are not to come out of the tomb and parade our religion; in fact, Jesus got out of dodge after raising Lazarus, as he was a marked man because he had interrupted the celebration of death upon which so many people thrived.  Jesus is showing us how to encounter Easter by teaching us how to encounter death, namely, that the encounter of death for those of us who are given New Life through water and the Spirit is that death is to declare this death to be a building block of the Kingdom of God that is total life, that is new life.  This death is rendered only to be a transitional point for my contribution to this Kingdom, which is a kingdom of life that triumphs over the kingdom of death.

Those who mourn over death are to be blessed, Jesus says in the sermon on the mount.  But those who practice death, and live death, and participate in the culture and apparatuses of death which exist all around us are now interrupted and offered a reversal of course.  Jesus says, famously, that “the poor will always be with you, but you will not always have me.” This is not to justify poverty but to acknowledge that those who lust for death will always be the ones in power and the ones who seek power.  This world needs more than just the Empire to fall for poverty to be abolished.  History has shown that we have rarely seen sparks of this life in our celebration of death throughout the centuries, and all around us.  Jesus was right:  those who lust for life are few and far-between.

My friends, as we come into these last weeks of Lent, of Palm Sunday, and Holy Week, and lead into Easter, let us not forget that these events and stories are not simply stories, and not simply historical accounts.  But rather, these are blueprints for the Kingdom of God.  We can watch the world passively, and complain about the death reigning all around us, and retreat into church for a pat on the back and reassurance that we’re earning our piece of Heavenly Real Estate.  We know this is not Christianity, yet we know this is how it is often practiced.  Or we can follow these footsteps of Jesus, these footsteps still perfumed exquisitely and strongly by the hairs of a prostitute, and use our words, our actions, our hands and our feet, our wealth and our privilege, to finally begin this process of the cross, this process of Easter that was initiated so long ago, and be the crucifixion and be the Easter that Jesus so boldly demonstrated to us.

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