It was one of those warm days that happen sometimes in spring in Denver. The sky was a robin egg blue, and the breeze felt warm and fresh. The snow of two weeks earlier was gone.
I worked for the St. Francis Center, a ministry to homeless people. In the mid-morning, “Danny” came in, and said to me “I think there’s a dead guy in an old building down the block. I was picking up cans in the alley to sell, and I saw what looked like a guy sitting on an old couch, but he didn’t move when I yelled and then I saw some flies.”
By the time I arrived at the old, abandoned house, and opened the door, the warm spring day gave clear evidence that indeed someone had died, and it had been a few days back. Even if I had not seen the body I would have been quite sure. Death stinks.
Over the last several days readings, John’s Gospel tells the story of Lazarus of Bethany, a man whom Jesus knew well, and part of a family he loved. His two sisters tried to get him to come heal Lazarus who was quite sick. But Jesus doesn’t arrive until four days after Lazarus burial in an above ground cave or rock tomb.
When he arrives he tells the people with him to remove the stone. Martha, the sister, ever practical says “You might not want to do that, it stinks out here and he’s been dead for four days.”
Dying can be a relief, sometimes full of peace, even when the circumstances around the death are hard. But here in the gospel we are confronted with the blunt fact. Even in a “good death”, death stinks. Death stinks, literally and figuratively.
Death stinks. There is something wrong with living breathing creatures having the life taken out of them. And here is Jesus standing in that stink.
He gently reminds Martha. “Didn’t I just tell you that if you believe you would see the glory of God?”
And so they roll back the stone. Surely the odor increased. But Jesus stands there and prays. And then dramatically, perhaps ordering death to be undone, yells: “Lazarus come out!!”
In a scene made for Hollywood, the (formerly) dead man comes out, still wrapped in burial cloth. The accusations of the previous verses, “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” are suddenly meaningless. Jesus who called Lazarus back to life, could have prevented him from dying whether he was near Bethany or not.
Some new change is happening. Some new order is coming into being. Death’s stink is reversed. Decomposition is recomposed! The impossible is happening.
If we follow John’ account of the next few weeks, another will die. But this one, when he comes out of the tomb, will be a the new man, not just the old man renewed.
And now let me finish the story.
It took a few days, but once the medical examiners did their work, we discovered who the fellow in the old house was. Bill Webb had been a regular among the many Denver “wino’s” in the downtown area. No family came to claim him, and he had no close friends. We knew him from his many visits to St. Francis for coffee or a shower.
After the legally required few days, we at St. Francis petitioned the city to allow us to have Bill’s body and give him a burial. We put fliers out at all the other shelters, and put the word on the street that there would be a funeral for Bill Webb.
And we ordered a brass plaque to place on our wall in the worship space so that somewhere, Bill’s name would be remembered.
The afternoon of the funeral St. Francis center was standing room only. Except for a few policemen who’d known him for years from the drunk tank, and we shelter workers, it was a great crowd of his fellow homeless.
We sang Easter hymns, and said the burial office. We celebrated Holy Communion. And we remembered that we are the people who know the Risen Lord. We are those who proclaim: Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!