He’s calling your name.

The Rev. Suzanne Wille, preaching

Create in us clean hearts, O God, and renew a right spirit within us. Amen+

30 years ago I showed up 
in Bloomington, Indiana
to study literature.
22 years old, angling for a PhD in English literature,
Dreams of ivory covered walls
And a life reading and teaching 19th-century novels.

Instead I found
A department stressed about
The future of the discipline, 
Roiling in the “theory wars.”

Instead of Dickens, I was reading Derrida. 

I read all kinds
Of literary theory—Marxism, 
feminism, post-structuralism,
And psychoanalytic theory—
You know, Freud. 

Freud made sense to me.
After all, he coined the “Oedipal Complex”
From the play
Oedipus Rex by Sophocles.
Freud was sexy heady stuff—
I learned enough to be dangerous,
But I never really got his concept
Of the “death drive.”

After all, who among us
wants to die?

But the Death Drive—
A drive towards death and destruction 
Manifested in behaviors 
like aggression and self-destructiveness—
Makes more sense as I get older. 

We might not want to die, 
But we make so many decisions
That bind us, limit us and others, 
That turn away from life . . . 

Lately, I’ve been a little obsessive
About the rise of Artificial Intelligence—
You know ChatGPT 3, now 4.
Ezra Klein, the New York Times author,
Has been writing a lot about it, 
Interviewing experts on his podcast, 
And I’m alarmed by what I’m learning. 

It seems we’re creating something
That we’re not really sure we understand
And might not be able to predict
How it will act as it becomes
More and more sophisticated,
Basically learning the internet.

I won’t cover all that could go wrong, 
But I was struck when Klein mentioned
In a few different places that
In a recent survey A.I. experts were asked,
“What probability do you put on human inability to control future advanced A.I. systems causing human extinction or similarly permanent and severe disempowerment of the human species?” The median reply was 10 percent.” 1
Some put it much higher.

I mean, who works on a technology
They think might have a 10 percent chance, or greater,
Of destroying humanity? 

But then I remembered the Manhattan Project,
The American side of the race
To create an atomic bomb
During World War II.
That effort eventually included
Over 130,000 people here,
Costing 24 billion in today’s dollars. 
The Manhattan Project 
Employed some of the best scientists in the world,
But when they learned
That Hitler had no nuclear weapons
And was unlikely ever to get them, 
Only one scientist walked away
From the project,
Though you’d think many 
Would be glad to get away 
From developing weapons of death.
After all, the detonation of a test nuclear bomb 
in New Mexico forced physicist Robert Oppenheimer
To quote the Bhagavad Gita:
“Now I am become Death, 
The destroyer of worlds.”

“Now I become Death, 
The destroyer of worlds.”

That’s what Death is:
A destroyer of worlds.

And, yet, somehow we keep choosing it. 
Or perhaps it chooses us?

Whether in our inability
To change our behaviors
In time to stop catastrophic climate change
Or the insistence that we must
Allow guns with no limits, 
No matter how high the death toll. 

Oh, the death drive is strong. 

But here is where I think Freud got it wrong:
That death drive isn’t born
Out of our unconscious, though it may live there.

No, Death is one of the Powers and Principalities
That roams our world, 
Seeking to destroy, to bind, to enslave us. . . 

Hungarian artist Janos Vaszary
Captures this in his painting
The Resuscitation of Lazarus,
Our Gospel today. 

The perspective of the painting is flat,
In the style of Eastern Orthodox icons, 
But the figures and their faces are modern.
On one side, women weeping, wailing
As they would have been at the tomb of a loved one.
On the other side, Jesus with his disciples—
Jesus looks stern, his hand raised.
In the middle a limp corpse, naked,
Being held up by a large, threatening man in red,
Who stares defiantly at Jesus. 

Lazarus is a grotesque pieta, 
Foreshadowing the crucified Christ
Lying in his mother’s arms after death.
Here, though, Lazarus is not cradled, 
But held up, roughly,
A mocking token brandished
by Death Himself.

Here death is not just the end of our natural life
But a hostile power, 
The enemy of God, 
Who strives against God, 
Who mocks Jesus in this painting
And in the tomb of our story today. 

Jesus arrives in Bethany,
greeted by an accusing Martha:
“Lord if you had been here, 
My brother would not have died.”
Jesus assures her, 
“Your brother will rise again,”
And she thinks Jesus is speaking
Of the resurrection on the last day.

That’s when Jesus reveals
He is in a fight against the powers and the principalities,
capital “S” Sin and capital “D” Death.
He proclaims, 
“I AM the resurrection and the life.”

Then Mary comes to him, 
Falls at his feet, weeping, 
Followed by family and friends, 
All wailing in grief.

The translation we have
Plays down his reactions, 
Saying that Jesus became 
“greatly disturbed in spirit
And deeply moved,”
But that doesn’t capture his reaction. 
Jesus is angry, furious.

He asks in a trembling voice,“Where have you laid him?”
“Lord, come and see,”
they say. 
Come and see!?!
Those are the words
used earlier in John’s Gospel
to invite people to see, 
To know, Jesus, 
To “come and see” 
and realize who he is—
The Lord of Life, 
The one who came 
That we might have life 
And have it abundantly.

Now those words
invite Jesus to come and see Death, 
His old and ancient enemy
The one who binds and enslaves
His friends, all of us.

And he weeps.

People there think
he weeps for love of Lazarus, 
And so he does, 
But he wails because 
Death has won,
And he’s being invited to watch,
And he knows he has got
To face the great thief, 
The Cheat who mocks us:
Death Itself.
At this point,
Jesus himself is on the way to death.
After he raises Lazarus— 
A sign that will 
Lead more people
To believe in him—
The high priest Caiaphas
Will declare that 
Jesus must die 
In order to protect
Jerusalem from the Romans. 
In going to this tomb, 
Jesus knows he is
Preparing for his own,
For in a few days
He will go to Jerusalem
For the Passover
Where he will enter,
Hailed with palms and Hosannas,
And end judged,
Betrayed, mocked, 
And delivered on a cross. 
Jesus knows all of this,
Yet he goes 
To the mouth of the tomb
And demands that it be opened.
Martha warns, 
“Lord, already there is
A stench because
He has been dead four days.”
Or, as the King James Version 
Puts it less politely 
But more clearly,
“He stinketh.”
He stinketh. 
Jesus demands
That they remove 
The stone anyway.
He begins to pray, 
But I imagine
That in that moment, 
The smell of death curls
Out of the tomb, 
That Jesus must smell
His old enemy—
The deceiver, 
The destroyer of worlds—
He takes into 
His nose and mouth
The stench of death and decay, 
The stink of sin and despair, 
The reek of grief and failure,
All that binds us, deadens us,
And confronts Death itself:“Lazarus, come out!”

And he does.
Stunned, Lazarus leaves the tomb, 
Still wrapped in funeral windings and sheets, 
As Jesus soon will be, 
And Jesus instructs those around him:
“Unbind him, let him go.”

Freud was right—
We have a drive towards destruction; 
We are beset by
The powers and the principalities.
You know them by name.
Those that bind our nation—
War and violence, 
Racism and consumerism.
Those that bind each of one of us—
Anger and fear, 
Grief and despair,
Depression and anxiety.
Those powers seek to enslave us,
To bind us, to lock us in a tomb. 

We can’t free ourselves.
But there is one who can.
On the cross he defeated death,
And whatever tomb, whatever prison,
We find ourselves in,
He stands outside
To unlock the door, 
Roll away the stone,
For he comes to bring us life, 
Abundant life,
right now.
And he’s calling your name.

1.  https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/12/opinion/chatbots-artificial-intelligence-future-weirdness.html