As the clouds of war and the rise of fascism overtook Europe, the existentialist French philosopher and novelist, Albert Camus, wrote a parable of this geopolitical sickness – The Plague.
The story begins with Dr. Rieux leaving his apartment to feel something squishy under his foot. A dead rat. The first victim of the bacillus, Yersinia pestis – the black death – soon to infect much of the town.
The city of Oran, Algiers, the setting of the novel, is soon under quarantine, completely shut off from the rest of the world. As the population sinks into disease, death and despair, a few people rise to the occasion and exhibit remarkable courage and humanity. Dr. Rieux and his helpers do what little they can to bring comfort and assistance to the sick and dying. In others, the plague brings out the worst.
Written during the time when the Nazis had overrun much of Europe, many see it as an allegory of the time of that fascist disease. More generally it is a parable of courage in extremity, inventiveness in occupation, perseverance in the face of unknown and ill-defined horrors.
Our lesson from John is, likewise a descent from illness to death, the death of one whom Jesus loved dearly – one whom Jesus calls back from the tomb.
In the gospel of John, it is this “sign” that will lead to Jesus’ crucifixion.
We are told numerous times, leading up to this “sign” that Lazarus is ill. “Sick unto Death,” Kierkegaard phrased the extremity of utter despair – contrary to the assertion in John 11:4 that such was not necessarily Lazarus’s case.
“Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Martha was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, the one whom you love is ill.’”
Yet the statement that Lazarus was ill is repeated three times prior to Jesus arriving at his tomb. The threefold assertion is to clue us, the reader, that this poor fellow is failing fast. Not long for this world – the fate of all flesh. The despair of each caught between realizing their full potential and the mundane absurdities of life that consume our hours and days. A death of a different sort.
The Jesus this gospel presents, culminating in this dramatic event, is that in him is the same Life as in God. Light and Life he brings to all. And so it is with all who believe in him. Jesus summons us to our full personhood. To be an authentic self in relation to others and to God. He is the True Authority, through power and deed – the raising of Lazarus being the ultimate proof.
For some, for the religious bean-counters, this is intolerable. When told of the happenings in Bethany, they find this deed of Life to be intolerable.
“So, the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, ‘What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.’”
Jesus’ summons to us is like unto that of Lazarus, “the dispersed children of God.” Lazarus, come out.”
Sometimes the idleness of days, the waste of self-indulgence, is the stench of death. Jesus commands that the stone be rolled from our tomb in which we find ourselves.
In the time of illness, in times of extremity, so often the worst of human impulses is expressed – denial, dissembling, obfuscation, and flat-out lies.
Our Quack-in-Chief proposed all sorts of bogus nostrums in his attempt to mitigate public fears over what was quickly becoming a mismanaged national nightmare.
At one presser he proposed a horse dewormer, Ivermectin. Another favorite for a few sessions was an anti-malarial medicine, hydroxychloroquine. When he proposed injecting bleach, the camera cut over to Dr. Birx sitting against the side wall wincing in disbelief. Such quackery, at a moment when real science should have been the order of the day, when what was called for was truth and transparency, not delusional politics.
The same president, postured late one evening on the White House balcony upon his return from hospital care as some sort of banana republic El Caudillo – all the while coughing out his lungs – in a misguided attempt to convince the nation that his illness was not a “sickness unto death.” All a hoax.
Indeed, compounding the tragedy of COVID, another sickness unto death is upon us all as the new fentanyl death toll has grown, continues to mount.
Yet, in the midst of tragedy is the barely audible summons, “Come out.” There is the command to us the living, “Unbind him.” That unbinding is a call to action – and healthcare workers, addiction and recovery professionals have responded. Essential workers remained on the job.
That summons to Life begins with the realization that we indeed have a sickness. We are ill – a national illness.
For months our national government was in denial – just a few cases and it would soon go away. “It’s going to disappear. It’s disappearing” — a prediction given just days after the president’s own recovery from COVID. Truth is the starting point.
Two remarkable women, Laura Martin and Alice Kaplan, share their more recent and true story of surviving another plague – the ongoing global experience of a modern-day pandemic – COVID-19.
Through their scholarship and through Alice’s own experience of having contracted and lived through COVID-19, insight does shine.
Laura writes in chapter 2 — “Rat Eurydice,” a large rat emerged from its hole and stumbled about then headed for Dr. Rieux.
Camus notes how that first dying rat “pirouetting on the doctor’s landing” falling into a pathetic heap, coughing up blood, resembles the actor on live stage who dies while portraying Orpheus returning from the dark pit of Hell “like a plague rat” in Christopher Gluck’s opera, a play performed over and over each night in Oran by an opera company trapped in quarantine.
Dr. Rieux’s task was quite simple: only to write plainly of what the “indifference of the world has thrown at him.”
“Yet in this pandemic year, the Plague has been tested as a direct chronicle of illness and held its own. We have all, to some extent, become residents within its chapters. Many of the novel’s details feel more realistic than your average allegorical gesture…the understandable hypochondria, the heartlessness of the bureaucracy, the emptiness of shelves.”
Yes, we have been ill – a sickness unto death. The death of millions.
Instead of bluster and denial, in the midst of this illness, the real work of Love would go on, often unacknowledged — unacknowledged as those unnamed volunteers continuing through it all, offering solace to the dying
In the midst of death, the heroic selfless care of those tending the sick and the addicted overdosed is not only Resurrection Hope, but Resurrection Reality.
As fentanyl and meth fill our hospital wards and mental health clinics, along with the victims of this COVID pandemic, the strain on those working sometimes two shifts a day, interminable hours, is intolerable. Yet they carry on through the physical and emotional exhaustion.
No pretense here. No glory.
It is only Love, expressed through letters of gratitude that sustains. The same sacramental Love as incarnated in Jesus, that enables perseverance. Especially the gratitude expressed by families, who also bear the burden.
This is Resurrection Love, a foretaste of Love Divine, which flows from God to Jesus and to us – the very same.
That’s what the community which produced the Gospel of John wants us to know of Jesus and appropriate. With Jesus it’s always a “for-God-so-loved-the-world” story. It is Life Eternal…NOW. That’s our faith.
The raising of Lazarus is a foretaste of Easter Resurrection, as well as the critical incident leading to Jesus’ death. So is Gratitude a foretaste.
Appreciation of those who have laid their lives on the line for the rest of us is a hallmark of New Life –“an attitude of gratitude” for these orderlies, doctors and nurses. That is Life itself — Spirit inspired Life. These workers are the visible agents of God’s sacramental love.
In the midst of such tragedy, Love does suffice. Here is some of that Love shown by those who know best the sacrifice of our healthcare workers – their families. In this Love, we glimpse the Glory of God.
We now catch a foretaste of the glorious Easter morn for which we long — like the touching letters of gratitude from all across the country – letters thanking the nurses, doctors and other hospital staff who have put their lives at risk to care for the ill. Who drop into bed night after night, dead tired from days of ordeal and mounting death.
One letter from a daughter read, “I am so grateful for the few hours out of the week we were able to be huddled together as the core of the family — all you did to console my fears and assure me that we’re going to get through this. Thank you for being the amazing mother and nurse that you are. I love you, your daughter, Tina.”
And another letter to a doctor. “These shields were made with love and appreciation by myself and my children, ages 10 and 8. We cannot express our care and concern enough for you. Keeping you in our hearts and prayers.”
These messages, and so many more, are the truth of our Easter longing in these dark days of national sickness. Can’t you feel a glowing warmth on your face? Expressions of thanks to our nurses, doctors, grocery store clerks, sanitation workers – all who are the incarnation of God’s message of hope. They get me through these Lenten days.
Indeed, a sickness unto death was upon us all as this new drug death toll has mounted, continues to mount. Yet, in the midst is the barely audible summons, “Come out” — the command to us the living, “Unbind him.”
That unbinding begins with Truth and “an attitude of gratitude.” Gratitude to those who unbind, who call forth our better selves from tombs of stench, distraction and death. That’s the story John’s gospel wants to know about Jesus. Though we be ill, very ill – It’s ever a “for-God-so-loved-the-world” story leading past the gates of Hell to a brilliant Easter morn. Amen.
 John 11:1-4. NRSV.
 Daniel Wolf, Daniel Day, “’It’s going to Disappear’: A Timeline of Trump’s claims that Covid-19 will vanish,” CNN, October 31, 2020.
 Laura Marris, Alice Kaplan, States of Plague: Reading Albert Camus in a Pandemic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2022).
 Ibid, 37.
 Op. cit.
March 26, 2023, Lent 5
“Hydroxychloroquine and Ivermectin”
The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney, St. Francis Episcopal Mission
1st Reading: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130;
2nd Reading: Romans 8:6-11; Gospel: John 11:1-45