‘OK, so now what?’: Kolbell examines the Lazarus story

Column by Emily Perper.

For most of Week One, the Rev. Erik Kolbell presided over the morning worship services, but he served as chaplain Friday. Outside Chautauqua, Kolbell serves as the First Minister of Social Justice at Riverside Church in New York City. He is a clinical psychotherapist and the author of six books.

His sermon, “OK, So Now What?” reflected on the story of Lazarus’ miraculous return to life in John 11:32-41.

There is a multiplicity of approaches to the story of Lazarus, “each one as fraught and freighted as the next,” Kolbell said. Rather than examine the text of the scripture historically, Kolbell analyzed the story from Lazarus’ point of view.

“What did it mean to him, to get a second chance?” Kolbell said, as he encouraged the audience to imagine Lazarus’ re-entrance into life. “Lazarus might have used this opportunity to make some real changes.”

He suggested that Lazarus might have wanted to take better care of his body, to act differently toward his family, to live a better life in general.

“And Lazarus set out to do these things because this is what his newly beating heart would tell him,” Kolbell said. But it wouldn’t be too long before habits overtook the impetus for change. “The only thing harder than instituting [change] is sustaining it.”

In that vein, Kolbell referenced the Burt Reynolds film “The End,” in which Reynolds’ character reneges on promises he made to God in a moment of desperation. Kolbell also related his experiences living in New York after Sept. 11.

“Everyone was kin,” he said.

“What happens, I think, is that we forget — if not the fact of the event, we forget its worth. The data remains in our memory bank, but the meaning we first attached to it slowly fades into wisps and whispers, or worse, to sentimentality,” he said. “Life gets in the way and presents us with too many opportunities for the momentous to give way to the routine. The nobility of our intent exceeds the durability of our stamina.”

Kolbell said he encounters that phenomenon in his experience as a psychotherapist.

“What I’m seeing there is not pathology; it’s simply human nature writ large,” he said.

“I think what this means is not long after we have been summoned from the tomb to get back to the business of living, we owe it to ourselves to find at least some way to preserve a vestige of the experience of that moment when clarity pierced the fog of lassitude to illuminate not something bigger than life, but something that shows us just how big life is,” Kobell said.

He said he believes that is what the author of Deuteronomy was trying to achieve in his instruction: to pass collective memory on to children as the Israelites stood poised to enter Canaan. The Eucharist is also an example of a tangible inheritance meant to be memorialized.

“It is not instructive. Nor is it meant to be. Rather, it is evocative,” Kolbell said.

Other examples he explored included a relic from the slave labor under the Nicaraguan dictator Somoza and the sandpaper amulet his daughter received after a devastating car accident.

“We are a wondrous, curious, gloriously flawed creation, you and I, capable of great and good things, not the least of which is the courage to try, to fail and to try again,” Kobell said.

He concluded with the hope that Lazarus was present during Jesus’ last week.

“I’d like to believe it’s not the kind of thing he would forget. Nor I. Nor you,” he said.

The Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, Chautauqua’s pastor and director of the Department of Religion, presided. Ryan Killeen read Scripture. Killeen, a participant in the International Order of the King’s Daughters and Sons Scholarship program, is a native of Stittsville, Ontario, and a recent graduate of Heritage College and Seminary.