A sermon on John 11:32-44 for All Saints Sunday
Let us pray. Help us, oh God, to become comfortable with mystery, accompany us as we wrestle with stories that are beyond our ability to comprehend. Meet us in our belief and in our questioning, in our hope and in our despair. Share in our grief and show us the new life that is around us always so that we too may say, Come and See the new life, the light of the world, and the glory of God. Amen.
Grace and peace to you friends in Christ, from God our Father.
Death. It interrupts life as we know it and changes everything – for good.
It is the elephant in the sanctuary this morning as we gather to celebrate the saints in our lives – all the saints – those who have died and those who have yet to die.
It is as Isaiah writes, the shroud cast over all people – from our very first breath.
What do we do with death? What do we do with something that is so prevalent in our lives of late, that we fight against from the moment of our birth, and yet know that no matter what, death is certain. What do we do with that?
I’ll be honest with you. I was daunted by today’s Gospel story. As I sat with the readings for this morning, I even asked Pastor Pete if the alternate gospel reading from the Gospel of Mark was an option…. Because, how could I offer you the good news of the raising of Lazarus when I myself recoiled at the story in the face of death?
You see, this was the gospel story that my pastor in Billings suggested for my Dad’s memorial service almost one year to the day after my mother’s. It was an awful time of death in our lives as a family and the grief and disillusionment my brother and I felt was immense. All I could think of at the time was “yeah Jesus, where have you been? If only you had been here, Lord.”
Fast forward to my final LPA (Lay Pastoral Associate) training retreat the October after my father’s death and something our leader Pastor Jason said as we went through the section on ministering to the dying, death, grief and the services that follow. He reminded us that the funeral or memorial service is for the living – not the person who has died – for they are beyond the joy and honor any service could bring – they are with God! It is those of us left behind that have to learn how to live with death and go on in the aftermath.
As I sat pondering what I could possibly bring to you today, those words came back to me and I began to see why my pastor had suggested this particular story to my brother and me. It wasn’t because he was super busy and was pulling things out of a pile of proper funeral readings, it was because he knew how broken my brother and I were. He wanted to help us through our “if only’s” so we could go on with life after death. He wanted us to see our story through the heart of God.
As a writer and lover of words, the Gospel of John has always been my favorite gospel – I love how John reveals Jesus Christ as the Word through which all things were made. That God chose Jesus as his messenger to tell us about himself. Jesus is God and the revealer of God the Father. Creation is God’s general revelation and Jesus Christ is God’s personal message to us.
Today’s gospel reveals something for every human being who has ever lived – including the saints. Today’s gospel highlights the reality of the loss, grief, and sorrow experienced with all forms of death – not just the loss of a loved one: the loss of a dream, the loss of a marriage, the loss of direction, the loss of meaning and significance, the loss of a job, the loss of health, the loss of one’s identity, and sometimes the loss of hope and faith. But it does something more – it reveals to us the nature of God in Christ Jesus.
I think there is a part of each of us in the characters who experience the power of Jesus outside Lazarus’s tomb. There is Mary – whose heart, wrenched by grief, gives voice to our anguished lament, perhaps even our accusation: “Lord, if you had been here…” Could Mary represent all those who come to church today heavy in heart, the grief of their loss still fresh to the point of being overwhelming? Because grief has no timeline nor concept of the right time.
Could Martha be each of us still coming to church after all we have been through? Martha whose faith seems so incredibly resilient in the face of great challenge and who confessed moments earlier in the verses preceding today’s text that her brother Lazarus would “rise again in the resurrection on the last day “ and then continued her confession in the one who promised her life here and now yet tarried while her brother died exclaiming: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world!”
And at times we are Lazarus – at least I know I am – stuck in the tomb of grief, surrounded by the stench of death, and unable to break free and escape from the ravages of the dying parts of life until he, like we, literally embody the promise of Jesus and the central message of our faith – God turns death into life.
In each of these characters, we see the ultimate miracle at work. God is in the business of turning death into life. And we learn a little bit more about just what the glory of God is all about. It is to be fully alive, to be abundant with life. Jesus said it himself: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
We see that God is more powerful than what scares us the most.
We see the deep sorrow of grief transformed into a most relieved and elated joy.
We see abiding friendship and deep love.
We see that even when we think we have lost everything – that there is nothing to live for – it is never too late for a new life with God.
We know all this by faith and by faith we know that God is love, we know God forgives all our sin, and we know that God turns death into life, and yet…
And yet, we are left with that unspoken uncomfortable feeling of doubt – as we wonder where Jesus – the one we know works miracles – where is Jesus in the face of our tragedies, in the relentless death march of this pandemic, in the lives of our young people who are so broken by life they chose death? Where was Jesus and his miracle of life for all those we are remembering today? Where is Jesus in this very broken world of ours?
In our questioning, we see that what we most wish for, plead for, long for, pray for so often doesn’t come true. We see that death is still here and death is certain. And we wonder about God’s arbitrary mercy for us. What do we do with that?
What does the story of Lazarus have to do with the very reality of death in our life?
Lazarus is not a story about avoiding pain or denying death. Jesus didn’t go about his travels holding walk-in clinics banishing illness, hunger, and general malaise. Jesus didn’t go to Golgotha and cut people down from their crosses of death – nor did he avoid his own. The death rate in our community is the same as it was at the time of Jesus and for Jesus – 1 per person – 100% of the time.
Jesus healed, helped, taught, and Jesus loved. And he shows us by raising Lazarus that death doesn’t have as much power as we think it does.
In the theology of John’s Gospel also known as the story of signs, Lazarus is the seventh and final sign pointing us to who Jesus is, and through Jesus, who God is.
Jesus turns the water into wine and we see that in Jesus we have abundance. Jesus heals and we see that in Jesus we are not captive to our limitations or illnesses. Jesus feeds 1000’s with nothing but scraps and belief and we see that when we give generously to others anything is possible including new sparks of life. Jesus gives sight and we see there is insight and vision to be found in a life with God.
Lazarus reveals that life in God is more powerful than death. God helps us to go on even when it doesn’t seem possible. When we are in our worst moment, God moves us forward. Times that should destroy us instead truly do make us stronger. All of us here today attest to this great mystery and promise of our faith in Jesus. We can be broken and whole at the same time.
Even at the grave, life goes on. Yes, we know it does. We cannot escape death nor can we escape God’s promise of life abundant and the power of life over death. Theologian Karoline Lewis writes that resurrection is not just our future but our present reality. Martin Luther reminds us that in our Baptism we with all our sins and evil desires must die daily and that we should daily rise as a new person to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
Resurrection can only come through death. It is in the dyings of life when our full humanity comes to life. In truth, life is born through death. We experience these dyings more often than we – at least on the surface – realize. Ideas, plans, and philosophies die back to engender new ones. When we graduate high school and college that season of life dies as we enter the next stage of life in adulthood. When relationships begin and end, when we marry, when we have children, when we leave a job or a neighborhood, when we begin a new endeavor or pursue a different direction, a part of us dies. Must die. Must end. These dyings are passages to something new, something wider, something deeper. With each of these dyings, we are given the opportunity for new life; they allow us to let go and lead us to discover new directions, new purposes. With every ending, we are given a passageway to something more.
Episcopal priest Father Michael Marsh writes:
Mary, Martha, and Lazarus stand before us today as saints. Through their lives, they bear witness to our own experience of sorrow and loss. Through their lives, they bear witness to the Christ who called them out into a new place. And they now join him in calling us out into a new place. That is what saints do. Through the power and love of Christ, they call us out of our grief and loss wherever that may have taken us. They guide us to the one who is resurrection and life, to see the glory of God and the light of a new day. (1)
As living saints, we are strengthened by Christ to call those around us who are bound by grief and darkness to new life – with a love inspired by Christ.
I have grown to love this story. It reflects the truth I know in my own life. Life after death does go on and through it, I have come to know more fully the joy of God. I do not deny the darkness, but I choose not to live in it. I know that the light that shines in the darkness can be trusted more than the darkness itself and that a little bit of light can dispel a lot of darkness. That is good news. Jesus turns death into life.
Thanks be to God!
Let Your Light So Shine!