John 11:32-44 (The Raising of Lazarus)
Jim from B.C.
I once visited a Lutheran church and saw a clever All Saints Day banner that had two
columns. In the first column was a list of all the people in the congregation who had been
baptized so far that year, and in the second column was a list of all the people who had
died so far that year. I can't remember the banner heading exactly, but it was something
like "newly-made saints" a list of the new saints on earth; and a list of
the new saints in heaven.
A lot of people have left this world over the years and over the centuries, and a lot
of tears have been shed for them. Those of you who have shed tears over the loss of a
loved one, can perhaps identify with Jesus in today's Gospel Lesson. This Gospel Lesson is
famous for having the shortest verse in the Bible (at least in the King James Version):
"Jesus wept." Two very poignant words.
It shouldn't surprise us that the Gospel writers indicate that Jesus wept often. Our
Lord Jesus was not only fully and truly God, but also fully and truly human.
In today's Gospel Lesson, it says that Jesus was moved not only to tears but also
"with deepest emotion" (quote-unquote). The original Greek verb implies anger or
indignation. Some of you have perhaps experienced this feeling also, upon the death of a
loved one. Last Sunday's bulletin insert for the Stewardship program had a very
appropriate misprint: quoting the hymn Amazing Grace, it said, "Through many angers,
toils and snares, I have already come." How true!
It seems to me that anger over a loss is an expression of non-acceptance of what has
happened, whereas tears are an expression of acceptance of what has happened. Jesus
evidently felt both.
Jewish citizens in Jesus' day were wise to hire professional mourners. These people
stayed with the bereaved family for a full week following the death, during which time
they wept and wailed loudly and dramatically, in order to help the bereaved to mourn and
grieve fully, and get the feelings out.
Times have changed! Today our philosophy seems to be: "Let's get it over with
quickly and quietly." "Keep a stiff upper lip." "Big boys don't
cry." "Just grin and bear it."
The Holy Scriptures say: "Rejoice with those who rejoice, [and] weep with those
who weep." In the famous Beatitudes, Jesus himself says, "Blessed are those who
mourn". Nowadays would say, "Blessed are those who refuse to mourn, because
tears are a sign of weakness, and I must be strong."
It was quite amazing to see the tremendous outpouring of grief at the death of Princess
Diana, even among the British, who are not usually known to be demonstrative. I suspect
that many of the tears shed for Lady Diana were tears stored up from other losses that had
not been fully grieved. I suspect that Princess Diana's death gave people permission to
grieve, gave them the feeling that "Here is a time when it's okay. We can all grieve
together, with William and Harry and those who loved Diana, whether we actually knew her
Tears, however, are not only cathartic; they help us to accept death, and accept our
losses, which are forms of death. I've heard of psychiatrists even prescribing that
grieving people lie in bed in a fetal position and sob, just sob, as freely and as long as
Jesus' life could be described as one long process of coming to accept his own death.
Isn't that what our lives are too?
If we don't accept death, we won't accept life either. How can you risk living if you
fear dying? You'll end up spending your life running away from death, postponing it,
softening it, doing whatever you can to avoid it.
We begin to die from the day we're born, and the sooner we accept death as normal, the
better. Our losses throughout life are all part of the same package, things we have to
learn to accept..
Life is jam-packed with losses. It begins with the loss of the comfort of the womb, as
we are expelled into the cold air. It continues with the loss of intimate contact with
parents, as we go to day-care or grade-school. Old toys must be thrown away or given away.
Going to a new school means loss of an old school. Moving away from home means the loss of
our childhood home and parents. All of us have felt the loss of old friends when we moved
to a new town or when friends move away. There's the loss of old neighborhoods to new
development. And so on.
Some of the most difficult losses happens as we grow old. We lose our physique and
physical strength and stamina. As one man said, "My chest migrated south for the
winter and never came back!" Think of all the products sold these days, for body and
hair preservation. With everything from Oil of Delay to face lifts to cryogenics, we are
fighting a losing battle with the Grim Reaper.
It has always been so, with deaths in life ending in the Big One. Usually this truth
doesn't come home to us until we're middle-aged. When we're young, we think we'll live
forever! Life is an endless series of summers and beautiful seasons. But some time between
the ages of 35 and 50, many of us have what's called a "mid-life crisis". We may
do crazy things because we suddenly realize that we have a limited time left. From then on
we seem to counting down, each year, as if we're subtracting from the time we have left.
Recently I've heard experts say that the secret of longevity and of living life to the
full is the ability to accept loss, to pick yourself up and go on. What a great irony,
really! that we must accept death if we are going to live; that the more fully
accept death, the more free we will be, to live life to the full.
I came across a wonderful piece of writing by a Jewish woman named Debbie Friedman. She
wrote down her thoughts as she took part in the "Taharah", which is the Jewish
ritual washing of a dead person's body in preparation for burial. The family normally does
this, and the body she was caring for was her grandmother's, a woman who had been like a
mother to her. She writes about her acceptance of her grandmother's death, the memories
that came back to her during the ritual, and her thoughts about death itself. It's this
last part I want to quote to you. She says:
.....Some think that dead bodies are frightening. Some people flinch at the thought of
touching or being in the presence of a dead body. I believe that the fear arises from the
confrontation with our own mortality. There are those who have the same response to live
bodies. The thought of closeness, the thought of touching or being touched either
physically or emotionally by another human being is frightening [for some]. This fear may
be connected to the idea of loss. The fear of death and the fear of life may be one and
the same. That a being suddenly disappears from the realm of our physical existence may be
more than we care to struggle with. This idea of potential loss may rule our lives and
even keep us at a distance from the relationships we want most in our lives."
God says in Holy Scriptures: "Choose life. For I am not a God of the dead, but of
the living." But in order to choose life, and live life to the full as our God
desires, we must accept death and lose our fear of it.
How do we that? I can answer in a single word: faith faith to give everything
over to God and trust in His power and His love, as Jesus did toward his heavenly Father
when he was on earth. If you read between the lines in today's Gospel Lesson, it's as if
Jesus is praying and affirming throughout the story, as he did in Gethsemane, "Thy
will be done".
No one ever submitted himself to God's will as fully as Jesus. No one, not even the
Buddha himself, ever emptied himself more completely, in order to be filled with the
almighty power of the living God.
St. John tells us in the earlier part of chapter 11 that Jesus depended so completely
on his heavenly Father that he purposely delayed going to Bethany until after Lazarus was
dead. According to St. John, this was Jesus' last and greatest miracle before he himself
died and rose again.
Surely we want this kind of faith, even a small portion of it. Yet it is not something
we can strive for, because it's not a deed or an accomplishment. Martin Luther was very
clear about this: faith is not another good work. Faith is letting go, letting yourself
fall into the arms of God. Faith is submission, something that takes no effort, but rather
the opposite of effort. So it's something we can all "do".
What a great paradox, that we must let go of life, and accept death in order to live.
There's an old negro spiritual that goes, "So high you can't get over it; So low
you can't get under it; So wide, you can't get around it; You gotta go in through the
Author William Bridges says in his book Transitions, "The way out is the way
in." If Jesus has gifted us with his death and resurrection, then we have no reason
to fear death or the grief associated with it. There will always be a morning after,
through the work of our Lord Jesus on our behalf. So we have newness of life, every day,
as well as on the Final Day.
Someone once said, "In the midst of life we are in death." I would rather
say, "In the midst of death, we are in life."
To conclude, I'd like to quote a certain Dr. Effie Jane Wheeler, who taught English
Literature at Wheaton College in Illinois in the 1930's and 40's. In May of 1949 she wrote
the following letter to the president of the college, and through him to the rest of the
"I greatly appreciate the moment in the chapel that may be given to reading this,
for before you leave for the summer, I would like to have you know the truth about me as I
learned it for myself last Friday. My doctor has at last given me what has been his real
diagnosis of my illness for weeks an inoperable case of cancer. Now if he had been
a Christian he wouldn't have been so shaken, for he would have known as you and I do that
life or death is equally welcome when we live in the will and presence of the Lord. Please
do not give a moment's grief for me. I do not say a cold goodbye, but a warm Auf
Wiedersehen till I see you again in that blessed land where I may be allowed to draw aside
a curtain when you enter." Amen.