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Accepting Death
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 or not."

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 they can.

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 door."

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 college:

"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.