Life AND Death

A Sermon for 1 November 2015 – All Saints’ Day

A reading from the gospel of John. You might find this portion of Scripture familiar if you know the story of Jesus and his good friends Lazarus, Martha, and Mary who resided near Jerusalem in the village of Bethany. Our reading today is only the final portion of this story in which Jesus intentionally delays his journey back into Judean territory after receiving word from the sisters that their brother Lazarus is very ill. When at last Jesus goes, he finds deeply grieving sisters surrounded by crowds of mourners; for Lazarus already has been dead four days. Listen for God’s word to us in this reading from the gospel of John 11:32-44.

“When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.””

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

 

Did you see the moon the other night? Just shy of full, it finally hung in radiant view Wednesday night. I first saw it on our way out of the parking lot after Wednesday evening activities here. It was glorious! I’m not sure if it was waxing or waning gibbous – whatever that means – but it sure was beautiful. After all those overcast nights of rain it was as if that nearly full moon rose up to say: “Hello! I’m sorry the rain blocked your view last night of my full splendor. But here I am – still doing my thing, whether you can see it or not, in beautiful the night sky.” . . . It happened some twelve hours after a morning walk when I passed a nearly bare tree. My dog stopped amid its fallen leaves to do his thing when I noticed that the leaves from that tree were bright green. They never turned to their glorious hues – just kept summer’s color as they fell to the ground to remind us that the weather’s been doing a number on us this year. The combination of the two events on Wednesday left me wondering about the moon and the trees. You know, they put up no protest. Moon doesn’t rail against the night sky saying: “I won’t, I won’t, I won’t wax and wane! I wanna stay full and bright every night of the month!” Leaves don’t argue: “Wait a minute! The conditions weren’t right! I refuse to fall to the ground!” And when conditions are right for those leaves to turn to the most beautiful reds and oranges and golden yellows, nothing in them shakes their fists to protest: “No way! I’m too beautiful now to continue through the cycle! I’m not letting go – I’m going to stay super-glued right here to this tree and never end up decaying brown on the ground!” You ever hear such chatter from the moon? Have you ever heard a leaf come up with intricate excuses why it shouldn’t have to fall?

Something about Mary’s words stand in direct contrast. And the thing is, when you read this story of Jesus, Lazarus, Martha, and Mary from the start of chapter 11, you hear that Mary mimicked the exact same words of Martha upon the first sight of their Lord. Martha protests first: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21). A few minutes later Mary is recorded as greeting Jesus the same: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:32). No: “Jesus! Thank you so much finally for coming!” No: “It’s so good to see you, Lord. You know he loved you so much!” No. Instead Martha and Mary are recorded as speaking the exact same words, which leaves us wondering if the gospel writer seeks to indicate something other than exact dialogue from that very day, and something more of what often first arises in us humans in the face of death. God: Why?! Why did you let this happen when certainly you have the ability to make it not so! LORD, if you’d have been here – if you were here, the one we love dearly certainly would not be in the casket right now.

Sometimes we’re relieved – the pain of dying has passed for the one we love. . . . Today we honor two women beloved by this congregation who wasted away before us. Each of these faithful witnesses was taken away by diseases that left their bodies among us longer than the fullness of their shining personalities. The length of their battles differed, but those who loved them watched each of these women slip further and further from this life before finally being consumed by death. I’m not sure if either one of them ever turned a demanding fist to ask why. I wouldn’t doubt it if a few others had in their favor because both were wonderful women whose lives shined as bright examples to others and with folks like that, we just don’t want to let them go. . .

For years I’ve read this story of Lazarus’ death – I’ve read tons of commentaries that zero-in on Jesus’s tears at this event. His great disturbance and deeply moved spirit at the sight of all those weeping over the loss of Lazarus. Maybe you’ve heard it too: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). The shortest verse in the bible, as it’s recorded in the King James Version. And perhaps you know all the arguments as to why: why he was grieved too at the loss. Was he mad at the Jews who came out from Jerusalem in their traditional parades of mourning? Why exactly does God-in-flesh in Jesus, the Christ weep at the tomb of his friend Lazarus? Why is his spirit so deeply moved – enough so to turn to heaven in a prayer of thanksgiving before commanding the dead man to come out? . . . Did you notice that each time it’s recorded that Jesus is greatly disturbed, both in verse 33 and again in very 38, it’s immediately after someone has verbalized their desire for death to have been side-stepped? Martha says it first, then Mary. And Jesus is greatly disturbed – the Greek word used here connotes a swirl of various emotions – including anger. The Jews of the crowd wonder aloud if this weeping one who loved Lazarus so couldn’t have kept him from dying. And again, it is reported that Jesus is greatly disturbed – that swirl of emotions, including a little anger. Is it possible that Jesus is at his wit’s end? Moved deeply in spirit because he’s getting close to his end in Jerusalem just two miles from this little village of Bethany. So close to being about his final letting go and for all his efforts, all his words, every deed he has done to show any who would listen that we must die before we die – no matter how many times he’s tried to explain through word and deed that death is a daily part of life, no one seems to be getting it. How many times does he have to tell us that the path to Life is one paved with death? “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies” he says, it produces no fruit (John 12:24). “Those who want to save their life will lose it,” he pleads. “And those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). And again according to the gospel of Luke, Jesus teaches us that denying ourselves daily is the way of following him – it’s the way of the cross. The self-emptying of our will each day and all throughout it in order to join our spirits with his as he finally comes to say in the garden: “Not my will, O God, but yours be done!” (Luke 22:42). Just like the words of his mother Mary who once faithfully said: “Let it be with me, O God, according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Dying is a part of life – not just the dying that our physical bodies will do one day. Dying daily to our wills in order for God’s to prevail is The Path. It is the Way. The Truth that leads to Life itself. It is the walk of Christ.

It doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. Deeply. It doesn’t mean God is flippant at our death or at our grief. The gospel records Jesus is greatly disturbed AND he weeps – both. A spirit that wants us to understand his path of Life, yet mourns the sight of our tears. Laments with us in compassion over the pain we feel from death. Even we who know the end of the story – that resurrection happens on the third day – even we who trust in ever-lasting Life, we still ache when one we love dies. We just do it as those whose tears mingle with joy, don’t we? As those who have hope. . . . And if in the face of such death, then why not each day? Why not grieve the little deaths we must go through as we let go of our own desires, but do so mingled with joy; for we know the God whose final word always is Life? A whole new world awaits. In our letting it be, in our dying to self, in our daily death; God makes something new. . . . Whatever it is – whatever letting go, whatever letting it be, whatever dying to self in order to live that you must go through each day, trust. For it too leads to Life. Life. God’s abundant gift of Life.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2015  (All rights reserved.)

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