Those words came to mind a few weeks ago when a dear friend wrote to tell me of his brother’s passing. It had been a long and valiant fight against a brutal disease, and yet there had been reason to hope.
My friend had even gone home, trusting that his brother was on the mend and that it was time to conserve his own strength for the long path of recovery ahead. And then, just like that, his brother slipped away and was gone.
Perhaps because it was his younger brother or because his brother was only in his 50s, I can tell you that it was one of those deaths that just felt wrong.
We lost Elaine Fortier last week. And then we lost Roger. The fact that Elaine went first, well, there was almost a sort of strange poetry to that. She was one of those people who truly loved and cared for Roger. Every time I talked to her on the phone she mentioned Betty and Roger, how she loved to vacation with them and take them places. The fact that she got to heaven just a few days before him, that almost feels right. Almost.
Because the truth, at least for me, is that Death, no matter how natural it may be, still feels somehow wrong.
It strikes me as both the most natural and unnatural of things that we experience: natural in the sense that it comes for all of us, natural in the sense that it is happening all around us, natural in the sense that nothing – not even taxes – is more certain,
and yet…and yet… even in those cases where it is welcomed, where it is time, where it is a mercy, where it is right… there is something about death that still feels wrong.
The finality, the separation from those we love, the feeling that no matter how much time you’ve had you’d still take just a little bit more: death, though inevitable, still feels somehow unnatural.
It makes all the sense in the world and no sense at all, because I think -and I don’t mean to sound trite here, but I do – I think the bumper stickers are true. Not the one that says, “When Jesus said love your enemies I think he meant don’t kill them,” or the one that says “I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one,” or even the one that says “I used to be cool,” which sadly totally belongs on the back of my mini-van.
No I’m talking about the one that says “we’re not human beings having a spiritual experience but spiritual beings having a human experience.” Have you seen that one? That’s making more and more sense to me as I age, because you see I’m closing in on the middle here – Yeah – and beginning to experience on a very personal level the fact that my body and my soul seem to be heading in two very different directions. Anyone else notice that?
The body is holding up okay and I plan on taking very good care of it, but realistically, thanks to two kids and 41 years of light to moderate living, I think it’s fair to say that it peaked awhile back. It’s true.
What’s strange, is that my soul, that part of me that is most me, well that part is just getting started, that part is still gathering steam. You know what I mean?
It grows more vibrant and vital by the day. I know this body will not last forever, but my soul, honestly, I can’t imagine my soul ever coming to an end.
I’m not saying I understand how it all works in the great by and by or know for sure what happens when we die. In all honesty there are days when I wonder, or better yet, can’t fully imagine how life can continue beyond this plane. There are basic logistical issues that I can’t for the life of me begin to work out.
But then there are days, like the day my friend lost his brother, when I am confronted by the fierceness of our love for one another, a love so strong that I believe nothing, not even death can destroy it. Our capacity for love defies our finitude.
Nothing can save us that is possible:
We who must die demand a miracle.
It really is a strange thing to be a Christian when you think about it, strange to believe not only in Christ’s resurrection, but the hope of our own.
It is such a strange thing, to not just live but love as immortal beings inside decidedly mortal bodies, bodies that were never designed to go the distance.
Strange to live in the face of death, to house a heart that goes on beating even after it is broken, to be able to live on in hope, faith, and love even when loss leaves us feeling empty, abandoned, and alone. And today, even if only for a few moments, I’d like us to sit with that strangeness, with the discomfort, with this paradox.
Because on a day like All Saints, when we remember those who have gone before us and contemplate that which lies ahead of us, there is a very real temptation to just skip to the end:
skip to the part where it’s either all over or God makes it all ok…
skip to that place where either the lights go out or death is no more and every tear is wiped away…
skip over the hard part without first acknowledging that death is real and present, and allowing for some of those tears to be shed.
Yes, I know we’re in a main line church surrounded by the souls of stiff upper lip Yankees who have historically frowned upon public displays of emotion. Some of those souls are even dead.
Yes, we affirm a faith that believes in the reality of resurrection, the immortality of the soul, and a heaven where all things will be made new… but we also live in a world where people die…every day: people we’ve never met and people we’ve loved with all our hearts… and resurrection or no, it hurts.
It hurts a lot.
Be you a believer, a questioner, or a questioning believer, it hurts because we live in the mean time, the between time, an un-easy time no matter how deep our faith or faithful and true our God…and that’s the place where I want to meet you today, where I want to meet you and where I believe Jesus meets us in our scripture for this morning.
I know this isn’t an easy passage for some of you. If you are someone who identifies with Jesus as more of a wise teacher than as say God incarnate, these stories of extreme miracles can come off sounding like nothing more than the fevered dreams of simple folk in the early church. And, not for nothing, I probably do too.
But one of the reasons I love this story and believe in the truth of it is precisely because Jesus – for all his power and glory -gets caught up so short right in the thick of it.
He is so over confident in the beginning of this chapter, almost like the hare who raced the tortoise in Aesop’s fable. He thinks he knows from the very beginning how this story is going to end and he milks it for all it’s worth.
I actually find John’s depiction of Jesus in this chapter highly disturbing. I find it disturbing that he would delay – intentionally delay – coming to the bedside of Lazarus after learning that his dear friend is ill.
I find it even more disturbing that he would admit, out loud, to his disciples that he is actually waiting on purpose for Lazarus to die in order that God’s glory and his own might be revealed. He actually comes right out and says: “For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.”
It would appear that this is all a bit of a set up, the better for Jesus to show off the full extent of his power when he brings Lazarus back from the dead: which is creepy when you think about it… on multiple levels. Creepy.
But what redeems this story for me is the fact that when Jesus finally arrives at Bethany in all his power and glory, as certain as his words might sound and as sound as his plan might be, his very human body tells another story.
Lazarus is already four days dead and buried by the time Jesus gets there and everyone is understandably upset and angry. Martha confronts him with the truth – “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” – and Jesus holds it together, at least at first, telling her to keep the faith, assuring her that her brother will rise again.
But that encounter with Martha shakes him up. It shakes him up so much that by the time he reaches Mary and hears those same words from her mouth – “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” – he can no longer deny the devastation his friend’s death has wrought in the lives of those he loves. Nor can he deny how much the death of Lazarus affects even him.
When Jesus sees Mary’s tears and the tears of all those assembled, his tears begin to flow. He cries out. He breaks down. His resolve to teach everyone a lesson crumbles. The Bible tells us that he was “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.”
The Bible tells us that, “Jesus wept.”
And I thank God for those words. I thank God that in spite of the plan, in spite of the fact that resurrection was imminent, in spite of the fact that he knew for sure and for certain that death was not the end for Lazarus, that Jesus wept too.
He wept for his friend. He wept for Mary and for Martha. And he wept for himself, because resurrection or not, the death of one we love hurts us deeply. It robs of something we never get back.
Even if we believe that we will all be reunited in that land beyond the sky, even if we hold fast to the promise that God will make all things new, death still hits us hard because God does not put everything back together the way it once was.
What is passed is past. We may be reunited but we don’t get back exactly what we had here on earth anymore than we get back what might have been had our beloved remained.
What could have been here, on this side of the veil, can now never be. Something real is lost when someone dies…lost forever…and that loss not only hurts, that loss deserves to be mourned.
Even Jesus wept, and if there is one message I would like to communicate to you this morning, on this day of all days, it is that it is okay for you to weep too. Such tears do not testify to a lack of faith on our part but to the depths of our love for those who have departed.
Church, it is okay to cry for those who have died this year. It is okay to cry for people you love even if they died a very long time ago. It is ok to cry for all that has been lost and for that which will never be.
I do believe that there will come a day when God will wipe all our tears away, but until that day, it is right and good to let our tears flow. For the strange truth at the heart of our reading, our faith, indeed our very existence, is that we do not mourn as those who have no hope, we mourn –truly mourn – as those who do.
A paradox to be sure, a paradox as trustworthy as it is true.
Let us pray: Dear Jesus hold us close and help us to hold one another as our memories rise to greet us and our tears mingle with the gift of hope we have in you. Although our faith cannot keep death from happening it can remind us that death will not have the final word. Our faith may not keep the grief at bay – for even you wept at the grave of Lazarus – but it can give us hope that there will come a day when such pain will be no more. Remind us, dear Jesus, that though death may bind us for a time, it cannot bind us forever, for ultimately there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God revealed to us through you. Amen.