April 6, 2014
Text framing: Listen for the grief felt in this Gospel story.
Theme Sentence: Jesus weeps for us even when his presence is not felt.
I have heard the saying “There are no atheist in foxholes.” Thankfully I have never had the horrifying experience of war, but I imagine the saying is meant to convey that folks who face times of stress or an encounter with death automatically reach for a higher power and profess a belief in God. At least in my own short experience in this life, I find this saying to be quite untrue. If I must be honest with you (and I want to be honest with you) the times I have come face-to-face with trauma are precisely the times I felt God to be most absent. Like the time I was serving on Timberville’s Fire and Rescue crew and called out to a traffic crash that took a life late last summer. I remember the scene lights that made the whole thing look unreal, the smell of diesel and…the waiting. The State Police had to complete a rather thorough investigation due to the nature of the fatality wreck. And so the fire crew sat on the front bumper of the Engine and waited…for four hours knowing that we would be called upon to open the car which had become the young man’s tomb. And I am realizing now that what felt like an excruciatingly long four hour wait was just a fraction of what Lazarus’ family felt for four days, and this man was a stranger to me. And it was in that moment that I was hoping none my fellow firefighters would ask that most difficult question that has haunted believers since our fall from glory: “If God is all powerful and all loving, why does he let bad things happen?” Because I did not then and do not now have a good answer. And those times I see evil or trauma in this world are also my greatest times of doubt, times when I recognize God’s absence.
Our Gospel story this morning is about a time Jesus was absent for someone he loved, Lazarus. Jesus wasn’t there, he didn’t show up. And perhaps it is most challenging for us to discover that when Jesus did learn of Lazarus’ illness he choose to stay where he was for two more days. Was this a lack of concern on Jesus’ part? When Jesus finally does make it to town he is much too late. Jesus discovers that not only is Lazarus dead, but he wasn’t even in time for the funeral – he had been in the tomb for four days. Or in other words, this is John’s way of telling us “Lazarus was deader-than-a-door-nail dead.” And you can hear the accusation, the felt absence in the first words that come out of the mouths of both Martha and Mary “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” What goes unsaid is “Jesus, you were not here when I needed you most.” And even bystanders recognized the absence and Jesus’ seeming lack of power “He opened the eyes of the blind man, why couldn’t he keep this man from dying?”
Jesus is present, though, in the midst of grief. And I do find comfort in the fact that he is willing to be present in grief without a gloss over that emotion. And he seems to meet the sisters where they are, and offer comfort as each of them needs to be comforted. He first encounters Martha who, after her rightful accusation that Jesus had not be present goes on to say “but I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” Jesus goes on to have a talk about his promise of the resurrection, the hope in the last day; of eternal life. And it does provide Martha comfort – even if she does not quite get that Jesus will soon offer a sign of new life before her very eyes. But it is the way that Jesus comforts Mary I find most profound for our Christian response to grief.
Martha goes after Mary who goes out to see Jesus; she offers that same exact accusation “If you had been here (which you weren’t) then my brother would not have died.” And she offers no other words, no other explanation, no other request for comfort. She just cries; she weeps. And then, Jesus seeing Mary crying, walks her to the tomb and Jesus wept too. What puzzles me most about Jesus’ show of emotion is that you and I know what happens next…and Jesus knows what happens next – in fact he said earlier to his disciples before he arrived to town “I know that Lazarus is dead…and I am going there to wake him up.” He walked to the tomb, knowing that The Father would hear and respond to his prayer to bring Lazarus up from the dead, and yet…Jesus cries. Why? Jesus wept. These certainly can’t be tears of despair like Martha, Mary, the family, and friends – because Jesus knew the hope of the resurrection which was moments away. I wonder that these are purely tears of empathy. Jesus weeps because Mary weeps. And I do believe that in those times we face trauma, evil, and death; those times that Jesus does in fact feel distant – those are the times Jesus looks down from heaven and weeps with us, even when he knows the promise of the resurrection on the last day…Jesus weeps with us this day.
And maybe he weeps because he knows what will come next for him. He is God incarnate; which also means he must feel all our human emotions including the fear of what must come next. It is the raising of Lazarus in John’s Gospel that ultimately caused the chief priest along with the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin to determine that Jesus must die. Caiaphas did not know how true it was when he said “It is better for one man to die for the people than for the whole nation to perish.” And we can see the connections between the raising of Lazarus and the raising of Jesus: Mary, who is the one who anoints Jesus feet; they are both laid in a tomb for several days; both with a stone rolled over the entrance. Only for Lazarus he emerges bound by his grave clothes and Jesus is freed from death which frees us all from death.
We, as the Christian faithful profess our belief in the resurrection from the dead. Lazarus was raised; Jesus rose; we will rise on the last day. Yet, in our times of grief we must wait much longer than the four days of Lazarus. And I think that is why Jesus first declared to Martha “I am the resurrection and the life.” I am. Resurrection life begins now, and Lazarus is proof.
I read this story on Huffington Post this past week (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/28/kristina-chesterman-donor-bucket-list_n_5051978.html) 21-year-old nursing student Kristina died after being hit by a drunk driver when she was riding home on her bicycle. It was a devastating tragedy for her parents, a tragedy in which I’m sure that Jesus shed tears. But it was after her death that Kristina’s life lived on. She was an organ donor and thanks to her five people have been given the chance at a new life including a baby boy who received her liver and a woman named Susan who received her heart. Susan suffered from congestive heart failure and would have very likely died without the transplant. She was very aware of the new life she received; and the life lost which allowed her a second chance. So she vowed to do everything she could to ensure the donor’s dreams lived on in her. Susan got in touch with Kristina’s family and is striving to fulfill all of the “bucket list” items left undone. Some of them include flying a plane, travel, and riding a camel. This is more than a cute gesture but I find it to be a profound recognition that even in loss, even in God’s felt absence, and certainly Kristina’s family feels her loss even when they know Susan’s intentions. We profess that resurrection life lives now and Jesus weeps with us in our grief until he does join us on the last day.