“Jesus began to weep.” John 11:35
My 30th high school reunion was held last weekend down in South Carolina. I couldn’t make it, of course, but I looked at the pictures and videos that were posted online from the party. Someone also shared pictures of our classmates who have died. In a class of almost 500, we have lost twenty people.
I was truly stunned to realize that. Twenty people. I recognized most of the names, even though I didn’t know many of them well. A few were close friends. Three were in my confirmation class. It took my breath away.
We don’t like to think about death. The culture around us really doesn’t like to think about death. All of us carry grief for beloved ones who have died, but so often we feel as though we need to hide it, to pretend like we’re OK even when we’re not. I am grateful that our life together as church includes days like today. Days when we pray for those who have gone before, giving thanks for all they have meant to us. Days when we remember that God holds us in holy community with the living and the dead. Days when we know that we are all, one with another, part of the communion of saints – with those who have died, those who are here now, those who have yet to be born. That’s why you see all of these names in the windows – to remind us that we are still connected in God’s eternal love. If you’re feeling especially emotional today, you are not alone.
Today’s gospel about the raising of Lazarus has some important things to tell us about how Jesus responds to death and grief.
Jesus is ready to receive all of what we feel. Mary throws herself at his feet and cries out with a heart full of pain: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Her sister Martha had said the same thing only moments before, only she goes out to meet Jesus on the road and challenges him before he’s even made it into town. I picture Martha confronting Jesus face to face, an accusing finger pointed at him, voice raised: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Grief is messy and complicated. And when it overwhelms us, we can fall at Jesus’ feet or get up in his face. He can take it.
The other thing we learn in this gospel is that Jesus feels grief himself. He weeps. He cries, tears rolling down his face. You might wonder, “Why would he cry if he knew what was about to happen?” I don’t know. I only know that he cries because he sees Mary crying. He is greatly disturbed in spirit, deeply moved. That’s part of what it means to have a flesh and blood savior. He isn’t detached from what we experience. He knows it intimately. He joins our suffering, and he calls us to do the same for each other.
Isaiah and Revelation both give us powerful portraits of a time when death will be no more. I love the imagery in these passages – the feast of rich food and well-aged wines, death being swallowed up forever. Or this description of the time to come: “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” I need the hope that these images bring, the reminder that there will be a time when death will no longer have any power.
But our gospel reminds us of something else – that we live in a time when death still happens. A time when mourning and crying and pain are constant companions. A time when we grieve. But also a time when Jesus breaks into our mourning and crying and pain in unexpected ways. He makes it possible for us to experience glimpses of new life now, even if that new life is stumbling out of a tomb still wrapped in bandages. He helps us breathe again in the midst of our pain.
On Thursday evening I attended an interfaith vigil in support of our Jewish neighbors in Pittsburgh and our Jewish neighbors here. We were hosted by Congregation Ohr Shalom and joined by the rabbis of all three synagogues in Summit, as well as clergy from several surrounding communities. I learned that Rabbi Avi Friedman, the rabbi at Congregation Ohr Shalom, served for six years at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. The eleven people who died had been his congregants. I thought about losing eleven of you in that horrible way, and all I could do was cry.
Rabbi Friedman spoke of how we are all connected to each other. Let me share a piece of what he said to us:
This past week, I realized it’s not just Jews who are interconnected. It’s ALL people of faith and ALL people of good conscience – those are not always the same thing – who are interconnected. While I always knew that, after this week, I KNOW it with my heart and soul in a new way.
I know it because of the many Christian clergy who reached out to Rabbi Gershon, Rabbi Orden and me to make sure we were okay.
I know it because of the one congregation that sent us flowers and a note of support.
I know it because of the one congregation that has offered to stand vigil outside our synagogue on the Sabbath in order to help us feel safe upon entering and exiting our sacred space on the Sabbath.
I know it because when I expressed to my interfaith colleagues my need for a service like this, ten of them re-arranged their schedules to come to a meeting to plan this vigil.
I know it because of the stranger who came up to me in the grocery store. He noticed my yarmulke and wanted to extend condolences to me.
I know it because of our mailman here at the synagogue who gave me a hug the first time he saw me after the shooting.
Rabbi Friedman’s words capture the ways that hope breaks through even the most awful kinds of grief – in hugs, in notes, in promises of support and solidarity. We hold each other in the sacred space that God provides for us to care for one another. We wait for a time when death will be no more, but in the meantime we put our arms around each other and hold each other up.
When Thursday’s service was planned, they hoped for 200 people and prepared for 300. There were about 700 people there.
Each of us received a card with the name of one of the people who died at Tree of Life. We were asked to carry that person’s story with us, to remember that person, to do our best to live in such a way that would honor that person’s memory.
I will be carrying the memory of Joyce Feinberg, age 75, described as an “intellectual powerhouse.” She spent her life as an educational researcher at the University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research and Development Center. I am proud to remember this dedicated educator and scholar, and I will also be praying for her family in their grief.
Others are carrying the blessed memory of…
David Rosenthal (Cecil’s brother)
Sylvan Simon (husband of Bernice)
I can’t wait for the day when death is swallowed up forever. But in the meantime, we remember, we sit with those who grieve, we cry together, we pray, we keep loving and caring for the living.