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November 7, 2021
Have you ever cried but tried to hide your tears so no one else would see them? Maybe you’ve hidden in a bathroom at work or at school so that you could cry alone. You might have even run the water to drown out the sound of your sobbing. Maybe you’ve locked yourself away in a bedroom or cried in the middle of the night when no one could hear you.
I have a hunch that most of us have hidden our tears at one time or another. Our world gives us some mixed-up messages about crying. It tells us that we’re soft or weak or wimpy if we cry. We’re made to feel ashamed of our tears, so we find ourselves apologizing when we cry in front of someone else. “I’m so sorry,” we say. As if crying were a sign of a character flaw. I think that stigma is especially true for men and for boys, who are often taught from an early age that tears aren’t “masculine.”
There are quite a few tears in today’s readings. Did you notice? They show up in all the readings except our psalm. There are a lot of tears in the gospel. Those tears are understandable given that Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus has died. When Mary meets Jesus, she comes to him crying. She is crying for her dead brother, and I wonder if she’s also crying because she’s angry at Jesus – angry that he has waited so long to show up. Her words suggest as much: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Tears are, among other things, signs of grief. And grief is usually a sign of love. Tears means that we have loved someone enough that our hearts are broken when that person dies. We are forever changed, and we can’t help but express that loss.
So Mary cries. And then Jesus cries. He cries for his friend Lazarus, and he cries as he sees his friend Mary grieving for her brother.
Before Jesus encounters Mary, he’s already had a run-in with her sister Martha. Martha runs out to meet Jesus on the road, and she is the first to say to him: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” She asks Jesus to do something. Jesus says, “Your brother will rise again.” And Martha answers: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” I imagine her tone of voice suggesting that she’s not too interested in what will happen later. Her brother is dead now. Her grief, her tears, her pain are real now.
That’s just it. We know that Jesus promises resurrection, life beyond death. He says as much to Martha when he says to her: “I am the resurrection and the life.” We hear those future promises in our other readings as well. Isaiah tells us that God will swallow up death. God will wipe away the tears from all faces. No more crying. In Revelation we hear the same promise: “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”
Those are powerful promises, and I believe them. But in the meantime we are grieving. For now we still weep. What about that?
It’s important to acknowledge that in this life grief is real and lasting. It’s especially important to say that out loud in a time when we have lost more than 754,000 people to COVID in the United States and more than five million around the world. Each one of those people was beloved by family members and friends and co-workers. Each one leaves behind a void that no one else can fill. Each one was unique, created in the image of God. The same is true of all the people we have loved and lost, no matter how they died.
There’s another part of today’s readings that strikes me as important. People are not alone when they cry. Our reading from Isaiah imagines a feast of rich food, of well-aged wines. That doesn’t sound like a person huddled alone in a closet. That sounds like people gathered around a table overflowing with delicious food and drink, sharing together in a meal in the midst of their grief – a grief that God will remove when God swallows up death forever.
When Mary goes out to greet Jesus and kneel at her feet, she is crying. When Jesus looks up and sees her tears, he also sees her friends and neighbors weeping with her. Her community has surrounded her and feels Mary’s grief alongside her.
Who do you trust to see your tears? Who do you trust to cry along with you? That’s what we need when we are grieving – people to sit with us and cry with us and not try to convince us that everything will be OK but instead just be with us in the grief.
We remember on this day that we are part of the communion of saints. We are joined with all the people of God – past, present, and future. We inherit the gift of faith from our ancestors, we share it with others and receive it from others in our lives, and we pass it along to the next generation. That faith takes on new shapes and practices over time, but some things remain central. The waters of baptism, the bread and wine of communion. We gather beside the water and around the table to remind each other that we are not alone. God is with us. We are with each other.
I’ve shared with you before some of Rachel Held Evans’ writing. She died two years ago at the tragically young age of 37. One of her friends, Jeff Chu, helped pull together the new book Rachel had been working on when she died. It’s out now, titled Wholehearted Faith. I find it poignant that in the Prologue, Rachel talks about the communion of saints. She writes[i]:
For better or for worse, there are seasons when we hold our faith, and then there are seasons when our faith holds us. In those latter instances, I am more thankful than ever for all the saints, past and present, who said yes, and whose faith sustains mine. They believe for me when I’m not sure I believe. They hold on to hope for me when I’ve run out of hope. They are the old lady next to me in the pew and the little kid behind me who recite the entirety of the Apostles’ Creed on my behalf on those Sundays when I cannot bring myself to say all those ancient words wholeheartedly…They pray for me when the only words I have to say to God are…[ones that] would make even my most foulmouthed friend blush.
As Rachel knew so well, we are a communion of saints. A community of people created and bound together by God across time and space. People who are inconsistently faithful but who, in our care for one another, can catch glimpses of that day when death and mourning and crying and pain will be no more.
And so, saints of God, when your tears come, let them flow. God is with us, and we weep together. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i] Rachel Held Evans with Jeff Chu, Wholehearted Faith, p. 3
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