“I pray that the God of our Lord, Jesus Christ…may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that…you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints…” Ephesians 1:17-18
During seminary I spent my internship year with a wonderful congregation in Sierra Vista, Arizona. They provided a beautiful community in which to learn how to be a pastor. I’ve often thought how much the folks here and the folks there would enjoy one another. There was an older gentleman in the congregation whose wife had died a few years earlier. He came by the church every Wednesday afternoon to spend time in the Memorial Garden, where her ashes had been placed. He would sit there for a long time visiting with her. Sometimes he would stop by my office on his way out, and one day he told me that he talked to his wife every day throughout the day, as if she were still alive and right there with him. He talked to her while he did household chores, while he drove around town, and while he sat in his favorite chair and watched television. He asked me one day if I thought it was OK that he talked to his dead wife. I said that of course I thought it was OK. It was a way of staying connected to her and keeping her memory with him.
This man’s wife had been the cook and preparer of meals in their household. She had also been a long-time volunteer at the local hospital. Before she died, she made arrangements for her husband to have lunch at the hospital cafeteria each day after she was gone. When she eventually did die, he managed to figure out breakfast, but he went to the hospital at the same time each day for lunch, and then he brought a few leftovers home for supper. If he failed to show up for lunch, someone from the hospital checked on him. That had been part of his wife’s instructions to her colleagues there.
I’m moved every time I think about how they remained connected even after her death. He kept talking to her in the present as if she were still here. She had made sure he would be fed and cared for in a future that she would not be able to share with him. The separation of death was there, and it was painful. But there were also moments that transcended that separation, connecting this life and the next.
When we hear Jesus’ words in the gospel today, it can be tempting to think of them as a list of future rewards or punishments, a distinction between this life and the next. And Jesus does allude to a heavenly reward that awaits people who are persecuted for the faith.
Jesus uses the language of blessings and woes throughout his sermon. Blessed are the poor…blessed are the hungry…blessed are those who weep. And then there’s the reverse. Woe to you who are rich…woe to you who are full…woe to you who are laughing.
Our culture has trained us to think of being blessed as something we earn for being especially deserving. But the word here for “blessed” can mean something closer to satisfied or unburdened.[i] Feeling unburdened is such a rare experience these days. It sounds like a gift.
And on the flip side, the word for “woe” is meant to be a clear contrast to “blessed,” but it doesn’t really mean “cursed” or “unhappy.” It’s a bit like our word “yikes”; it’s meant to get our attention. So Jesus is promising relief to those who are facing difficulty, and he is saying “look out” to those for whom things are easy or comfortable.[ii]
But time is not always linear, especially time in scripture. These blessings and woes aren’t necessarily just describing some future of rewards and punishments. I think that Jesus is reminding us that life brings it all together – poverty and wealth, hunger and fullness, weeping and laughter. We will have all of these experiences in this life at some point. We will hunger for something that we can’t have. We will feel satisfied by something we didn’t expect to happen. We will feel financially insecure. We will receive a surprise gift to get us through a hard time. We will cry because the grief and the worry are overwhelming. We will smile as we remember that silly thing our loved one used to do.
This life is not neat and tidy. This life is a jumble of joy and pain, tears and laughter. Sometimes all at once. Sometimes with the past, the present, and the future all tangled up together in echoes of memory and longing and hope. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “Look out, your life will not always be easy. You will experience difficult, heartbreaking things. But those heartbreaking things will not break you forever.”
In today’s second reading two words are repeated several times. Those words are “inheritance” and “hope.” We have both because of Jesus. We inherit the promise of God’s presence, an unshakeable love that holds us fast in this life and in the next. And like any inheritance, we do nothing to earn it other than being born as children of God. It’s the immeasurable depth of God’s grace that makes that promise true for each and every one of us – and for the loved ones we remember today.
Jesus is the source of our hope. Jesus is the source of our strength when it feels like the grief will pull us under. And it has nothing to do with getting what we deserve or being rewarded or punished. It has everything to do with what Jesus has done for us already.
Listen again to the words of St. Paul in Ephesians: “I pray that the God of our Lord, Jesus Christ…may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that…you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints…” (1:17-18).
As we kneel around the altar for communion this morning, we experience that hope in a different folding together of time. We are part of the communion of saints, meaning that we are joined with all those who have come before us, all those whom we have loved and lost, all those yet to be born. We are joined to all the people around the world who receive this meal. We are part of a community so profoundly beautiful and interconnected across time and space that we cannot comprehend it. It is holy time and space. Take a moment this morning to savor being part of that body of Christ, that communion that has no end.
We remember so many people this morning. I love what theologian Frederick Buechner writes about remembering. He says:
Memory is more than a looking back to a time that is no longer; it is a looking out into another kind of time altogether, where everything that ever was continues not just to be, but to grow and change…Who knows what “the communion of saints” means, but surely it means more than just that we are all of us haunted by ghosts because they are not ghosts, these people we once knew, not just echoes of voices that have years since ceased to speak, but saints in the sense that through them something of the power and richness of life itself not only touched us once long ago, but continues to touch us.[iii]
Jesus is the One who was, who is now, and who is to come. By defying death, he has defied time. And so today and every day to come, we receive the inheritance that only he can give, a blessing that sends us out with hope. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i] Thank you to Matt Skinner for his helpful commentary at https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4256
“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.