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John 11:32-44

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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John 11:32-44

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…

Richard Gottfried

Rose Mallinger

Jerry Rabinowitz

Cecil Rosenthal

David Rosenthal (Cecil’s brother)

Bernice Simon

Sylvan Simon (husband of Bernice)

Daniel Stein

Melvin Wax

Irving Younger

 

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.

“We still live with death, but because of Jesus, we live with life, and that gives us even greater hope.”[i]Amen.

 

[i]Thank you to Michael Ruffin, whose words I have borrowed for this sermon ending.  See more at https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3853

 

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