Tree of Life
“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.
“For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Romans 3:23-24
I had a different sermon a couple of days ago. I was going to tell you about having to sit in the purgatory of the middle seat on my flights to and from Chicago this week because I was flying “basic economy” and refused to pay the extra money for the privilege of picking a better seat. I was going to make a comparison to the system of indulgences that motivated Martin Luther’s protest against a church that made people pay money to guarantee that their loved ones were in heaven. Luther’s righteous indignation is far more important than my spending three hours sandwiched between other people’s elbows, but there was something there to help us remember our Lutheran history.
But I can’t give that sermon this morning. My heart is broken over what happened yesterday in Pittsburgh. And I am angry. Angry that the insidious hatred of white supremacists in this country continues to bring about death and destruction.
These events call us to pursue more than a Lutheran history lesson this morning. They challenge us to get back to the deepest theological foundations of our Lutheran faith.
It’s right there in Romans 3. It starts with sin.
I’m talking about sin as something more than the list of the bad things we’ve done this week – or the list of good things we know we should have done but didn’t. That’s part of sin, but sin is also a condition, a state of being. Luther described it with the Latin phrase incurvatus in se– being turned inward toward ourselves and away from God.
One of the most important realities of sin is what we hear in verse 22 of Romans 3: All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. All. Every last one of us. In the words of one of our confessions, we are held captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. As Jesus says in our gospel this morning, “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” We don’t like to think of ourselves as slaves, but the image holds when we remember that slaves are not able to set themselves free. They rely on someone more powerful to do that.
Sometimes we can recognize our sin and sometimes we can’t. Luther himself would be the first to admit that he was a sinner. He was somewhat obsessed with cataloging his sins. But Luther, like all of us, had his blind spots. In addition to the sins he could name, Luther said and wrote some horrible anti-Semitic words, words that have been used over the centuries, including in Nazi Germany, to justify horrific violence against our Jewish siblings.
That’s how sin gets magnified. When individual people in our individual sinfulness come together, we create systems and structures that inflict far more harm on our fellow human beings than any one person could do alone. It’s everywhere in our country’s history, from the genocide of Native Americans to the internment of Japanese-Americans in prison camps to the redlining that kept African-American families from home ownership to hiring practices that have discriminated against anyone who is not white, not straight, not male. We see variations on these cruelties in our own time. Sin is awful, and it is brutally creative.
I spent some time early yesterday morning watching parts of the service that was held Friday at the National Cathedral to lay to rest the remains of Matthew Shepard. You may remember that Matthew was a 21-year-old college student at the University of Wyoming. On the night of October 6, 1998, two other young men drove Matthew to a remote rural area, brutally beat him, tied him to a fence, and left him to die. There was evidence that suggested they attacked him because he was gay.
For all of these years Matthew’s parents Judy and Dennis have not been able to find a resting place for their son that would not be desecrated by anti-gay protesters – the same kind of protestors who picketed their son’s funeral back in 1998. Matthew had grown up in an Episcopal church, one that loved and accepted him, and so it seemed fitting when The National Cathedral invited the Shepards to bring Matthew’s remains to the cathedral’s crypt. Now he would be safe.
Bishop Gene Robinson, the retired bishop of the New Hampshire diocese, gave the homily on Friday.[i] In it he reminded us that human beings tend to “label someone different from ourselves as ‘other,’ which is code for ‘not really human’ – and then you can do anything to them that you like.” Every marginalized group knows this to be true; they have all experienced violence in a staggering variety of forms.
So what hope is there for us? If we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves, then where does that leave us?
There is hope. We trust in what Jesus tells us – that the truth will make us free. The truth about ourselves and how we fall short – and, more importantly, the truth that God gives us what we need. Hear the next part of that Romans verse: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
The gift is this: Jesus is the one who sets us free. Jesus, who himself was the victim of an unjust power structure, comes to free us from the consequences of our sin. He comes to restore our relationship with God and with each other. He comes to stand up to any system that dehumanizes and dismisses people. He comes to say that death and violence will not win.
In his homily Bishop Robinson shared that he has a magnet on his refrigerator that says “Jesus loves you, but I’m his favorite.” He went on to say:
OK, so here’s the miracle. Here’s the miracle. Every one of you is God’s favorite. Every one of you is God’s favorite. I don’t know how that can be. I just know that it’s true. And I don’t want any of you to leave here without being reminded that you are loved by the God of all that is. You are loved beyond your wildest imagining. And nothing – absolutely nothing – can separate you from that love.
Bishop Robinson is right. Nothing can separate us from God’s love. And having been liberated by God’s love, what then shall we do with that freedom? There’s nothing we have to do. That’s what the gift of grace means – that we don’t have to earn our place as God’s favorite. But why wouldn’t we do something with that good news? Why wouldn’t we try to make the world reflect God’s love for all people?
Our worship – the pattern of which embodies centuries of Christian practice – gives us a way forward. Consider how worship unfolds:
We confess. We repent what we have done and left undone – both individually and collectively. We name where we have failed to dismantle bigotry and oppression. We hear God’s promises of forgiveness, the assurance that our failures will not be the final word. We pray and we sing: “Lord, have mercy.”
We hear God’s word – in scripture, in sermon, in song. We trust that this word will shape us – will re-form us – into people who are rooted in the faith that only God can give.
We gather for a holy meal. We hold out our hands and receive bread and wine – means of grace that come not from our deserving, but from God’s generosity.
And then we are sent out into the world. Filled with God’s grace, assured of God’s promises, we go out to do whatever we can to make this world look more like what God wants it to be. We are sent out to confront evil in all its forms, knowing that it will not win in the end.
Thanks be to God for the truth that makes us free. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i]You can watch the full service here: https://cathedral.org/event/service-of-thanksgiving-and-remembrance-for-matthew-shepard/