“Resurrection…” – Sermon for Sunday, March 26, 2023
(This is the sermon I gave in response to John 11:1-45)
Lent is a time when we are forced to deal with things we would rather not. Like death. Remember how Lent started on Ash Wednesday? We heard the words – “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We are confronted with our mortality and death, right in our face, quite literally. There’s no avoiding it. It’s meant to be uncomfortable and humbling. To remind us that we are in God’s hands, and we are not in control.
Some cultures that are pretty good at dealing with, talking about, and coping with death. They get the process of grief and mourning. They understand that it takes time to process and that you can’t really go it alone. They build in ritual and community into the process.
And then there’s our culture. We’re pretty good with giving people comfort food – no doubt. But beyond that, we have a corporate expectation that you are to be over the death of someone really close to you, who has been a major part of your life, within 3 days – oh and it shouldn’t impact your work after that. Really?
Let’s be honest, we’re terrible about how we talk about death. We don’t like to use the word – we’d rather talk around it. We have expressions about death like:
- Someone has passed away or passed on
- A person has faded away
- They were on their last leg
- He had an untimely death.
And then there are the expressions that are said to the people who have lost loved ones. And they are truly meant with the best of intentions. We feel terrible for someone who has lost a loved one to death. And we feel we need to say something. But these common sayings do not help. Trust me on this.
Want to know the best thing you can say? Are you ready? Death sucks. I’m here for you. You don’t have to face this alone. (but only if you really mean it). Or just say – I’m so very sorry for your loss. And then stop. That’s it. Just acknowledge the reality of death, the loss of their loved one and how painful that it is. Don’t try to make it better – you can’t.
In our Gospel reading, we have the serious illness and death of Lazarus. There’s a funeral and a mourning process and ritual along with a communal response that is baked into the story. We have to step out of our cultural context to grasp this because it’s so easy to miss, it’s not spelled out for us in the passage. But it is important to what’s going on in the passage and to our hearing of Good News.
When Jesus arrives in Bethany, we hear that Lazarus has been dead for four days. This is an important fact for two reasons. The first is the commonly held Jewish belief that the soul left the body after three days – therefore Lazarus was really dead. Everyone believed this. Nothing would be able to bring him back now.
Second, Mary and Martha are mid-way through what is called Shiva, which is a week-long mourning period in Judaism for first-degree relatives. According to Shiva.com, which is a website designed to help families prepare for their shiva of a loved one, it starts immediately following the burial. “The primary purpose of the shiva tradition is to create an environment of comfort and community for mourners; It helps guide friends and family members through the loss of a loved ones. Throughout the weeklong shiva period, mourners come together in one family’s home to offer their condolences and support.”
Now here’s what’s interesting and pertains to our Gospel reading – “During the shiva period…the direct descendants of the deceased are also technically not supposed to leave the home in which they are sitting shiva, except for extreme circumstances, such as when a human life is in danger.” That’s so they can focus on mourning and not be distracted by the normal things of the world.
And yet, what do we hear? Jesus didn’t go to the home of Martha and Mary and Lazarus. Vs. 18 starts off “Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother.” (To practice the ritual of sitting Shiva). It goes on in vs. 20, “When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home.”
She left Shiva, which is what she wasn’t supposed to do. She’s supposed to be in her house where there aren’t any distractions from the work of mourning. But she is mourning of course, based on what we hear her say to Jesus in expressing her brother’s loss. But this conversation between Martha and Jesus is so amazing.
Jesus makes a future promise about Lazarus, which Martha acknowledges and affirms. And then Jesus declares “I am the resurrection and the life, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” And John records Martha making a definitive declaration of faith that is so very important – “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the World.”
Wow. Grasp how significant that is. This is the Gospel having a woman making a declaration of faith at a time when women were secondary. Martha isn’t a rabbi or a religious leader. She has no authority. Some might even have argued that maybe her statement shouldn’t be trusted because of her emotional state. Maybe you’ve heard that line before? But John doubles down on this, and will do this again in Ch. 20 when he has Mary Magdalene as the first witness of the resurrection and then a short time later at the end of Ch. 20 when he writes “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” Do the words sound familiar? The same words that Martha declares in her statement of faith about Jesus.
Martha goes back to her sister Mary. And we are told starting in vs. 29, “And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him.” (Thus, breaking her Shiva early as well). But the mourning is still going on as we hear in vs. 31 – “The Jews who were with her in the house consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought she was going to the tomb to weep there.”
And Mary finds Jesus, and like Martha, expresses her sorrow and pain in her weeping. And this time, those who were practicing Shiva, the mourners, were also weeping alongside her. We are told that Jesus was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. And he began to weep. He is mourning with them.
He knows what he is going to do, and at the same time, it doesn’t take away the reality of the pain and suffering of what they are experiencing in that moment. It’s real.
Dan Shapiro, in his book, Negotiating the Nonnegotiable, wrote the following: “to heal, you must feel. You can’t bear witness to pain if you tiptoe around it.” (Pg. 176).
While Shapiro wasn’t writing about this passage of Scripture, I think in this moment, it is Jesus very much bearing witness to the pain that Mary and Martha and the entire community was experiencing in the loss of Lazarus. It was Jesus feeling what they have lost and could not have again. Resurrection isn’t just the restoration of life, it is a variation of shalom – bringing wholeness and healing to creation.
So what about resurrection, you ask? We’ll get there in a moment – hold that thought.
Shiva ends early for Martha and Mary and those gathered – because of Jesus. But not without recognition of the pain and suffering of the loss that they were experiencing. It wasn’t about ignoring or brushing aside those feelings as if they were false or didn’t matter. They were real. And Jesus is there with them in the midst of their pain and suffering, is deeply moved by it, and shares in it with them. How very powerful that is. Nothing can take away the pain of loss that we feel. And in this story of the death and resurrection, we hear Good News – the pain and suffering of death is not the end of the story. It is not the end of the story for us either. It’s a part of the process.
Shapiro also wrote this line in his book – “Notice what you have lost and what can never be again…To mourn is to come to accept what was in the present is now in the past.” (Pg. 178). In other words, things have changed. But what about resurrection? Resurrection isn’t about rewinding to the past. It’s not going back to something. Lazarus still died. You can’t get to resurrection unless you go through death. And with death comes the pain of mourning the loss. Resurrection is new life.
It doesn’t restore everything back to the way it was before and pretend there isn’t the pain of loss. Resurrection is a major change. And with change comes mourning a loss. And, more importantly, a path forward.
What are the things that we have been sitting with, avoiding dealing with directly in our personal life? Those things that have died, or need to die within us so that we can experience new life, resurrected life? Are we avoiding them because of the pain of the loss that comes with letting them go? Do we know how to mourn their loss? Are we trying to face it alone? How is Jesus showing up and calling us to him? How is Jesus telling us that this will rise again, but differently, better? How is Jesus seeing how we are moved and is weeping with us – seeing our pain and suffering, not dismissing them?
The pandemic started just over three years ago. And it thrust change on everyone – regardless of whether we wanted it or not.
What are the things that our church has been sitting with, avoiding dealing with directly? Those things that have died, or need to die? Maybe we need to hold a funeral for the term normal and mourn its loss. I wonder what that would look like. How do we mourn changes in the church and celebrate what new life means? Do we?
How is Jesus showing up? How is Jesus showing us what resurrection for the church looks like? How is Jesus showing us that the best days for the church are yet to come? Because that’s what resurrected life if really about. Resurrected life will look different, because resurrection isn’t about going back, but about new life going forward. How is Jesus seeing how we are moved and how is he weeping with us – seeing our pain and suffering and not dismissing it?
We are told at the end of today’s reading that many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. When we look around, what are we seeing Jesus do that we might believe also? What is Jesus doing that that others are seeing that causes them to believe also? All of it is for God’s glory. Thanks be to God. Amen.