A Time To Mourn

“A Time to Mourn”

Preached at Wolcott Congregational Church on 9/16/2018

Note: This is the second in a four part series about transition.  The first part is available here.

Scripture: Ecclesiastes 3:1-5, John 11:32-45

Today, we’re going to talk about death.  And I have no funny story to ease the tension, no way to sugar coat it, or to ease the pain around it.

Normally in Sunday morning worship, we talk about death one or  two times a year; once on All Saints Day during the first week of November, and once on Good Friday. But we would be remiss in a sermon series about transition if we didn’t talk about the greatest transition that we all will have to face, death.

But today, we won’t talk about happens when we die. Our eventual communion with the living God and the final resurrection will be the topic for another day. No, today we will speak not about those who die, but those who survive. We’ll be exploring the complexity of sadness and anger in grief, and how as Christians, our hope of resurrection lives side by side with that complexity.

To get it out of the way, grief stinks. It cuts into the soul, destroys the heart again and again. It leaves scars that never go away entirely, but fade, and sometimes only barely.

In the beatitudes, part of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount Jesus says to us, “Blessed are those who weep, for they will laugh”, and although that promise will come true eventually, in the depths of grief, that promise rings hollow. And sometimes, just when we think the worst of it is over, it strikes again, set off by something others don’t understand.

One example: Christmas. For most of us, Christmas is a time of joy and laughter, but for people who’ve recently, or even not so recently, lost a loved one, Christmas can bring up painful memories, reminders of a loss thought healed. It’s why many churches, including this one, do a “Longest Night” or “Blue Christmas” service near Christmas Eve to recognize those difficulties.

So then, how are we to understand this encounter between Jesus, Mary and Martha, and Lazarus? At first glance, it’s an easy enough story.  Jesus and the apostles get a request to come to heal a disciple of Jesus’ named Lazarus, and thus stride into the town of Bethany- no, not the one near Naugatuck, this is the one in Judea, where Mary and Martha are from, and when they get there, Lazarus has passed.  Jesus then sees the that the people, especially Mary and Martha are sad. Jesus gets sad too, Jesus cries, then goes to the tomb, raises Lazarus from the dead, and ta-da, everyone is happy. Wrap it up with a bow, story is done.

But as is often the case with the Bible, things that seem clear at first glance are often anything *but* clear.

The first major piece of this story that is well, odd, is Jesus’s attitude toward death.  Jesus at first seems well, nonchalant about death.  While this does foreshadow the resurrection as a victory over death, its odd within the rest of the emotional context of the story.

When the request for Jesus to go to Bethany arrives, Jesus delays going there on purpose. He does so, because “this illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s Glory.”

That’s hard for me.  It’s hard because even though yes, Lazarus got better and God was glorified, there was still mourning and grief and despair, and that’s tough.

One of my favorite songs goes into what I mean a little bit. “Casimir Pulaski Day”, by Sufjan Stevens, is from the point of view of a teenager whose girlfriend is slowly dying of cancer in front of him. There’s a lot in the song that echo what must have been going on for Mary and Martha as they watched their brother die. Stevens sings, “We lift our hands and pray over her body, but nothing ever happens.” We can imagine Mary and Martha doing the same over Lazarus as he passes, sure that the God who heals would come through for them.  But even more striking is one of the closing lines of the song, “All the Glory that the Lord has made, and the complications we can do without.”

And in the raising of Lazarus in Bethany, the effects of Lazarus’ death are a complication.  The Gospel of John makes it abundantly clear that the point of this whole encounter at Bethany is to foreshadow Jesus’s own death, resurrection, and victory over death.

If there are complications, well, that’s life. If that sounds crass, it is, but it is also true. Most of our lives happen in the complications. Life happens when we screw up, when life screws us up, when we’re sad and angry and frustrated.

Life happens when things fall apart, when we’re just trying to get by and something pushes us down.

But I think it’s important to note that even though the goal of this story is the further glory of God and the resurrection, Jesus is not a robot. Jesus is in constant communion with God the Father, and is God, Jesus is fully human too.  When Jesus sees the tableau of the weeping Mary and Martha, Jesus loses his composure.

Jesus Christ, Lord of Creation, who calmed the seas and cast out demons, becomes unsettled. It is the power of death to hurt those who he loves that unsettles Jesus.  And this unsettling, yes, means sadness, but the word that the Gospel uses to describe Jesus’ emotion isn’t just sad or even devastated, but “disturbed.”

This disturbance in the original Greek implies anger and frustration, and I love that the text mentions that Jesus is this sort of upset. I love this because on a psycho-spiritual level, grief and mourning is not just pure sadness and regret but also anger and frustration. It’s a human element in a story that otherwise might strip Jesus of his humanity.

But I think there’s another aspect to this anger too. After all, John is quick to remind us that if whole event is about the resurrection and the glory of God. There’s a cosmic flavor to everything that happens.  Jesus is not only angry on a personal level, but on a cosmic level. For Jesus is disturbed not only at Lazarus’s death, but at death itself.

If the Last Supper and the resurrection echo through time and space it, surely too do Jesus’s pain, grief, sadness and anger at Bethany. For we know just as Jesus loved Lazarus, and loved Mary and Martha who mourned over him, Jesus loves each and every one of us. Because of that, God is with all those who face that final transition, and the Holy Spirit mourns alongside us just as we mourn.

Yet Lazarus’ death still happens. It happens because for the Glory of God to be shone in resurrection, death must happen first. There is no resurrection without death. After all, there is no Easter Sunday without Good Friday first.

I think it’s really telling that in the bible, God almost never promises us that we won’t feel sad or angry. Many of the psalms, are songs of mourning, of lamentation, of feeling like we are beset on all sides by enemies. They acknowledge those feelings that happen, even to the faithful and devout. Christianity is not a religion that promises freedom from loss.

What the gospel does promise is that even the darkness of death, hope persists. For right next to those psalms of grief are psalms of comfort, of celebration, of outright joy.

Indeed, the authors of the Bible knew that pain and loss are an inevitable aspect of love. If we are to live fully, to drink from the well of living water that is God’s love as known through Jesus Christ, it means we are to love deeply, and to love deeply is to inevitably feel loss.

For it is in the course of that living and loving, that we must mourn. For we mourn who and what we love. And as our love can be complicated, so too is our grief. Grief becomes even more complicated because we don’t only love people, but also places, groups, and ideas.

When things just ain’t what they used to be, when hopes are deferred or an institution declines or changes form so deeply that it becomes unrecognizable, we feel real grief.

Grief will happen in this church as we come to terms with the changing of generations, the passing of torches, and making sense of the impact and legacy of not only Rev. Sue, but Rev. Haggard too.

And it will hurt. It will hurt when we need to make changes to keep this church as healthy and vital as we need it to be. I see so much life and vitality here and it is good, but over the next year or two, some things will change and that will be sad and scary and may make you angry. And you are entitled to those feelings. They are real.

But just as real as that anger is the God who is Love who will never let you go. As real as the pain is a God who promises that beyond death is the hope of resurrection.

God only once promises that there will be a time of no more tears and no more grief, and that’s at the end of time, in the fullness of history and the resurrection. It’s on the next to last page in most bibles, and on the back side of my new business cards. Revelation 21: 3-4 “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”

In the meantime, I can promise you two things: we will face the pain and the grief together, and two, in the midst of all of the pain and struggle, the Good News of Jesus Christ is that God is with you always.