Cross of Grace

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Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

"Death Sucks" – John 11:32-44

John 11:32-44

When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to him, "Lord, come and see." Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, "See how he loved him!" But some of them said, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?" Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, "Take away the stone."

Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, "Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days." Jesus said to her, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, "Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me." When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, "Unbind him, and let him go."

Death sucks. And if you’ve never heard a minister say that, it’s about time you did.

Or, allow me to put it another more eloquent and powerful way. It comes from the beginning of a poem that was written by Erin Walker, Pastor Fred Hubert’s granddaughter, for his funeral service yesterday. She writes,

“Another soul has passed,
causing everyone around them to feel like crap.
No longer is there laughing,
instead it’s replaced with crying.
You will be greatly missed,
we all just wish
that there was more time.”

A grandparent, a sibling, a celebrity, a long-lost friend, or a pet… an unexpected accident or a long-awaited end to suffering; death is all its forms is agonizing, heartbreaking, terrifying, and earth-shattering. Which is why, in most of my pastoral care and funeral preaching, I make a point of encouraging and affirming the natural process of grief.

This can come across as a radically counter-cultural message because over the course of our lives we’ve been fed the lie that grieving is a sign of weakness. This message gets communicated in subtle and often well-intentioned ways.

My wife’s grandmother’s funeral was the first time my boys saw an open casket at a funeral. Kyle, my three-year-old saw it and stood there trying to make sense of it. Then, slowly, he started to walk backwards, one step at a time, eyes still fixed on the face of his great-grandma. Other people saw this too and swooped in to rescue him, saying things like “That’s not really great-grandma” and other well-meaning sentiments. They meant to comfort him but what they were doing was robbing him of the chance to grieve.

There are other subtle ways we subvert the grief process. Think about how often you hear people say, “When I die, I don’t want anyone to be sad. My funeral should be a party and everyone should be happy because I’ll be in heaven.” I’ll be honest…I just hate it when I hear that. Don’t tell me not to be sad when you are gone; because the truth is I will be sad when you die. I will miss you terribly. Please don’t make me feel guilty on top of my grief!

Grieving is part of what makes us human. We’re genetically hard-wired to grieve over people and things that we have lost.

Grieving is not a matter of flipping a switch or burying our sadness over the sands of time and hoping it either rots or grows into something beautiful without needing to be tended. Instead, grieving is a gut-wrenching series of complex emotions that must be acknowledged and shared.

Have you ever known someone who wouldn’t let themselves grieve? Someone who never let on that they were feeling sad or lonely or confused? Someone who tried to keep their head up and pretend as if nothing happened? Perhaps either they didn’t want others to think they were weak or they simply wanted to show others that grief can be dealt with privately, so as not to burden others.

In my experience, it’s only a matter of time before people like this let all their suppressed emotions come out in unhealthy and unproductive ways like addiction or outbursts of misplaced anger and violence. Often when people suppress their grief they also suppress their other emotions – ending up feeling nothing – going through life numb to sorrow or joy – completely apathetic to the joys and the struggles of their neighbors.

Today’s gospel story from John paints a beautiful picture of healthy grief. Any of us who has ever felt that God was entirely absent in tragedy can sympathize with Mary and Martha’s claim, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It is a fascinating statement in scripture because it is simultaneously an indictment of Jesus’ inaction, as well as a confession of faith in Jesus’ power. Mary and Martha have not lost faith in their savior, they are simply disappointed in his tarrying and lack of immediate action.

We curse God when tragedy strikes, not because we fear God doesn’t exist at all, but rather because God apparently failed to show up in time.

Mary and Martha’s faithful questioning of God’s decisions and lack of action is a beautiful antidote to the common refrains of “Everything happens for a reason” or “God’s timing is different than our timing” that we absent-mindedly toss around in tragedy. These are two of the most unhelpful things we can say to anyone who is enduring tragedy. People who are living in the emotional ruins of tragedy need to be able to lament and complain and be heard. Only then can we direct them to the source of hope, comfort and understanding.

Jesus listens to Mary and Martha’s confession and upon being invited to visit the tomb of their dead brother, Jesus weeps. This is the shortest verse in the Bible but it is also one of the most important verses because it speaks to the truth that God identifies with us and feels our hopes and hurts. Through Jesus, God knows what grief feels like. Through Jesus, God knows what death feels like. Through Jesus, God weeps as we would at the passing of a loved one.

Jesus’ tears give us permission to bring our prayers of lament and petition before God, to lay all our doubt, fear, and anger at God’s feet, and trust that God will listen. God has been there. And, as Jesus points out, God is able to do something about it.

Death may have had its say; but, as we heard in today’s gospel text, death doesn’t have the last word.

In the midst of death, God is at work creating life. God, through Jesus, gives life to Lazarus. God, through Jesus, gives spiritual life to his people. God gives life to the crucified Jesus. And God, through the resurrected Jesus, gives the free gift of grace and life to all who desire it.

Time will not heal your wounds. Only grieving will heal your wounds. Because it is through grieving, by acknowledging and sharing our sadness and fear, that we realize God is with us in our pain. God does not stand in a distant land of healing and joy and beckon us to come; not does God point to that place and tell us to journey there alone. Rather God is with us the whole time, in the darkness and the light, in the pain and the comfort.

Pastor Mark and I want to hear your stories about those people, things, memories, and ways of life that have passed away. We want you to grieve with us. We want to be people who you can come to and say, “death sucks.” To which we'll respond, "It certainly does; I couldn't have said it better myself."


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