Sunday, November 1, 2009

Remembering the Saints

John 11: [17-31] 32-44
We don’t like to think about it for ourselves, or for our loved ones, but the ratio of death to people is 1 to 1. We will all die, some of us sooner than others.
For some of us, the dying doesn’t scare us; but the process of getting to death sure does. We all want to die peacefully in our sleep. It’s true that many of us will die in our sleep, but that final sleep usually comes after a long, painful illness.
When I talk with families about funerals, I ask about what scripture readings they would like. Sometimes, they know; sometimes they leave it to me. Given my choice, I often choose this passage from John, or even a longer portion, so we hear from Martha as well as Mary. I love how human everyone in this passage is. Let’s examine the text a bit at a time.
Martha and Mary are angry that Jesus didn’t come when they sent for him. At the same time, they are filled with the certainty that he could have prevented the death. Earlier in the chapter, Jesus and Martha have a conversation in which Martha confesses that she believes in the resurrection, though she doesn’t think it applies in this situation.
We, too, have similar emotions. We are angry about something, or anything. Our loved one left us unprepared for life without her or him. The doctors didn’t do as much as they could, or they did too much. Someone didn’t visit or call. We didn’t say good-bye, or say “I love you.” We are filled with “if only’s” and “why’s”. Yet, as believers in the same Jesus, we also have hope that there is something special for each of us after we die.
Jesus begins to weep. There are many reasons why Jesus was weeping. He was filled with sadness at the death of his friend. He saw the sadness, anger, doubt, and hope in the faces and hearts of those who grieved. He was frustrated that they didn’t immediately believe in what he had already promised them. We, too, weep for many reasons; when we grieve; when we see others grieving; when we are angry that other people just don’t get what we are trying to accomplish; when we hope and are filled with joy at the goodness of God.
The onlookers have their own human moments. Some of them notice how Jesus weeps, and they believe it is because he grieves the death of his friend. But, others mock him. “He healed all sorts of people, restored sight to the blind man. Why couldn’t he prevent his friend from dying?” We have such moments as well, when we are grieving. We are filled with tears and emotion at the slightest mention of sympathy. And we sometimes mock someone who doesn’t seem to get over his or her grief as quickly as we think they should.
Martha once again displays her humanity, and her sense of practicality. When Jesus asks that the stone be rolled away, Martha knows there will be an odor of rotting flesh. Un-embalmed bodies decay quickly. In ancient times, human remains were always buried within 24 hours for this reason, and the Jews and many other people today still practice this immediate interment. After four days, the stench would be overwhelming. Martha wonders if Jesus really intends to expose the family and crowd to that much odor.
Our practical concerns influence how we grieve as well. Where will we have the service? How much service do we want? What will it cost? Who will be present, and who can’t make it?  Do we want the body present, or immediate cremation? Do we want the service to be within 3 or 4 days, or a month or two later? How will we even get through it, no matter when we have it?
Jesus reassures Martha, reminding her that they have already talked about this: Good things will come from Lazarus’ death. If only she believed, she would see the glory of God. Do we not reassure one another as we grieve, that the days will get easier, the sadness will not be so heavy, that we will once again feel like living, even though life is different?
Jesus prays, and lets the family and the crowd listen in on his prayers. We pray first that our loved one would not die; or that he will not suffer much, as he dies. Then we pray for ourselves, that we will find comfort as we grieve her absence from our lives. We ask God to heal our hurting hearts.
But Jesus prays for those present to believe in him, and in the power of the God who sent him. He gives thanks that God always hears prayers, and trusts that this prayer will be heard in heaven, as well as in the hearts of those listening to him pray.
And then Jesus does the unthinkable! He calls for Lazarus to come out of the tomb, and he does! God/Jesus is more powerful than death. God can bring the dead back to life. For Lazarus, this was a temporary return. We assume that eventually he died of old age. But he knew, as did those who were there and believed, that death is not the final word. There is new life, eternal life, after physical human death.
Even though we weren’t there, we believe the witnesses who told the story. In Chapter 12, there is even mention of a plot to get rid of Lazarus, because word of this amazing deed was spreading around Judah, and Jesus’ fame was growing even more. We believe in Jesus, that he has the power to conquer death. Jesus is the resurrection and the life, and belief in him gives us the gift of eternal life. Eternal life is whatever lies beyond death, life with God in our new body and our renewed spirit. Eternal life is also life in relationship with God in the here and now, as we trust in God to give us whatever we need.
Today, we remember all those who have gone before us, who lived faithful lives here on earth, and who now rest from their labors. We give thanks for their lives. We call them saints, and remember them. They have joined the feast of victory for our God. We grieve for them, and pray that God will comfort us, even as we go on living without them.

You may have noticed that I have begun inviting and challenging you to tell stories about your own faith life. You may or may not realize that you have a faith story, but anywhere that God’s story, God’s comfort, God’s presence, has intersected with your life – that is your faith story. Commonly, we can tell stories about when we were baptized or confirmed, or changed careers. We can also tell the stories about how God was present – or absent – at crucial times in our lives. For today, your story includes how God helped you through the grief and mourning after someone you loved died.  
Your challenge this week, then, is to remember one of your saints, and to find someone to whom you can tell her or his story. Tell also how God has helped you through your grief. Often, that means God sent loving arms to hold you, or Scripture passages to reassure you, or listening ears to hear your story. God may have sent someone to help you sort our your bills, or helped you get out of the house and back into church and work.
You have probably told these stories before. Try to find someone new to hear your story. As I said last week, if you pray for God to show you that person, he or she will be there for you. Since you are telling your own story, tell it any way you wish, but tell it.

Please pray with me. Dear Jesus, we love how human you are, as we imagine you weeping with grief. We also are amazed at your power, to give life where death has come to us. We ask you to comfort us in our grief, and to grant us greater faith in you, no matter what is happening. Amen