November 4, 2018
All Saints Sunday, Pastor Javen Swanson
Read today’s scripture lessons: Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44
A Texas pastor named Tito Madrazo tells the story of his final day with his beloved dog, Waco. He’d been dreading that day but couldn’t put it off any longer. The poor dog was struggling to breathe, barely able to lift herself up. It was time. He carried Waco to the car. As he drove, he lowered the window. He wanted Waco to enjoy the breeze one last time. To his surprise, the dog slowly rose up, stuck her head out the window, and closed her eyes, ears flapping in the wind. By the time they arrived at the veterinarian’s office, Tito says, there were hot tears streaming down his cheeks. The veterinarian was a stoic older man, not one to show much emotion. But on that day, the man offered words of comfort, assuring Tito he was doing the right thing. And Tito says as he looked up at the man, he was startled to see tears in his eyes, too. A professional who had euthanized probably thousands of pets, now grieving with him over the loss of this dog he had loved so long. In that moment, Tito says, he felt less foolish over his tears and less alone in his sorrow.
Danica Goshert, whose husband Bill we remember today among the saints who have died, posted yesterday on Facebook, and I asked for her permission to share what she wrote. She said, “Grief is an interesting thing, as there are times when it seems like you are the only person who feels this way about your loved one, even as you are surrounded by other people. But in the moments when others recall Bill—his name, a photo, a memory shared—the window is open and I see briefly into their experience of grief and loss, and I know how important he was to other people, just as he was to me. And that, dear friends, is a great gift indeed.”
Do you suppose that’s how Mary and Martha felt as Jesus wept with them? Did they feel less foolish, less alone? Did Jesus’ tears help them see that their brother Lazarus was important to others, just as he was important to them?
I’ve always loved this scene with Jesus and Mary and Martha, grieving together over Lazarus. Jesus, whom we know to be God in the flesh, joins those who are mourning the death of one they have loved, and he cries with them. I don’t know about you, but that is a God I can believe in: one who is here with us, present to us, in it with us, when our grief is too much to bear; who knows our pain, experiences our sorrow, and shares our tears. As we remember those we’ve loved who have died; as we continue to learn about those murdered at the Tree of Life Synagogue and hear the stories of a whole community shaken by hatred and fear and death; as we imagine the distress of refugees fleeing for fear of their lives, seeking a place to call home, and the despair and anguish of children separated from their parents at the border; isn’t this the kind of God we need—one who knows our grief and shares our sorrows, who dwells with us and wipes every tear from our eyes?
But God responds to our grief with more than just mercy and compassion. Consider that line in today’s Gospel reading where we read that Jesus was “greatly disturbed.” Most people who know Greek better than I do say that this isn’t the most faithful English translation. The Greek word is translated here as “greatly disturbed,” but when it’s used in other parts of the Bible or other places in ancient Greek literature, it is one of the strongest words used to express repugnance, anger, or indignation. It’s as if those who translated the Bible into English were trying hard to protect the character of Jesus by toning him down and using this gentler word, “disturbed,” rather than telling us plainly that when Jesus was confronted by death and experienced first-hand its power to turn our worlds upside down, it made him angry.
Death is a powerful force in our world. It manifests itself most powerfully in the ending of life. But we experience the power of death in other ways, too. Death is at work whenever we are made to believe that some people are less human than others, that some people are expendable or undeserving of compassion. Death is lurking behind the scenes when fear keeps us apart from one another or makes us suspicious of people who are different from ourselves. Death makes us believe we are unworthy or powerless and sends us down the paths of hopelessness and despair. Jesus—who lived among us and experienced our joys and sorrows—he knows how the forces of death choke the life out of us, and it makes him angry. And so Jesus weeps with Mary and Martha, just as we weep with those in our world today overwhelmed by the forces of death.
But Jesus does more than weep. He goes to the place where death has claimed one of its victims. Lazarus has been bound, the tomb has been sealed, and the body reeks of decay. By all accounts, death’s victory is complete. Lazarus has reached the end of his road. But it turns out death is not the end of the story, because Jesus prays to God and calls Lazarus out of the tomb. The dead man comes out alive.
Most of the time when we talk about the resurrection of the dead, we think of it as something we will experience much later, at the end of time. But in today’s Gospel reading Jesus says he is the resurrection and the life, and Lazarus gets to experience resurrection in that very moment. New life is not something that lies off in the distant future; it’s available to us now. Even when it feels as though the whole world is under death’s grip, Jesus offers resurrection, today. We don’t need to live our days captive to the forces of death but instead can live under the promise of new life with God. “Here and now there is no death or grief or fear so deep and dark that the voice of Jesus cannot reach into it, call us out, and bring life” (Brian Peterson).
The good news we hear today is this: Death does not have the final word. Death does not have the final word for those whose names we read aloud or for whom we light a candle today. Death does not have the final word when it bombards us with messages of fear and bigotry that threaten to choke the life out of us. Death does not have the final word when it cuts us down and tries to do us in. Death does not have the final word. Both in our dying and our living, we belong to God; we live and die under God’s care. And the promise of God is that new life is always available, here and now, even in the face of death itself.
I’ve always wondered what happens to Lazarus after this scene, after he realizes that life prevails against death. Tradition tells us practically nothing. He had to have known that one day he really would die, once and for all, as each of us will. But I like to imagine that Lazarus lived the rest of his days with a sense of liberation, freed to live without fear of death, freed to live his truth most fully, freed to love others more completely, because Jesus has stood with him and stared death in the face, and he’s been delivered.
We can’t know what happened to Lazarus, but we can know for ourselves what it feels like to claim resurrection and live without fear of death; to live with the knowledge that we do not grieve alone, but that Jesus accompanies us and transforms every encounter with death; to step into new life, just as Lazarus stepped out of the tomb and emerged into the light of a new day once more.
A. K. M. Adam, “John 11:32-44: Exegetical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 4, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).
Cynthia A. Jarvis, “John 11:32-44: Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 4, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).
Tito Madrazo, “Reflections on the Lectionary: November 1, All Saints Day,” in the Christian Century, October 10, 2018.
Al Maxey, “Did Jesus Snort Like A Horse?: Reflecting on a Powerful Greek Word as it Relates to the Attitude of Jesus in Two Synoptic Healing Accounts,” March 14, 2014, http://www.zianet.com/maxey/reflx611.htm.
Gail R. O’Day, “John” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 9, eds. Leander E. Keck et al. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995).
Gail R. O’Day and Susan E. Hylen, John, in the Westminster Bible Companionseries, eds. Patrick D. Miller and David L. Bartlett (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006).
Brian Peterson, “Commentary on John 11:32-44” on WorkingPreacher.org, 2018, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3849.