John 11:3-7,17, 20-27, 33-44
“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Those are the opening words of most Christian funerals. They are words of hope; they promise new life in midst of sorrow and loss.
I don’t remember very much about my father’s funeral, but those words were probably not spoken. My father died in 1986 at the age of 56. I was 27 years old when he died and next month will be the 28th anniversary of his death, meaning that I have reached the point where I’ve lived longer without him than with him. My father was a man of intelligence and integrity, a conscientious man, well-educated and widely read. He supported his family, showed concern for his neighbors, and dedicated his professional life to the cause of universally accessible education. But my father was not a believer in Christ or even, I think, in the existence of God.
So I will admit that every time I utter those opening words of the Service of Death and Resurrection I am thinking as I speak, “Thank you, Lord, for not also saying ‘and those who do not believe in me are dead and lost forever.’ Thank you for telling a story about a good Samaritan, thank you for saying that you have sheep who are not in this fold, thank you for showing us that God’s mercy is greater than any human sin.”
Maybe you have thought the same thing at funerals. Maybe you have heard those words (“Everyone who believes in him”) and wondered “what about my father...or my child who doesn’t attend church...or my Jewish neighbor...or my atheist doctor who volunteers at a free medical clinic? What about Mahatma Gandhi the Hindu and the Dalai Lama, leader of Tibetan
Buddhists? Doesn’t God love them enough to hold open the door to new and eternal life to them, too?”
Now you know that I have the same questions. My own answer is yes, God does love them enough. But mostly I am willing to leave the settling of theological correctness and ethical worthiness up to that same God whose mercy covers us all.
I am also thinking, when I hear those words, that John the Evangelist wrote these words to the church, for the church. He wrote these words as part of his attempt to bring his community to a deeper understand of who Jesus was – a human being so intimately connected to God that he was God; a part of God so intimately connected to humanity that he was a human being. John wrote these words about the tie between belief and life as a way of teaching his community about the gift of extra-ordinary life that Jesus brought: light that could not be overcome by darkness, water that would never run dry, bread that never ran out, life that could not be stopped by death.
It is possible for a community built around that profound understanding of Jesus to believe with all their hearts that he is the way, the truth and the life, without also believing that those who disagree are therefore damned. It is possible to be both righteous and humble, both firmly rooted in your own tradition and generous in your opinion of others. This is possible, I believe, because when you are community that knows how to face death, you have some perspective on life.
Scholar Elaine Pagels writes of her return to the church as an adult, after her young son was diagnosed with a fatal illness.
On a bright Sunday morning in February, shivering in a T-shirt and running shorts, I stepped into the vaulted stone vestibule of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York to catch my breath and warm up. Since I had not been in church for a long time, I was startled by my response to
the worship in progress – the soaring harmonies of the choir singing with the congregation; and the priest a woman in bright gold and white vestments, proclaiming the prayers in a clear, resonant voice. As I stood watching, a thought came to me: Here is a family that knows how to face death.
That morning I had gone for an early morning run while my husband and two-and-a-half-year- old son were still sleeping. The previous night I had been sleepless with fear and worry. Two days before, a team of doctors at Babies Hospital, Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, had performed a routine checkup on our son, Mark, a year and six months after his successful open- heart surgery. The physicians were shocked to find evidence of a rare lung disease. Disbelieving the results, they tested further for six hours before they finally called us in to say that Mark had pulmonary hypertension, an invariably fatal disease, they told us. How much time? I asked. “We don’t know; a few months, a few years.”
Standing in the back of that church, I recognized, uncomfortably, that I needed to be there. Here was a place to weep without imposing tears upon a child; and here was a community that had gathered to sing, to celebrate, to acknowledge common needs, and to deal with what we cannot control or imagine. Yet the celebration in progress spoke of hope; perhaps that is what made the presence of death bearable.
I returned often to that church, not looking for faith but because, in the presence of that worship and the people gathered there – and in a smaller group that met on weekdays in the church basement for mutual encouragement – my defenses fell away, exposing storms of grief and hope. In that church I gathered new energy, and resolved, over and over, to face whatever awaited us as constructively as possible for Mark, and for the rest of us.
Mary and Martha had their religious family around them, too, when their brother Lazarus died. Together with the other Jews of their town, they had washed his body, wrapped him in burial cloths, and laid his body in a tomb. They had said prayers together, sung songs of grief and faith, brought casseroles, hosted out-of-town family, sent cards – all of the things that members of a faith community do for one another when death has visited among them.
What they didn’t have was Jesus, who had waited a couple days after receiving word of Lazarus’s illness before heading off to Bethany.
Mary, Martha and their brother Lazarus, along with the anonymous figure known as the Beloved Disciple, are the only four people in the Gospel of John identified by name as those whom Jesus loved. The three siblings lived in keeping with Jesus’ radical call, remaining unattached, which gives them a great deal of freedom. This included the freedom to be extravagantly generous, as Mary would be when she poured out ointment worth a year’s wages onto Jesus’ feet.
Lazarus is the only male in their household, which means he was not only a beloved brother, but was also the closest thing to Social Security that Mary and Martha had. Now he is slipping away and the sisters call on their close friend Jesus for help.
Jesus doesn't come. He doesn't come to be with his beloved friend as he lies dying, and he doesn't come to honor his friend by being present at his funeral.
When the sisters get word that Jesus is finally on his way, Martha runs out to meet him -- a scandalous, even dangerous thing for a woman to do. Martha expresses her anger and frustration with Jesus. Mary, who waits for him at home, simply weeps.
If nothing else, their situation proves that being faithful to Jesus is in no way a guarantee against pain and tragedy. There is no one on earth whose righteousness, wisdom, hard work, or good
planning will preserve them from encountering suffering. Good people become widowed and orphaned. True believers get sick and die. All of our life journeys run through graveyards.
But our journeys do not stop there. Or at least they need not stop there.
Being in relationship with Jesus means facing death and grief with him and learning that, in spite of death and the finality of the door to the tomb of our hopes, Jesus is still life – life in the future and life now. Nothing is ever so dead that it keeps him from being that.
When Jesus seems slow in coming, writer Sarah Dylan Breuer says, he is coming nonetheless. When we worry that it is too late, Jesus shows that it is never too late. After we have become convinced that all is lost, when we are ready to concede to death and seek only to contain the damage or bury it, Jesus demonstrates that there is
no power in heaven or on earth on under the earth
that can place a person, a situation, or a world beyond God's redemption, beyond the reach of infinite love and abundant life.
Lazarus, come out! Your journey is not over; Easter lies ahead.
We who follow Jesus are Easter people, even in Lent. But even we, Easter people who know better than to fear death, would rather not talk about it. Even we, who know how to care for others in times of loss, prefer to avoid preparing for the loss of our own lives.
I think the other pastors in this sanctuary would agree with me when I say that helping a family to make decisions about funeral plans after the death of a loved one, when they have never before discussed that topic, is not easy. And blessed be the man or woman who has written something down, marked passages in a Bible, copied out quotes or made notes about hymns. That kind of planning is a wonderful gift to give those who survive you.
As our Lenten journey carries us closer to Jerusalem and closer to Jesus’ death, I want to ask you to consider, for a moment, what will happen after your own death. What would you like your funeral to include? What message do you want it to express?
(time for writing on insert)
If you need more time – and most of you probably do – please take the sheet home with you and return it to the church office when you’ve had time to finish it. I’ll keep it in a secure file, where it will remain until it’s needed.
It’s hard to prepare a funeral for someone who never spoke about their wishes to their family members. But it’s harder to prepare a funeral for someone who doesn’t seem to have thought about what they wanted their life to say. On the other hand, every life says something. So a better way to phrase this would be to say that it’s harder to prepare a funeral for someone who never stopped to consider what message their life conveyed. What message does your life say?
There’s no such thing as a life journey that doesn’t go through a few graveyards. Job loss, family conflict, bankruptcy, illness, unhappiness. Those cemeteries will make a difference in the route your journey takes. But the graveyards are not what’s important about your life. What’s important is whether you get stuck in the graveyards, or head out towards Easter.
Elaine Pagels. Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. Random House, 2003.
Sarah Dylan Breuer, Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A. Posted March, 2005 at SarahLaughed.net. http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2005/03/fifth_sunday_in.html
Meda Stamper. Commentary on John 11:1-45. Posted April 10, 2011 at WorkingPreacher.org. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=904
Wiley Stephens, The Road to Easter Runs Through a Cemetery. Day One radio program for April 10, 2011. http://day1.org/2756-the_road_to_easter_runs_through_a_cemetery