Today is a day when death hangs heavy in the air. Today is All Saint’s Sunday. It is the day when we remember those who have died in the past year and those who have died in years past. We toll the bell and we light the candles. We ring the bell because words just sometimes don’t ring like we need them too. And the silence is too frightening, so the bell gives us something to hear when words fall flat and the silence gets too loud. And then we light candles. They invoke that misty-eyed mystery of life and death. And because they lighten our darkness. They become like flashlights into our deep and dreaded caverns of grief. And they remind us that these people, this person, this once-beating heart was a light in our life.
Today is a day when death hangs heavy in the air. Where there are different and diverse layers of pain throughout the room. Some of you come with fragile hearts – others with hearts of stone. Some of you come with healed hearts and some with hearts still freshly broken. Some of you come with neutral hearts, knowing death only distantly. I can only imagine the feeling today in some congregations on the East Coast. Congregations that will call out names this morning that just a week ago, with Hurricane Sandy on the horizon, they never imagined would be printed in their bulletins 7 days later.
Today is a day when death hangs heavy in the air and the gospel gives us no rest from it. Lazarus, Jesus’ friend, has died and Mary, Lazarus’ brother is not shy about her feelings. The text says she came and knelt at Jesus’ feet. That’s a little too controlled, if you ask me. A little too put together. Too worshipful. The Greek word there suggests something different. She fell. She fell at his feet. She collapsed and crumpled to her knees. That sounds more like it. This is not worship; this is not any other calm day. This is despair and desperation.
Mary, then, cries out the claim of all humanity…”Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It is the cry of all humanity – Lord if you had been here, my loved one would not have died.
There are a number of people I know, both young and old, who don’t know if they can believe in God. Why would I believe in a god I cannot see and a god who seems to not care about us? Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. For many, the story ends there. For many, their faith ends there. We want answers. We want to understand the profound mysteries of this life, but we can’t. Lord, if you had been here, my brother, my daughter, my nephew, my mother would not have died…but you weren’t.”
For many the story ends there, but the story does not end there. And those are not the last words. Notice Jesus’ response. Jesus doesn’t get defensive. Jesus doesn’t say you didn’t pray enough. Jesus doesn’t say he had better and more important things to do. He simply looks at her. He sees her tears and the tears of those around her and it says he was deeply moved. But even here the words don’t do justice to what is happening. The word there means Jesus was greatly disturbed in his body. His body was shaken by the tears of Mary and the others. Her tears of grief and loss affected Jesus. Your tears of grief and loss affect Jesus. God is moved and impacted by your tears.
Jesus is so moved that he asks, “Where have you laid him?” Take me to where he is. I want to be near to him, my beloved friend, who has died. Take me there. To which they respond, “Lord, come and see.” And then…Jesus weeps. If we take seriously Jesus as the revelation of God, God in the flesh, God with us, then God weeps. With the people. Our God is a god who cries.
I don’t know about you, but I find that the older I am, the more often I cry. I cry during TV shows, commercials, articles I read. I cry at home videos my friends make. We are trained to view tears as weak. As embarrassing. We even tell people, “Don’t cry, don’t cry.” But I have found that I feel more alive when I am open to being moved to tears. And I feel more dead inside if I am stiff and rigid, and protective of my emotions. I feel more alive when I am moved to tears. Which tells me that even in this place of death, where Lazarus is beginning to stink, there is life there. Because there is love there. Love for a brother and a friend.
Jesus weeps for his friend Lazarus and he wants to be close to him. So he says, “Take away the stone.” Roll it away. And the people…they think he is crazy. I mean, Lazarus has been dead for four days. He’s begun to stink. He’s not just kind of dead, he’s really dead. But roll away the stone anyways, Jesus says.
And then Jesus says, “Lazarus, come out!” He calls him by name. There is something intimate about a name and using someone’s name. A spouse might leave the house everyday and yell from the door, “Love you!” But it is completely differently to use the person’s name. Lauren, I love you. It’s more intimate.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a letter to the editor inviting anyone who was confused about the upcoming marriage amendment vote to email me and we’d get coffee. Only one person responded. I could tell by what was said in their email that they were not interested in a conversation, they wanted to debate and fight. And the most telling thing was that they never gave their name. They were protecting themselves because to give your name invites a level of intimacy and closeness that this person wasn’t willing to give.
When Elliot was born, there was about 30 minutes in which he didn’t have a name and I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t wait to name him because I felt like I couldn’t know him until he had a name. There is something intimate and close about knowing someone’s name.
And Jesus uses his name, “Lazarus…come out.” And Lazarus came out. But the text doesn’t say, “Lazarus came out.” No, it says, “The dead man, came out.” Isn’t that strange? It doesn’t say, “The previously dead man” or “The one who was dead.” It says, “The dead man.” This is a dead man walking and his hands and feet and face are still bound in burial clothes. There is this sense that he is still dead! He’s not alive yet. There is something left to do until the resurrection is complete.
Sometimes, our loved ones who have died can forever remain as “the dead man.” As the one who has died. My husband who has died. My daughter who has died. My nephew who has died. And here is Lazarus walking out of the tomb still being called “the Dead man.” It’s incomplete. It isn’t finished. Before Lazarus can become alive again, Jesus needs the help of the people who love him. says to the people, “Unbind him and let him go.” You, you who are gathered here, you who love him…unbind him and let him go. Jesus gives the people something to do. Which is what they need, isn’t it? I mean that is one of the worst parts of pain and grief is nobody knows what to do. Nobody knows what to say or what to do, and Jesus gives them something to do. Unbind him and let him go. What a relief. Finally, something they can do. There is this sense that the resurrection of Lazarus isn’t complete until the people participate. And what has haunted and perplexed me all week is the very last words. Let him go. It doesn’t say, “Unbind him and embrace him.” It doesn’t say, “Unbind him and celebrate.” It says, “Unbind him and let him go.” I don’t know what that means, but I think it is significant. Unbind the dead man. The one who has died. And let him go.
Maybe it is only when your loved one goes from being the one who has died to the one who showed me love. Or the one who taught me how to hunt. Or the one who gave the best hugs. Maybe it is then that they and you come alive again.
You see, I don’t think Lazarus was the only dead person in the story. Those of you who have lost someone close know that when a loved one dies, it can often feel like a part of you has died. Pain and grief can feel like a slow form of death. So often we want God to fix and remove our pain and our grief, but what if that is not how God works? What if God is the one who sits beside us. Weeping beside us. Maybe Jesus does not come to prevent death. I mean, even Lazarus will die a second time. But Jesus comes to overcome death. Jesus doesn’t want to prevent death as if death never existed. Death is real. It comes for us all. But Jesus wants to bring life out of death. In Jesus, God is revealed as the one who grieves the death with the people. God weeps with those who are also weeping. And God seeks to be near to those who have died. “Where have you laid him?” Take me there. And then God comes and knocks on the tomb of those who have died and calls them by name. Lucille. Clinton. Larry. Jeanne. Roger. Come out! And then invites us to unbind them and to let them go. And maybe that’s the only way for those who have died, and those who are grieving, to be brought to life again.
Because as long as your loved one remains as the one who has died, they will always be bound up, but as soon as you can unbind them from their place of death and lift them up for who they were and how they’ve impacted you and then let them go, maybe only then is their new life them and you. Maybe this isn’t just the resurrection of Lazarus, but it is the resurrection of Mary and Martha, and his friends as well.
So as we prepare to honor all the Saints today, as we ring the bell and light candles, as we whisper and pray their names, as we entrust our loved ones and let them go into new life in God’s good care, maybe a part of us will come alive too. Maybe the dead places in our life where grief and pain lurk can be resurrected and healed. For just as God calls our loved ones by name, so God calls you by name. Each and everyday, claiming you as God’s very own. Promising to be near to you and giving you something to do for the sake of the well-being of the world that God loves so much. May this be so. Amen.