Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. … Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus,…
-John 11:2, 5
(Preached on Sunday, April 2, 2017)
Three friends were discussing death and one of them asked: “What would you like people to say about you are your funeral?” The first of the friends said: “I would like them to say, he was a great humanitarian, who cared about his community.” The second said: “He was a great husband and father, who was an example for many to follow.” The third friend said, “I would like them to say, ‘Look, he’s moving!’”
Bea was always serious about her faith, but only after her sixtieth birthday did she feel God’s call to be a pastor. She was confused, but certain she should obey the spiritual summons. She immediately went half-time at her job so she could enter the two-year course to become a commissioned lay pastor. Three months into the study, her best friend, Alexa, died. Alexa’s family turned to Bea to perform the funeral. Bea hadn’t gotten that far in her study and asked that they find someone else. They insisted and she finally agreed. She began the funeral, “I’ve never officiated at a funeral before, and so I read the gospels to receive instruction from our Lord Jesus. The only reason I’m here today as Alexa’s friend is to share with you the good news of what I found in the Bible. Our Lord Jesus doesn’t perform funerals. He performs resurrections!”
Here we are deep in Lent, on the way to the cross of Good Friday, to the death of Jesus. Yet, here we are invited to consider a story of resurrection. This story feels very much out of place, as if it should actually appear sometime during the season of Easter, as a foretaste of the resurrection awaiting all of us following Jesus’ resurrection. But listen again and ponder what Jesus told Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life.” He is not being redundant there. He is correcting her misunderstanding that Jesus is only offering resurrection at the end of time, the raising of all the dead bodies of the faithful departed. No, he is teaching Martha that resurrection is not something you wait for until Easter, not some forthcoming day in a still undetermined future. Resurrection is NOW. It is a present reality, more than just a coming one. Anytime Jesus arrives, the dead are set loose.
You see, if resurrection and raising the dead, unbinding corpses are just events on Easter that overlooks a number of places in the Bible where Jesus kicks death in the teeth. Remember Jesus raising the daughter of the synagogue ruler; and the son of the widow when he passed through Nain; and all the people he released from the “death” grip of chronic illness or mental illness or demon possession. The resurrection of the dead is not confined to Easter; it is here, at all times and places, not just an isolated event in the distant past or the distant future. What God did to Jesus on Easter was what God is busy doing all the time – bringing the dead back to life. The same God, who brought Creation out of nothing, brings life out of death.
There are people who say that suffering brings out the best in people. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. That which does not destroy me strengthens me, etc. I hate to tell you, from what I have observed as a pastor for 37 years, hard times, suffering, and dark days break as many people as they make. Any claim that suffering and pain are good in themselves must confront this fact. In the world of recovery from addiction, it is often said that one has to hit bottom, before one can climb up. Sure, and yet, I can name you more people who have hit bottom, only to stay there, only to sink further into complete oblivion, than those who have hit bottom, and then started swimming upward.
There was a woman whose husband left her. She went through a divorce. She had great difficulty with her children. She was able to get her children back together, mostly. She filed for bankruptcy, due to difficult decisions. Alcoholics Anonymous helped her back, the long, hard way. Her children are still wounded. She must keep very close to AA in order to make it. Today, retired, when she speaks about God, her pastor listens. She mentioned one day recently about how she had gotten through it all without bitterness, and thought that that might be God’s greatest gift to her. She did not say that this had been won through her own effort, or due to her intelligence or her resilience, but as a gift of God. Her pastor shares how she is present every Easter and when they sing “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” her voice has a resonance, deep, that reflects forty years of hard won wisdom in the power of God to bring life out of death.
The early church, those earliest followers of Jesus, lived and preached the marvelous gift of resurrection. They understood that resurrection was not a natural right. Death was still very real. It could not be postponed. It would still come to us all as it had from the beginning. It still makes us anxious. It still separates us from those whom we love. But death is not the final word. The last word is always with the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of Life.
Some years ago the Rev. Joanna Adams, a seminary classmate who pastors in Atlanta, prepared a sermon for a funeral held for two members of her church – a 31-year-old man who suffered from deep mental illness and was refusing to take his medication, and his 65-year-old father who, convinced that his son was now dangerous to others, shot and killed his son and then took his own life. Adams knew that the trauma of this terrible set of circumstances raised at least two aching theological questions: Why did this happen? and Can God still be trusted? She first addressed the question of “why,” recognizing the urgency of the question but wisely refraining from an easy explanation: “Because we are human, we want to know why; because we are only human, we cannot know why. The Scripture promises that someday we will know why, but that day is not today. God knows that what we need today is not an explanation; what we need today is faith.”
She then turned to the trustworthiness of God, telling hearers that we “are not dealing today with a God who comes around only when things are rosy and the birds are singing. There is a cross up there! … The God we know in Jesus Christ gets to the valley of death, of loss and grief, before we do, so that he can get ready to catch us when we fall blindly in.” She closes the sermon by telling of visiting the grieving family and meeting Lauren, the 3-year-old granddaughter of the deceased father. “She was sitting on her grandmother’s knew and wearing a bib with a duck on it and a smile. ‘Tell Joanna what you say before you have your supper,’ her grandmother prompted. ‘God is great,’ Lauren said. ‘God is good,’ she said, and suddenly I could not wait to come to church today, so that I could tell you what Lauren said and what the scripture promises and what faith knows even when the pain is piercing and the shadows fall. God is still great. God is still good. It is true!”
This God; this Jesus – who weeps at the pain caused by death bringing an end to the relationships which bring life and love and meaning to life; this power for life, for love which builds relationships which can last even beyond death; this is the power that unbinds death; this is the power that even a 3 year-old can know: God is great. God is good. Not even death can undo that truth.