We Who Must Die…

Rev. Sarah Buteux
October 28, 2012
Observance of All Saint’s Year B
Revelation 21:1-6; John 11:32-44


We who must die demand a miracle.

How could the Eternal do a temporal act,

The Infinite become a finite fact?

Nothing can save us that is possible:

We who must die demand a miracle.

-from W.H. Auden’s For The Time Being


Death is at once the most natural and unnatural of things that we experience: natural in the sense that it comes for all of us, natural in the sense that it is happening all around us, natural in the sense that nothing – not even taxes – is more certain, and yet…and yet… even in those cases where it is welcomed, where it is time, where it is a mercy, where it is right… there is still something about death that feels wrong.

The finality, the separation from those we love, the feeling that no matter how much time you’ve had you’d still take just a little bit more: death, though inevitable, still feels somehow unnatural.

It makes all the sense in the world and no sense at all, because I think  -and I don’t mean to sound trite here, but I do - I think the bumper stickers are true. Not the ones about dog being your co-pilot or electing Sarah Palin in 2012 because the world’s going to end anyway. (That didn’t really pan out for any one, thank God and thank God). No I’m talking about the one that says we’re not human beings having a spiritual experience but spiritual beings having a human experience.

Have you seen that one?  That’s making more and more sense to me as I age, because you see I’m closing in on the middle here. Yeah. And beginning to experience on a very personal level the fact that my body and my soul seem to be heading in two very different directions. Anyone else notice that?

The body is holding up okay and I plan on taking very good care of it, but realistically, thanks to two kids and 38 years of light to moderate living, I think it’s fair to say that it peaked awhile back. I mean, come on, after two pregnancies your abs go places they will never return from, and I can accept that.

What’s strange, is that my soul, that part of me that is most me, well that part is just getting started, that part is still gathering steam. You know what I mean?

It’s grows more vibrant and vital by the day. I know this body will not last forever, but my soul, honestly, I can’t imagine my soul ever coming to an end. My body may be breaking down all around me, but my soul is just gearing up, which is one reason why being human in general and Christian in particular is such a strange experience sometimes.

It is a strange thing to not just live but love as immortal beings inside decidedly mortal bodies, bodies that were never designed to go the distance. It is a strange thing to live in the face of death, to house a heart that goes on beating even after it is broken, to be able to live on in hope, faith, and anticipation even when loss leaves us feeling empty, abandoned, and alone.

And today, even if only for a few moments, I’d like us to sit with that strangeness, with the discomfort, with this paradox, because on a day like All Saints, when we remember those who have gone before us and contemplate that which lies ahead of us, there is a very real temptation to just skip to the end, skip to the part where God makes everything ok, skip to that place where death is no more and every tear is wiped away… without first acknowledging that death is real and allowing for some of those tears to be shed.

Yes, I know we’re in a Congregationalist church surrounded by the souls of stiff upper lip crusty old Yankees who frown on public displays of emotion. Some of those souls are even dead. Yes, we affirm a faith that believes in the reality of resurrection, the immortality of the soul, and a heaven where all things will be made new… but we also live in a world where people die...every day: people we’ve never met, people we’ve loved with all our hearts, and resurrection or no, it hurts.

It hurts a lot.

Because, you see, Christian or not, we live in the mean time, the between time, an un-easy time no matter how deep our faith or faithful and true our God…and that’s the place where I want to meet you today, where I want to meet you and where I believe Jesus meets us in our scripture for this morning.

Now I know he doesn’t come off as Mr. Sensitivity for most of this chapter. In fact, there is a lot about this story that makes me downright angry. The lectionary spares us a good bit of the tale, but know that if you start from the beginning you learn some pretty harsh things about Jesus in the 11th chapter of John. You learn that he delays, intentionally delays, coming to Lazarus even after he learns that his dear friend is ill.

You hear him admit to his disciples that he is actually waiting on purpose, waiting for Lazarus to die, in order that God’s glory and his own might be revealed. He comes right out and says: “For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.” It would appear that this is all a bit of a set up, the better for Jesus to show off the full extent of his power when he brings Lazarus back from the dead, which is creepy when you think about it, on multiple levels. Creepy.

But what redeems this story for me is the fact that when Jesus finally arrives in Bethany, as certain as his words might sound and as sound as his plan might be, his body tells another story.  

Lazarus is already four days dead and buried by the time Jesus gets there and everyone is understandably upset and angry. Martha confronts him with the truth - “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”  - and Jesus holds it together, at least at first, telling her to keep the faith, assuring her that her brother will rise again.  But by the time he reaches Mary and hears those same words from her mouth - “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” - he can no longer deny the devastation his friend’s death has wrought in the lives of those he loves. Nor can he deny how much the death of Lazarus affects even him.

When Jesus sees Mary’s tears and the tears of all those assembled, his own tears begin to flow. He cries out. He breaks down. The Bible tells us that he was “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” The Bible tells us that, “Jesus wept.” Jesus!

And I thank God for those words.  I thank God that in spite of the plan, in spite of the fact that resurrection was imminent, in spite of the fact that he knew for sure and for certain that death was not the end for Lazarus or any of us, that Jesus still wept.

He wept for his friend, for Mary, for Martha, and for himself, because resurrection or not, the death of one we love hurts us deeply. It robs of something we never get back. We may all be reunited in that land beyond the sky. We may hold fast to the promise that God will make all things new. But one of the reasons that death hits us so hard in spite of our faith is the fact that God does not put everything back together the way it once was. What is passed is past. We may be reunited but we don’t get back exactly what we had here on earth anymore than we get back what might have been had our beloved remained here on earth. What could have been here, on this side of the veil, can now never be.  Something real is lost when someone dies…lost forever…and that loss not only hurts, that loss deserves to be mourned.

Even Jesus wept, and if there is one message I would like to communicate to you this morning, on this day of all days, it is that it is okay for you to weep too. Such tears do not testify to a lack of faith on our part but to the depths of our love for those who have departed.

Friends, it is okay to cry for those who have died this year. It is okay to cry for people you love even if they died a very long time ago.  It is ok to cry for all that has been lost and for that which will never be.

There will come a day when God will wipe all our tears away, but until that day, it is right and good to let our tears flow. For the strange truth at the heart of our reading, our faith, indeed our very existence, is that we do not mourn as those who have no hope, we mourn –truly mourn - as those that do.

A paradox to be sure, a paradox as trustworthy as it is true.

Let us pray: O Lord, as we draw near to our time of remembrance, open our hearts and soothe our spirits.  Hold us close and help us to hold one another as our memories rise to greet us and our tears mingle with the gift of hope we have in you. O Lord, we know that although our faith cannot keep death from happening it can remind us that death will not have the final word; that though our faith may not keep our grief at bay - for even you wept at the grave of Lazarus - it can give us hope that there will come a day when such pain will be no more. Remind us, O Lord, that though death may bind us for a time, it cannot bind us forever, for ultimately there is nothing that can separate us from you and in you, Lord Jesus, all will be made well. So may it be, Lord, so may it be. Amen.