All Saints – November 7, 2021
The Rev. Natalie Johnson
Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 24; Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44
“Lord, if you had only been here, my brother would not have died.”
It doesn’t take much of an imagination to perceive the anguish behind Mary’s words. It is even easier to do so when we recall that the story from John we heard this morning, really begins 31 verses earlier when Lazarus first becomes ill and his sisters, Mary and Martha, sent word to Jesus. When he hears the news of his friend’s illness, he deliberately stays behind with the bizarre explanation that Lazarus’ illness would not lead to death but would be an occasion for the life-giving power of God in Christ to be revealed. Two days after he receives the news, Jesus finally rallies his disciples for the journey to Bethany and when they arrive, they find that Lazarus has been dead four days. Mary and Martha and their friends were bowed down under the weight of death’s devastation. When Martha learns that Jesus is nearing the village, she goes to meet him on his way, throwing the same accusation we hear later from Mary.
Death and loss are constants in the human experience. And yet, the constancy of death does not make it any easier for those of us left behind to carry the weight of grief. Over the last 20 months, our global community has had to endure the death of over five million people who died from COVID. We have watched videos shot from bystanders’ phones, capturing the brutal killings of black and brown people at the hands of those sworn to protect and serve. We have heard reports of military exploits and guerrilla warfare leaving heaps of casualties in their wake. Earthquakes, hurricanes, and fires have ravaged communities, adding to the death toll and devastation of loss.
“Lord, if you had only been here…”
In the dominant culture of our society, grief is often relegated to the private sector of life. Public displays of grief are acceptable only to the extent that they are performed in a “proper and dignified” manner. Tears are okay but only in moderation. Mourning is tolerated so long as it doesn’t impede for too long our productivity and consumption within the market economy. We are more comfortable offering empty platitudes than we are sitting in the discomfort of lament. In a society that has cultivated to perfection the desire and expectation for instant gratification, we are encouraged to “move on,” to “suck it up,” to “start rebuilding,” to “get out of the cycle of grief as quickly as possible.”
I wonder, though, if the story of Mary and Martha, Jesus and Lazarus might challenge our way of dealing with the grief of loss. I wonder if this story might actually provide us a pattern to deal with collective trauma and the devastation of death.
Commentators often criticize Mary and Martha, and those who mourn alongside them, as lacking in faith. But I wonder if we might see their accusations and questions a little differently. I wonder if we can see them as born not from doubt or misplaced faith, but from a deep abiding faith that recognized the power of God in Christ. Martha, in the same breath that she hurls her accusation at Jesus also confesses that she believes, “Even now that God would do whatever” Jesus asked. When Jesus asked her if she believed that those who believe and live in him would never die, she doesn’t hesitate to affirm her belief that he is who he says he is. Martha teaches us that the anguish of grief is not an impediment to our faith, that anger in the face of death is not a threat to our confession that God in Christ is making all things new. Martha gives us permission to dispense with empty platitudes, with words of consolation that seek to avoid the weight of lament.
When Mary confronts Jesus, she falls at his feet under the burden of grief. “Lord, if you had been here…” Our translation of scripture tells us that upon seeing Mary, Jesus was “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” It paints a picture of tender compassion and gentleness, but the Greek underlying that phrase is more violently visceral. Jesus is overcome by shattering sorrow and he begins to weep. He does not tell Mary, Martha, or the other mourners to “get over it.” He does not chide them for their grief, even in the context of his promise of life. Instead, Jesus accepts their invitation to “come and see” the reason for their grief. He walks with them into the reality of their sorrow, into the anguish of their loss. He weeps for their hurt. He weeps for his own loss of a beloved friend. He experiences the maddening devastation of death. It seems strange that Jesus would be overcome by such emotion knowing what he was going to do next. And this is perhaps even more of a reason to see the work of grief as holy work. Jesus enters into the depth of their hurt, experiences its heaviness.
As the mourning crowd takes Jesus to the closed tomb, he issues a series of short imperatives: he tells the crowd to take away the stone; he commands Lazarus with a shout to come out of the tomb; and he commands the community to unbind him and let him go. From the depths of their shared sorrow, Jesus works transformation in and through the community. Jesus has just claimed to Martha that he is the resurrection and the life, that he has within himself the very power of God to impart and sustain life. A power that not even death can overcome.
Jesus calls life out of the dark caverns of death. It is significant to recognize that when Jesus commands the stone be taken away, commands Lazarus back to life and out of the tomb, bids the community to unbind him, he does not wave a magical wand to reverse the tragedy of loss. “The joy awaiting Martha and Mary and their friends would not cancel out the experience of sorrow, fear, and loss they’d just endured all of which would shape the restored life” they’re given when Lazarus emerges from the tomb. More than that, when Lazarus is restore to the community, they are enlisted in God’s life-giving act, for they must remove the last vestiges of death and unravel the bindings of his grave-clothes.
Earlier this morning we prayed to the God who knits us together into one communion and fellowship into the mystical body of Christ. I have been especially captivated by this image as I’ve wrestled with the concept of grief and the promise of life that is narrated in this story of John’s gospel. On this day, All Saints Day, we emphasize our theological conviction and commitment to the idea that God in Christ unites us to Godself and to one another. We confess that this unity transcends the limitations of time and history because those who die in the Lord are already united with him in his resurrected life through their baptism. For this reason, this day is one of four designated as proper occasions for Holy Baptism. And in just a moment we will be renewing our baptismal promises to continue, to persevere and resist, to proclaim, to seek and serve, and to strive.
And, this feast day reminds us, we will be renewing these vows in the context of death and devastation, of loss and unresolved grief.
We have, collectively, experienced so much trauma in the past 20 months. I wonder where we might need to invite Jesus to “come and see?” I wonder what shared sorrow might be a catalyst for our own transformation? What tomb is Jesus standing in front of, shouting us into life and restoration? Where might God’s Word of Life be directing us to deepen our faith?
 See Debi Thomas’ commentary for All Saints here.