Behind the Stone
A Homily Offered by Rev. Osy Nuesch at Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
on November 4, 2018 in Observance of All Saints’ Day
The Circle of Life is an ever-present reality in the church. Baptisms, weddings, and funerals are the most common activities associated with a pastor or priest. For the past 20 years, this Sunday has held a special place for me. In preparation for the roll call of faith at the Eucharist, this week I would review all the services of Witness to the Resurrection that I conducted for church members that year and I would re-read the homilies that I gave on those occasions. As you can imagine, in 20 years I buried some amazing people: great leaders, pillars of the church, individuals who had shaped the personality and identity of a congregation for decades. Occasionally, I had to say something meaningful about people I hardly knew. A few times, I was struck by how un-remarkable some lives had been. The most meaningful services were those for people who represented a huge part of other people’s lives.
Last year, I said goodbye to Jean, who died short of her 90th birthday. She and Tom had been married for 70 years, 6 months and 1 day. They had joined the church just 3 short years earlier. I baptized Tom at the age of 87! They were thrilled that I could offer a blessing at their 70th wedding anniversary party. Jean’s passing was a blow to the family, but especially for Tom after 70 years together.
You probably know exactly how that family felt. Some you have lost a spouse recently. Or a sister, a mother, a son, a good friend. The longer you live the more people you see vanish from your life. My father, who lived to be 90 ½ years old, said to me on more than one occasion: “The problem with living to old age is that you end up burying most of your friends.” (literally: “el problema al llegar a viejo es que entierras a todos tus amigos.”)
Clearly, some deaths are easier than others; a ‘good death’ can be a source of great comfort. The death of a Jewish Nazi survivor at a shooting in a synagogue on a Sabbath day is harder to understand. As is women targeted at a yoga class. Or an explosion in a remote village in Afghanistan. Or a plane going down minutes after take-off. All events we have seen in a week.
There are some losses we know “we’ll never get over.” If you have been there, you know the feeling of deep and intense emptiness – of a deep void. And it hits you when you least expect it; tears flow at awkward times, unbidden and unwanted. And regardless of how many people surround you, support you, and promise to pray for you you know that no one will be able to fill those shoes. That is just how it feels. A faint ray of hope starts to shine once you realize that eventually it is possible to learn to adjust to an absence and to live with the pain. Somehow we manage to integrate the absence of the loved one into our own experience. But you never actually “get over” it, do you?
I’ve noticed that the impact and shock are greater when you have had little time to prepare for someone’s departure. So perhaps some of you enter today’s gospel lesson with a greater appreciation for the circumstances and feelings here expressed. Today we are exposed to the grieving of two sisters, Mary and Martha, whose brother had died, apparently, after a rather short sickness. The sisters were devastated. They had even reached out to Jesus, whose deeds of power were well known. Their hope was that the prophet and healer– who happened to be a family friend – and who they knew could open the eyes of the blind man (as we saw last week), and who could make the paralytic walk (as we saw a couple of weeks back) – could have kept Lazarus from dying. But by the time Jesus came to them, the funeral services had been completed and Lazarus had been buried.
We hear their disappointment – as well as a hint of innuendo – that doesn’t quite rise to the level of blame, but comes very close –
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (we hear it 2x: 11:21, 32).
And the sisters from Bethany are not alone in their assumption; it is a widely held hypothesis that faith/religion/belief is a form of insurance. People like to believe that if you follow after Christ, you will enjoy some special protection. But that is not what Jesus promised to the sisters, or to us, for that matter. Bad things do happen. Tragedy does not discriminate. There are no exceptions from suffering just because you are a follower of Jesus.
In our text, Jesus does not jump at the bait, but simply asks: “Where have you laid him?” I doubt feelings were a lot different 2000 years ago. Death may have been more visible, but still unwelcome. It is even more so for us. In a society that wants to put as much distance as possible from death, All Saints’ Day is a counter-cultural observance. Why be reminded of all that we’ve lost – the emptiness, the void, the absence? all the things we have tried so hard not to think about?
But we argue that today’s emphasis is different. “Where have you laid him?” is not a way to reawaken a pain, but rather a path to remembering that will lead to thanksgiving. Because there has to be a way to acknowledge how blessed we have been by the lives, the gifts, and the example of those who were so dear to us. That’s what our hymn of meditation helps us do today.
Each person – in his or her own way – finds the means to give thanks for those who helped make them who they are. The legacy of the departed is one of today’s emphases. During the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, I will mention church members and friends who died since last All Saints Sunday and I will invite you to speak out the names of those dear ones you have lost in the course of this year. In this way, we acknowledge that in life and in death we all belong to God and are part of the church universal. It is important to remember and to account for those who have gone before us. I like the symbolic way in which that comes across in the Hymn of Parting that we will sing at the end of today’s service. I have made this hymn a part of the order of the day on every All Saints Sunday and at the end of each Service of Witness to the Resurrection for church members (at least for those who will let me do so). There is an interesting effect in the hymn. You will notice that the music begins before we start to sing. There is one note that is sounded first and then we begin to sing on the second beat. There is a strong, low G that rings out at the beginning of “For All the Saints” and it sets the key for the entire hymn; you could say that it grounds our song. To me it speaks to the fact that we pick up a song that has already started. We don’t sing that first note, but it is part of the hymn, almost as if in our silence, we acknowledge those who sang it before we do. I want you to think about that at the beginning of every stanza: every time the organ gives us that important key note at the beginning of each stanza.
Likewise, our Gospel text begins with the absence of the dear one. And soon, the writer of the Gospel brings attention to a brief pause that fills us with hope. In a rather understated fashion we are told that Jesus was deeply and sincerely moved. “Jesus wept” or “Jesus began to weep.” We don’t know if it was the sisters’ grief, or the sadness all around, or Jesus’ own memories and feelings, or something else: Like the “anger Jesus felt at the sight of the way death had distorted and disfigured human existence, or some combination of these,” (Robert Kyser, John’s Story of Jesus, p. 57).
But the bystanders noticed Jesus’ tears (v.35). We wonder if that came as a surprise to that audience. John’s Gospel has immortalized the tears. After all, Jesus had shown tremendous composure, an unequal strength of character, an unmatched authority in the face of others’ pain and suffering. And now he cries. Tears are not a sign of weakness. When Jesus cries, we realize that even the heart of God can be broken. Jesus’ life and example caution us not to underestimate the depths to which God will go in order to identify with us, to comfort us and to redeem us. What a comfort to know that Jesus experienced pain like us! Jesus knows loss like we do; Christ is no stranger to sadness or tragedy!
And after all this, we arrive at the entrance of the tomb. Jesus has something to say here: “Take away the stone” (11:39). That presents a problem! Martha takes the lead in expressing what everyone must have been thinking: “Lord, he’s been dead for four days. This might not be the smartest thing to do. There is a big chance that …. , well, you know…. it will be unpleasant.”
Did Jesus know what he was asking? Did he want them to be exposed to filth, stench, and death? Didn’t he know we don’t like having to deal with such things? Our inclination is to avoid unpleasantness; ignore trouble; turn a deaf ear to conflict. Didn’t Jesus know that people resist adaptation and the distress/anxiety that change brings? Jesus must have known that we prefer to resist the pain of conflict, that we don’t like having our assumptions challenged, that we have perfected avoidance mechanisms, that we like quick solutions that make us feel good without making us work hard.
But throughout this Gospel of John, Jesus always involves the concerned in the carrying out of the sign – in the miracle – in the transformation. In John’s Gospel we are always partners with Jesus’ ushering of the new realm.
• At a wedding, Jesus commanded the people: “Fill the jars with water” (2:7). And when they went to taste it 50 gallons had been turned into wine, to the glory of God.
• When thousands were stuck in the desert enraptured by Jesus’ preaching, Jesus asked Phillip: “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” (6:5). And Andrew shows up with a boy who offered his 5 loaves and 2 fish and from that somehow thousands were fed, to the glory of God.
• A paralyzed man was asked to pick up his bed and walk before he knew he was healed.
• A man born blind was told to go and wash his muddy eyes (9:6, 7) and when he returned he was able to see, to the glory of God.
Now Jesus says: “take away the stone” as a sign of faith and hope because something new and unexpected is about to happen, and they get to be part of that!
But their concern is always that doing what Jesus demands is going to stink, or it’s going to be a lot of work (those burial stones were heavy!), or it’s going to cost us time, money, or energy and it may actually change us along the way, or change our sight, or our way of thinking, or change our church, or our community, or – God forbid! – maybe even the world!
The stone is moved to the side and then, “with the sovereign command to ‘Come out!’ death yields to its Lord.” (Kysar, p. 57). The Gospel of John wants us to hear the echo of a voice that rang out at that mysterious point beyond time, which the book of Genesis simply calls ‘the beginning.’ And it wants to direct us back to the existence of an expression of the divine – to the Christ – the Word (the Logos) that originated beyond time and space, beyond history and geography” (Kysar, p. 15), back to that Agent of Creation, who spoke and the universe came into being; and the lines were drawn between the temporal and the eternal, between the seen and unseen, between the material and the spiritual. For “all things came into being through him and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life” (John proclaimed in 1:3).
And here we are about to hear that voice again and its sound will again blur the lines; it will overcome divisions; it will demonstrate the seamless work of One for whom it is as easy to create as to redeem, to make as to resurrect. The Lord reaches from the created into the void and calls Lazarus out. The living reaches into the realm of the dead and pulls the latest victim out. The frontiers are expanded and we realize that the realm of God has drawn very near. This is thin space. “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” (11:40) and the most amazing thing happens. “Lazarus, come out!” and the man everyone knew was dead came out.
Belief is tested in the puzzling situations of life, in the crises, in the tragedies, in the calamities. Belief means being willing to move the stones and to be exposed to the stench and having to deal with those things that stink and may be very unpleasant.
But the reward – to our endless amazement – is the new life it brings out to the glory of God. Jesus proves that God is One who challenges our preconceptions and makes radical new beginnings possible.
That same Christ comes among us today, calls us by name, sets a table for us and bids us take and eat. And as we obey, we move into that thin space, we open ourselves up to the working of the Spirit who breathes into us a resurrection spirit and tells us again what we need to hear – today probably above all days: “I am the resurrection and the life; all who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.
Do you believe this?” (11:25, 26).
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.