Grief, Resurrection and Faith
John 11: 1-45
By Colleen D. Hartung
April 6, 2014
On Sunday nights, at 8 o’clock, if you do just a little channel surfing you will find that among your viewing choices is (1) a show called “Resurrection” that chronicles the mysterious return from the dead of several residents from a small town in Missouri, (2) another show called “Believe” that tells the story of a group of people trying to protect a little girl with a genetic mutation that gives her superhuman powers that she uses to accomplish random acts of kindness but that other misguided people want to harness for nefarious purposes and (3) a program called “The Long Island Medium”, a reality TV show about a woman who allows grieving family members to communicate and connect with their loved ones who have died. If you think that the fact that I can tell you the general plot of all three of these shows indicates that I over use our TIVO you are probably right. However, I do think it is telling that all three shows revolve around this experience of loss and helplessness in the face of a tragedy like the death of a loved one. They all tap into this deep seated desire for something that would alleviate or rescue us from this pain. And they each ultimately turn us toward questions of faith or belief in the face of gut wrenching heartache.
These themes—grief, resurrection, and faith—are the same themes that make today’s gospel so compelling. The climax of John’s story of loss and love is the resurrection of Lazarus but the gospel’s heart, its emotional center, the part that grips us because it resonates with something deep inside, is the hauntingly familiar expressions of angst and grief spoken by both Martha and Mary as they meet Jesus after Lazarus has died. Both of Lazarus’ sisters lament, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Mary weeps at Jesus’ feet and Jesus weeps too. When Martha protests as Jesus moves to have the stone that seals her brother’s tomb removed by saying “already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days”¸Jesus asks her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
This question of faith that Jesus’ poses is really not all that straight forward. Earlier, in response to Martha’s lament that sounds a little like an accusation, Jesus tells Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha responds, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day”. Within the framework of her Jewish faith, she looks forward to a future resurrection of the dead. But Jesus responds, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those 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?” As she stands before the tomb of her brother, already dead four days, this cryptic promise of resurrection and life, available now, in this moment, in Jesus as the way and the life, is something that makes no sense to her.
When Jesus calls Lazarus back to life shouting, “Lazarus, come out,” the gospel tells us that many who see, end up believing in him. The story tells us that the onlookers, gathered to comfort Martha and Mary, believe in this man, Jesus, who feeds a multitude with a few loaves and fishes, who makes a lame man walk and causes a blind man to see. They place their faith in Jesus as a healer and a miracle worker that they hope might save them from the harsh realities that is life for a Jew under Roman rule. But as this story unfolds, this will turn out to be a shallow faith that ultimately cannot affirm Jesus’ claim to be “the resurrection and the life”. For it will be these same people or people like them who, in a few short days, in the face of something like fear or lack of understanding or disappointment or jealousy, will betray him and call for his crucifixion. Which takes me back to Jesus’ question; “Do you believe?” What does it mean, in the context of this story, to believe when Jesus says “I am the resurrection and the life”?
For the writer of the Gospel of John, the answer has to do with an affirmation of Jesus as the Son of God. Given this divine connection, Jesus wields a power over life and death that makes resurrection an in the moment reality for the believer. The editor of the Revised Common Lectionary, that organizes our readings for today, suggests a couple more possibilities. In relation to the first reading from the Book of Ezekiel, believing in Jesus as the resurrection and the life might have something to do with the transformative power of this belief to not only breathe new life in to the dry bones of individual believers but into the tradition of our ancestors as well. And finally, the reading from the letter of Paul to the Romans suggests believing as a spiritual resurrection of a mortal body “dead because of sin”. In the end, I am going to opt out of these more traditional solutions to this question of faith. For a few short minutes at the end of this homily, I am going to tell a quick, sad story that comes down on the side of another more practical alternative, a little more in line with the emotional heart of today’s gospel and the themes of grief, resurrection and belief that grip the attention of ordinary people who watch television on Sunday nights.
Just after I turned 13 years old, my brother Mike, died after a two year battle with Leukemia. You can imagine it. One day we were an ordinary sixties family, four kids, a mom and a dad, pets and a garden, church every Sunday; an ideal life in some ways, a struggle in others but ever so ordinary. And then the next day, we find ourselves in this life and death struggle that was never winnable. By the time my brother died, the order of my life—where parents had the power to protect their children from bad things, doctors healed the sick, old people died before children and faith in God saved you from the worst—was in ruin. But in the midst of this chaos, a few days after the funeral, I had this dream. I was sitting at the kitchen table with my family and my brother Mike walks in the door. He sits down and we just eat our lunch. It was like some miracle, like he’d never been gone. When I woke up, I knew it was a dream but still I was happy. The next night, I got into bed, closed my eyes and waited. Again the dream was about something ordinary except Mike was there. It didn’t happen every night but these dreams became a safe haven, a place of refuge and order and a way of getting by. I depended on them for an escape from the grief and disorder of my daytime life.
Then one night, at the end of the summer, I had this dream where my brother was waiting for me on the steps of the Lutheran Church. We were Catholic and I had never even been in the Lutheran Church so I don’t know why he was there but any way, he was waiting for me. I approached him tentatively and then he looked up at me and said, “I’m not coming any more”. I knew it wasn’t going to do any good to argue so I didn’t. The next morning, when I woke up, I just laid there. I thought, “What am I going to do?” In the letter to the Ephesians from last week’s readings, Paul says, “Sleeper awake! Rise from the dead and Christ will shine on you.” The day was getting warm, my seven year old sister was making all kinds of noise in our room and pretty soon my dad was going to start yelling about my chores so I just decided to get up and somehow make a way in the midst of this chaos and sadness that was my life. It saw it happen for each of us, my mom, my dad, my sister, my brother. There just came this time that we each had to make this choice to turn back toward life and living by taking this leap of faith that chaotic, disordered and broken or not, life and resurrection was the right call.
In the end what I have come to realize, all these years later, is that my family, even in our grief, was and is ordinary. Life, if you are engaged at all, and love even a little, is inevitably touched by grief and requires faith if you are going to find your way. I look around this room and I know this because I can see it in your faces. Every Sunday, we gather around these stories of life, love, heartache, betrayal and resurrection because these stories about Jesus resonate with our life experience. Today’s gospel story about Lazarus’ death is a foreshadowing of what is to come. But even as this story turns us toward Jerusalem, and Jesus’ betrayal, suffering and death, it reminds us of the faith that has gotten us this far, will get us through tomorrow and will enable us to recognize and hear the call to resurrection and new life when it comes so we can say, “Yes, I do believe”.