Posted by secondchurch on November - 9 - 2018

If You Had Been Here

John 11:32-44

All Saints Sunday. November 4, 2018

Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor


Yesterday’s rain and blustery winds brought down many of the leaves that didn’t want to believe it was fall yet, so now, this morning, it looks like November.  Both the appearance of the landscape and the turn of the calendar page tell us that it is the dying season here in the north of the Northern Hemisphere.  The landscape is a study in brown, rust, and gray with a little gold left over and the occasional shock of scarlet.  As of today, the darkness will descend in late afternoon.  The smell of wet, decomposing leaves rises with every step.  It is a melancholy time – a time of absorbing losses and endings and the silent portion of nature’s cycle.  It is also the time, liturgically speaking, when we are near the end of a year. In this quieter portion of the liturgical cycle, we think of those who have died, and we wait for the waiting season of Advent.

I cherish this time of year, these short days and long nights, as if the earth is letting out a long, deep, sigh, preparing itself for the deep freeze.  This is, for me, one of the best Sundays of the year – better than Easter, better even than Christmas Eve.  All Saints Day is the perfect combination of sorrow and celebration – the blend, like life itself, of remembrance and hope, death and relationship, grief and trust.  Soon in our service we will be praying in thanksgiving for church members who have died in this past year, since last All Saints Day, and we will be praying for ourselves and for one another as we find our way through days of grief and loss.  It is a November ritual, a tender remembering, an inward journey with the outward expression of honoring our loved ones.

This passage from John about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead epitomizes all the emotions of All Saints Day.  John’s gospel implies that Jesus had a particularly warm relationship with these three siblings – Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.  We don’t know how that friendship developed, of course – only that it was.  And we don’t know how Lazarus died, only that he had.  John, who was as much an explainer as he was a storyteller, added some important symbolic details to the story.  Lazarus had been dead four days already by the time Jesus arrived.  It was generally believed that the soul left the body after three days so by making it clear that Lazarus had passed that critical time, John tells us that Jesus was going to do something that had never been done before, something miraculous, something only God could accomplish.

As with other rich, metaphorical passages of Scripture, so much of the story’s power and meaning is lost when we try to understand it literally.  Is the story about Jesus bringing a dead man to life?  Or is it about the resurrection?  Is this a story about grief or is it a story about hope?  The power of the story lies not in the miracle of bringing a beloved friend back to life, but in the power of God who promises that death is not the last human experience.  Do you believe that?  If you do, then you know that there is nothing that deserves your fear.  If you believe that, then you trust that there is more, so much more, than any of us can know this side of the grave.  If you believe that, then you can do anything, forgive anyone, love without counting the cost, give without anxiety, bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things.

There are many places in the world where sorrow walks the streets, so many hearts broken by life’s cruelties.  There are losses greater than those we have been called to bear.  Innocent people suffer because of political, historical conflicts.  Children suffer because fate has placed them in danger.  All of us lose people we love deeply – every single one of us.  Believing in God does not shield us from sorrow.  Believing that death is not the last human experience does not mean we will not die.  Lazarus died.  His body had begun to decay.  But Jesus did not say to Mary, if you had believed, Lazarus would not have died.  No, according to John, Jesus said “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

I know those words alone are not enough to dull the sharp edges of grief.  They may do nothing more than frustrate and anger those who hear them.  Personally, I don’t think four days following the death of a loved one would be the best time to speak them to those who grieve.  That’s why we have these days in our liturgical year, these times when we can ponder life and death, distanced a bit from the jagged, sharp edges of grief, so poignantly expressed in Mary’s words when Jesus first arrived at the grave.  “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Of course, we know that isn’t true.  No amount of faith, not even the presence of Jesus himself, will prevent death.  God will not do what cannot be done.

Here’s what God will do – here’s what God does do – God will love you.  God will give you glimpses, fleeting and incomplete, that life in its largest sense, is eternal.  God will comfort you when you grieve.  God will stay by your side when you are alone in your sorrow.  If we say, even in rage, God, if you had been here, my loved one would not have died, God will absorb our anger.  And, on All Saints Day, God will remind us that we are surrounded by that cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, and who will follow us, and who live in us, through us, and for us, into all eternity.  And God will help us to stand.  Amen. 



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