Sermons

Sun, Apr 02, 2017

Death, loss, grief

Series:Sermons

Soldiers dragged a woman in labour out of her home…

stomped on her baby with their boots to kill it…

and then burned down her house.

Other soldiers were gang-raping a woman…

having already butchered her husband…

when her eight-month-old baby started to cry from hunger…

and so they killed him too.

Gang-rapes, brutal beatings and murders, the torching of homes, often with people still inside, and the disappearance of people––

the United Nations’ report…

which details the experiences of the Rohingya people at the hands of the Burmese military…

is horrifying.

The atrocities that they have endured and witnessed are unspeakable.

Yes, there have been intermittent violent clashes over the years…

between the minority Rohingya Muslims…

and the majority Burmese Buddhists;

but, as the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights noted,

“What kind of hatred could make a man stab a baby crying out for his mother’s milk?”

Indeed, from our position of comfort and privilege, it’s impossible to imagine––

what it would be like to live through that…

the fear and helplessness…

the anger and grief…

and also the rage and hatred that causes it.

 

Death, loss, grief––

they’re very powerful experiences…

even when they don’t involve such overt violence.

Death, loss, grief––

at some point, all of us have experienced it:

the stunned disbelief…

or even the refusal to believe that it has happened…

still expecting a loved one to walk through the door…

as he or she has, hundreds of times before;

the unreality of it all…

feeling like you’re caught up in a bad dream;

the tumultuous, conflicting emotions––

not just stunned disbelief…

but also sadness…

emptiness…

loneliness…

anger…

guilt and regret…

and probably a few others thrown in for good measure;

the need for answers;

or the need to find someone to blame, someone to hold responsible…

whether it’s me, personally––

“if only I had known… if only I had done…”––

or medical professionals…

or even God…

perhaps especially God.

Death, loss, grief––

they’re very powerful experiences…

something that we all go through at some point in our lives…

and something to which we respond in a variety of ways.

 

We see some of that reflected in this morning’s reading from John’s Gospel––

in the story of the raising of Lazarus.

And, as with the other stories that we have seen from John’s Gospel recently…

it’s not meant to be treated as real or historical.

Rather, it’s symbolic.

It’s meant to teach us something about ourselves…

and about God.

And the characters that we meet in it are meant to be typical or representative…

characters with whom we’re meant to identify…

characters in whom we see ourselves and our experience.

And, in that regard, this story is no exception.

Here––

in the characters of Martha and Mary––

we’re invited to see our own experiences of death, loss, and grief:

whether it be the seemingly Stoic reaction of Martha––

the strong one in the family, who holds it all together;

or the raw and visible emotions of Mary;

or the need to attribute blame––

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”;

or, as so often happens with grieving relatives…

the need to cling to hope…

the need to believe that their loved one, who has died, is okay…

and that, one day, they will all be reunited––

“I know that he will rise again in the resurrection of the last day”.

Here, Martha and Mary are us––

all of us––

in every experience we have of the aching pain of death, loss, and grief.

This is our story.

 

And note how Jesus responds to their grief.

When Jesus saw Mary weeping, “he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved”.

And then, the shortest verse in the whole Bible…

“Jesus began to weep”.

Jesus––

symbolically and sacramentally God with us, God as one of us––

is deeply moved by human suffering.

Jesus––

symbolically and sacramentally God among us––

weeps.

So, the first striking thing that we see in this story…

is the assertion that God isn’t distant or aloof;

that God isn’t uncaring.

Rather…

God suffers with us…

God feels our losses…

and God weeps with us.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote––

if you excuse the non-inclusive language––

“Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world…

The Bible however directs him to the powerlessness and suffering of God; only a suffering God can help”.

Jesus doesn’t come when first summoned.

He doesn’t miraculously intervene to save Lazarus or to spare his loved ones.

God doesn’t prevent our pain.

God doesn’t save us from the death, the loss, the grief.

Rather, God stands alongside us in our experience of emptiness and pain.

God weeps when we weep.

God aches when we ache.

We are not alone.

 

But the author also says more than that.

Note how Jesus responds to Martha…

“Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die”.

In these words, the author is inviting us to see beyond our present human experience…

and to see beyond our physical and mortal limitations.

He’s inviting us to participate in God’s life––

now.

He’s not offering up some pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die sentimentality––

a patronising reassurance that everything will be okay in the end…

that we will all be happy and reunited forever.

Rather, he’s challenging us to trust in God as the ground of being and source of all life––

now.

He’s encouraging us to believe that God can bring life––

into the most profound situations of despair and death that we experience––

now.

Through this symbolic story, the author is inviting us to believe––

to take hold of the promise––

that, through Jesus Christ, we can experience God’s life-giving power…

even now.

 

So, in the end…

we’re also invited to see ourselves in the other main character of the story––

namely, Lazarus.

We’re invited to consider the things that keep us entombed…

the things that bind us…

the things that stop us from being free…

the ways in which we have been symbolically dwelling in death…

the ways in which we have allowed past hurts and failures…

painful experiences––

yes, even death, loss, and grief––

how we have allowed them to prevent us from truly living…

and then to hear Jesus’ voice calling out to us:

“Come out!”

Powered by: truthengaged