When word came by phone that my father had died the day before, I was sitting at my aunt’s kitchen table in Bountiful, Utah. My father’s health had not been good for some time and so I wasn’t surprised, really, that he had passed. Even so, news of his death was unexpected.
“Did he go peacefully?“ I wondered to myself while my caller spoke. “Was someone with him in his final moments?” These are universal questions, of course. We all want those we love to pass gently and to be surrounded by love as they take their earthly leave.
The call soon ended. While my head spun, my aunt hurried to her desk, found a tablet and pen, and then handed them to me. “Here. You’ll need to write the obituary.”
In that moment my sweet aunt became a reflection of our culture. Unsettled by death, uncomfortable with grief, we are often at a loss for what to say or how to help. She meant well. We all do.
In our lesson this morning, Jesus is late getting to Bethany and now Lazarus is dead and buried. I can never quite forgive Jesus his tardiness and I certainly can’t explain it. Even so, when Mary shares the news and Jesus weeps, my heart breaks; Jesus has lost a friend who was like a brother.
Later, when his own death is looming, Jesus will lift up bread and cup as signs of his unwavering love and solidarity. Today it’s tears, salty and wet, running down cheeks, clouding vision. A communion of tears, if you will.
As we witness and contemplate this moment, we are invited to trust that just as Jesus was with Mary and Martha in their grief and loss, so he is with us in ours.
In our lives, as in Bethany, Jesus meets us in our weeping and everything that comes with it. If we don’t experience his mystical presence directly, certainly it’s here in the voices and kindnesses of others.
Whenever a family member or friend passes, our need for comfort stretches further than most of us realize. After a memorial service ends, I often find myself wondering how those who have lost someone dear will navigate. Because their world has stopped and everyone else’s is still turning.
At a three-day celebration on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota years ago, I listened intently as our master of ceremonies, a dignified Lakota elder, called into the center of the powwow arena anyone who had lost someone in the previous year. Chairs were carefully arranged in an arc. Then ever so slowly men, women, and children came forward and sat down.
Ours had been a wild celebration. But now our host took time to remind us that in the midst of our jubilation, there were some who were grieving losses. Rather than getting lost in the laughter and joy, rather than assuming this was everyone’s experience, it fell to us to extend grace and care to anyone who was reckoning with a death. Not just at this gathering, not only those seated before us, but anyone we might know who was navigating loss.
With kindness woven through every word, our host tutored us. Even if someone’s loss was many months ago, their grief was still fresh, still disorienting, still dispiriting.
For a full year, we were to be attentive to the grieving, remembering that with each holiday, birthday, wedding or feast, those seated in the circle—and all those like them—were living with loss, living with the reality that someone they wished could be present wasn’t.
Thinking back on this decades-old memory and the call to be mindful of another’s grief for a full year, the words to a beautiful Brian Wren hymn come to mind. “I will weep when you are weeping.” Jesus certainly did. And does.
When we are at our most human, our most humane, our most compassionate and our most courageous, we share in another’s weeping, we join them in their loss not just in the next couple of weeks but at length.
This morning, figurative chairs sit in the center of our worship circle. We hold gentle space for one another as we acknowledge the deaths that have come in the previous year. With those who are grieving, with those whose tears are as fresh as the dew, we weep, remember, and affirm the gift that each of those lost were—and are. We do this with Christ, the one who wept with Mary, her family and friends, the one who never fails to weep with us. The one whose triumph over the grave lives on.
And while we might wish that Jesus could do for those we have lost what Jesus did for Lazarus, while it might be our ardent desire that our dearly departed could wake from death and walk up to us as Lazarus did, this is not ours to ask or experience.
What is ours is this: to let Jesus take us by the hand as we stand together before the tombs of those we have lost. Not so that we can be shocked or unsettled by the finality of death. Not so that we might be disturbed or disrupted by it. But so that standing with Jesus before the reality of death, we might hear him insist that although this may seem to be the end, death does not and cannot get the last word.
“Take away the stone,” we hear Jesus command this morning. “Unbind Lazarus and let him go,” Jesus says as his friend and soul-brother comes forth, blinking away the death that temporarily claimed him.
Onlookers to the tomb that we are, it might be fair to say that Lazarus wasn’t the only one tangled up in burial cloths. Even while we are alive, death can and does bind us. In great measure this is a function of belonging to a culture that doesn’t enough know what to do with death and loss. This side of the grave, grief confines and constricts us. It sucks the life out of our lungs.
When we are grieving, we are not unlike Lazarus in that we too need unbinding. When we are reckoning with loss, we are not unlike Mary and Martha, people deserving of the company and comfort of others. And like these three siblings and those who gathered around them in Bethany, when grief and loss visit us we are deserving of the presence of the one who is unafraid of death, the one whose deathless love meets us in our experience and brings us back to life.
Our remembering this morning of those we have lost in the previous year is not officially a sacrament. But it is sacramental. It is sacred. It is a ritual in the best sense of the word; it is filled with life, filled with the Spirit. As we enter this time, we do so praying that we might be ministered to and also minister to one another.
We honor the lives of those we have lost, all of them too soon. We remember them. We make room in the space we share for tears as well as gratitude. We acknowledge not simply the one lost but the journey it is to grieve their passing.
As we do this, we hold fast to the reality that we are not alone. And that no matter what we might think or feel, death does cannot get the last word. Now or ever.
Let us pray:
Gracious God, Ever-present Spirit, receive us as we are this morning. Be with those of us who are grieving and with all of us as we join them in their loss, as well as their gratitude for the gift of life that coursed through each person who has died.
We are grateful that Christ is with us, that he is not afraid to show us his tears. We give thanks that his presence now makes all the difference. Open us as your people to what Christ is giving us this morning.
It is in his name that we pray. Amen.