Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Communion of Tears

Preached at Holy Trinity for All Saints' Day, 2015.

You’re driving through a residential neighborhood. It’s about 9:00 in the morning on a Tuesday, and you come upon a house and notice that the driveway is full and cars are parked up and down the street for about a block. What do you assume is going on inside that house?... Somebody died. 

It’s not unlike the scene Jesus saw as he approached the home of Mary and Martha in Bethany. Mourners were surrounding the house so that it was difficult for Jesus to make his way through the crowd. 

Now the mourners could be divided into three groups. There were the ones were paid mourners. There also were those who had come to see if Jesus would show up and do something to incriminate himself. And then there were those who were there because of the love they had for Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha.

Which of these three groups was Jesus a part of? He wasn’t being paid to be there. He hadn’t come to see what would happen if he showed up. Was he there because of the love he had for Lazarus and Mary and Martha? 

Martha and Mary weren’t all that interested in why Jesus was there. The point for them was that he was there too late. Jesus knew Lazarus was dying and he delayed coming so that by the time he arrived in Bethany, Lazarus’ body had already been in the tomb four days. “Lord, if you had been here our brother would not have died,” they said. 

It’s almost as if Jesus waited around to make sure Lazarus was good and dead before he got there. Did he know that he would raise Lazarus from the dead, and did he know that this is what would be the final straw for the Jewish leaders who were looking for a reason to have him arrested and executed? The way John tells the story, that would certainly seem to be the case. 

But then, what’s with verse 35, the one that is famous for being the shortest verse in the Bible? “Jesus began to weep.” Earlier in the chapter, when Jesus learned that Lazarus was ill, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” He lingered two days before starting off toward Bethany, a suburb of Jerusalem, and a dangerous place for Jesus. And as he made his way, his disciples warned him this wasn’t a smart move because the Jews were looking for a reason to kill him. Knowing this, Jesus continued his journey. And he explained to his disciples, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.”

So, that’s what Jesus was thinking. His resolve was clear. And yet, when he arrived on the scene and looked around him, he began to weep. Why? Is it that he’s so angry about the fake mourners, or the ones who are out to get him? Many of those who saw him weeping assumed it was because he loved Lazarus so much. What gives? 

Well, if we read the verses just before 35, we read that when Jesus saw Mary and the Jews who came with her weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He asked where he could find the body of Lazarus, and he wept. It was the grief of others that led to his tears. Jesus’ cried out of compassion for those he loved. Their grief became his grief. 

It’s like when I’m at a funeral for someone I never knew. I’m there for those who are mourning. I may be presiding as a pastor, or I may be a person sitting in the pews. But often in those situations, I shed tears. Why? I didn’t even know the person who died. But I am sharing in the pain of those who are grieving so deeply. Has that ever happened to you? 

A couple years ago, some of our members were going through grief as a community. That grief was precipitated by the loss of their church, which closed its doors abruptly, and suddenly all they had was each other. By an amazing act of the Holy Spirit, they found their way to Holy Trinity. 

If you were here the first Sunday they worshiped with us, you will remember how they all huddled together in the back pews and they clung to one another. And then it was time for communion. 

They came to the altar and received Christ’s Body and Blood with tears flowing down their faces. And they learned that their community had suddenly grown much larger than they had ever imagined. For they were not alone in their tears. As I offered the Eucharist to members of Holy Trinity that day, many of them were also in tears. Why? No one had closed their church; this hadn’t happened to them. They didn’t even know these people. And yet, they loved them. They felt their grief, and they shared their tears.

Grieving is communal. It calls upon the very best part of us, our compassion. When you see cars parked around a house in the morning hours during the middle of the week, it has become a place of compassion. When you see bouquets of flowers piled at an accident site on the side of the highway, it is a place of compassion. When we gather as the Body of Christ to receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the bread and wine, we are a place of compassion. 

On this All Saints Sunday, we remember those who have left us grieving. And we also remember that as the communion of saints here in this place, we are a communion of tears. We’ve been left behind in our grief, but we are not alone. We’re a part of community that holds us in our grief and carries us into a place of life.

I wonder if that’s one meaning of the resurrection body for us. Maybe there is a resurrection of the body on this side of the grave. As the Body of Christ, we are resurrected, and the power of the resurrection is working through us whenever we grieve compassionately with those who mourn. 

We’ve been reading a book about the Beatitudes in my Sunday school class and two weeks ago we were discussing “blessed are those who mourn.” The author used the example of Job to point out how the community comes together to comfort those who mourn. Job had lost everything in his life that was dear to him, and he had three friends who came and sat with him for seven days. For seven days they just sat with him. That was healing for Job. 

Then Job’s friends had to ruin it all and speak. One by one they tried to explain to him why this terrible situation had befallen him, and one by one they made Job angrier and angrier. Their presence, their shared grief had been enough. Their explanations were not helpful—a good lesson for us when we gather around the grieving and feel a need to speak. It is our presence, our shared grief that is needed. 

We hold the grieving person in our midst, perhaps literally, perhaps through cards and prayers and flowers and a casserole at the door. We give them the space they need. We free them to grieve in whatever way works for them, apart from any expectations of our own. We hold them in community. And, in time, they become community for others who grieve.

Look at the way today’s gospel passage ends. After Jesus shouts, “Lazarus, come out!” Notice what it says, “The dead man came out.” The dead man. When Lazarus emerges from the tomb, he is still a dead man. He’s bound up in bands of cloth like a mummy. It sounds terrifying, doesn’t it?

His face and his hands and feet are all wrapped up. Jesus says to the people gathered around, “Unbind him, and let him go.” It wasn’t until the community unbound him that he was given new life. 

Perhaps that’s what it means to have eternal life in our earthly existence. We are so bound by death: the grief it brings us when it takes someone we love away, the fear of our own impending death that snatches away our joy in experiencing the beauty of this life, the crazy things we do to deny the fact that our lives on this earth have a beginning and an end. To receive eternal life, to experience resurrection in this life, we must be unbound in the face of our mortality. We don’t unbind ourselves. That takes a community. In the face of death, we unbind one another to live as resurrected people. What a gift it is to be part of the communion of saints that is also a communion of tears.

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