On one of our pilgrimages to Israel/Palestine, our group went to Bethany, the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. It is located over the hill from Jerusalem. We took turns climbing down into a cold, dark tomb, purportedly that of Lazarus, and I have a vivid memory of reaching a hand down to one of our former members – Fred Carspecken – and helping him climb out of the darkness and back into the light.
How do you hear today’s scripture reading? It is a text that prompts mixed responses. For some, it is a reassurance of the miraculous powers of Jesus. He raised his friend Lazarus from the dead. For others, a raised eyebrow betrays their skepticism. Some read it as historical fact, others as metaphor for new life, and still others as a symbolic story that foreshadows the resurrection of Jesus.
Since the Gospel of John was written well after the other three gospels, scholars scratch their heads as to why Matthew, Mark, and Luke fail to include this episode in their gospels. Others wryly point out that even if Lazarus was dead and resurrected to new life, he died again at some point.
Another matter worth considering is the fact that Lazarus never speaks. He never says a word. In fact, after he comes out of the tomb and is unbound, he is never even mentioned again. He just vanishes from the pages of scripture. As one colleague points out, “We have no record of what he said about his experience. We do not know if he was joyful to get another shot at life or if he was upset because that meant he would have to die again one day. We have no knowledge if Lazarus ever went on to preach or to teach after his experience of being a living, breathing miracle.”1 I wonder. Might it be because the gospel writer did not want us to focus on the dead man who was now alive?
As I wrestled with today’s passage I found myself shying away from weighing the veracity of the resurrection of Lazarus. Perhaps because I did not see the story asking much of us, other than attempting to muster belief in something that is well beyond our personal experience. Plus, it left me wondering why Jesus did not raise John the Baptist from the dead after Herod had him killed. Or why Jesus did not raise a number of other good people who died.
As I pondered the passage, what seemed to be echoing in my soul were two other parts of the story. The first was the reaction of both Mary and Martha when Jesus did not rush to see Lazarus before he died. The two sisters sent word to Jesus that his good friend – their brother – was ill. But Jesus did not put the brakes on what he was doing and hurry to see Lazarus. The text says that Jesus “stayed two days longer in the place where he was.”
Then, when Martha got word that Jesus was finally on his way, she ran out to meet him. And her words expressed both her anger and her grief over the death of her brother. She said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” In other words, “I know you cared about him, so why did it take you so long to get here?” It turns out to be a shared sentiment of her sister, because those are also the first words out of the mouth of Mary when she encounters Jesus. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
The raw, emotional plea is a natural response to the untimely death of one we love. In a world created by a loving God, we wonder why someone would die before his or her time. It’s so painful. It’s so frustrating. It’s so unjust. Why is there so much suffering?
Shannon Kershner, the pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, says that the words of these two sisters come to her mind when she hears about the ongoing violence in her city. She thinks about the reaction of parents and siblings when another young man is gunned down. “Lord, if you had been here.”
These blunt words of Mary and Martha encourage us to be honest when we are in pain. It is acceptable to say what we are feeling. It is perfectly fine to express anger and agony. God can handle our scolding.
The second part of the story that kept gnawing on me were those words that comprise one of the shortest verses in the Bible: “Jesus began to weep.” Jesus is our best window into the heart of God and these words reveal the depths of God’s compassion. Jesus stands at the grave of a friend and cries. His sorrow points to the fact that the Creator is not a distant deity who makes demands, but rather the One who sheds tears; I suspect countless tears over this troubled world.
The mourning of Jesus also illustrates the proper human response to one who is in pain. We are to allow ourselves to be vulnerable to each other’s heartache. The Apostle Paul says that we are to “Rejoice with those who rejoice and we are to weep with those who weep.”
About Jesus weeping, a colleague writes, “resurrection is around the corner, but in this story, the promise of joy doesn’t cancel out the essential work of grief. When Jesus cries, he assures Mary and Martha, not only that their beloved brother is worth crying for, but also that they are worth crying with. Through his tears, Jesus calls all of us into the holy vocation of empathy.”2
I have had people tell me that they cannot visit someone who has lost a loved one because they don’t know the right thing to say. They feel too awkward in the face of tears and sadness. They feel obliged to help lift the heavy pall that has descended on their friend, but they freeze.
Perhaps it is best for us to keep in mind that there simply are no words that will wrench the sorrow from another’s heart. Sometimes all we can do is sit in silence with one who grieves. The person in pain does not expect us to make everything right. What they need to know is that they do not suffer alone. They need to know that someone cares. They need to know that someone else also misses their loved one.
Tolstoy said that “our great duty as humans was to sow the seed of compassion in each other’s hearts.”3 The experience of suffering can make people hard. But it often makes us more compassionate. Once we experience the ache of loss, we can better understand the agony of others. While no two people suffer identically – and therefore we ought to resist saying, “I know exactly how you feel” – once we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we can better relate to the heartache and misery of another. After we experience the personal anguish of loss, it tempers our inclination to tell others how to grieve and helps us to hold them tenderly.
I have never heard an adequate explanation of how a person’s compassion for another can help to lighten the burden of the one who suffers. But I have seen it happen so many times that I know it is very real.
Priest and poet John O’Donohue tells of being in China and visiting numerous Buddhist temples. He said his favorite Buddha was “a Buddha, with hundreds of hands, and in each hand, there was an eye. He asked a young Buddhist monk who this Buddha was. The monk explained that this was a Buddha who had lived a wonderful life. He had reached such a level of soul refinement that he was about to go into Nirvana; before crossing this threshold, he took one look back and saw that there was still one person suffering in the world. He was then given the choice, either to go into Nirvana, or go back to help the suffering one. He chose to go back. The very moment he made that choice, he was raised immediately into Nirvana. He was given a hand to help everyone who was suffering. And he was given an eye in each hand to see where the help was needed. What a beautiful image of compassion.”4 Eyes to see and hands to help.
When Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus, he showed us the power of weeping with those who weep. Rather than ignoring people in pain, God urges us to turn toward them and walk beside them to touch them with our love and support.
Yesterday, we held a memorial service for one of our long-time members and it was wonderful to see so many people here to support the family as they grieved the loss of their loved one. Never think that your presence at such a time does not matter. It does. When people know that you have put aside your schedule and made time to be present, it lessens the burden and aids the healing.
And, finally, we know that while there is power in weeping with another, our tears do not lead us to despair. Our faith teaches us that while death is painful, it is only the penultimate word, not the final word. As we will celebrate in two weeks and as the psalmist writes: “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” (Psalm 30).
Merciful God — You love the world so dearly that you sent your beloved Son: to heal our brokenness; to open the way to eternal life; to make us one with you. So, with boldness, we approach the throne of grace. We come with gratitude, for you rejoice with us in times of delight and weep with us in seasons of sorrow. We come with hope, for you receive us with compassion and turn toward us in love. We come with confidence, for you promise to hear our prayers … the ones we are able to voice, as well as those that silence draws from our hearts.
Compassionate God — You know our inmost hearts. So, in these quiet moments, we lay bare the pain that plagues us, the worry that consumes us, the grief that overwhelms us. We seek healing for ourselves and for others: for bodies aching from disease, or weary from the toll of daily demands; for minds riddled with invisible illness, or suffering the indignity of dementia; for spirits broken by stress, or heavy with despair. Surround all of us with your comfort, we pray, and breathe your sustaining spirit upon those we name before you in silence: [Silence]
Gracious God — Your creation cries out for healing. As we pray for this world in need, break our hearts for what breaks yours. We lift before you communities around the world that are suffering the effects of extreme weather and natural disasters. We pray that your Spirit would sweep over the rubble and draw order out of chaos. We lift before you the people of war-torn lands, and pray that your Spirit would comfort the grieving, sustain the weary, and inspire leaders to work toward peace. We lift before you communities near and far whose suffering is not considered newsworthy, but whose pain is no less real. Send your healing spirit upon these neighbors, and upon those we name before you in silence: [Silence]
Ever-Present God — You are no stranger to suffering. But — as the empty tomb gives witness — you do not let suffering have the final word. Dwell with us, we pray. Mend our brokenness; refresh our spirits. As we pray for healing, align our wills with your will, so that the story we tell with our lives may be a story of grace. By your Spirit — strengthen us, guide us, renew us, until our prayers give way to action, and our actions plant seeds of peace. We ask this, and all things, in the name of your Son, our Lord — the One who gave us words to pray:
Our Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.
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