When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to him, "Lord, come and see." Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, "See how he loved him!" But some of them said, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?"
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, "Take away the stone." Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, "Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days." Jesus said to her, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, "Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me." When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, "Unbind him, and let him go."
This coming Sunday is All Saints Day, celebrated, and on that day we hear three of my favorite readings from the whole Bible. They also happen to be readings I hear a lot as a priest, because we read them at funerals so often. John 11 happens to be my favorite option for funerals, although this reading above is a slightly different part of the story than what we typically hear.
There's a few parts of the story that I deeply appreciate. It's very important to read the text with voice and inflection. I invite you to take a few moments to really think about the way tone and inflection might change the meaning of the words in the story. What would it sound like for Martha and Mary to say to Jesus, "Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died" in different tones of voice? Is she angry? Frustrated? Crying and lamenting out of grief?
When I hear those in the crowd saying "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?" I think it also helps to try to reword this with modern inflection. "Couldn't Jesus have done something about it?" "Where was he?" "Why didn't Jesus step in and help him?" It's not even about his ability to do it. The crowd knows and believes that he could have saved him. They want to know why he didn't.
This is exactly the feeling I experience so often among faithful churchgoers during time of grief and loss. They come to church regularly. They put their faith in God. They believe in the stories, they believe in the man Jesus and his power to save. So why, then, do bad things continue to happen? Why is their pain, grief, and loss? Especially during a still-ongoing pandemic, when we've lost so many that we love, where is Jesus in it?
One option for us is to just ignore the questions, ignore the grief, and ignore the dead. This past week I volunteered at my local polling place as a poll greeter. I've done this several times before, and I always take joy at meeting members of the community and having conversations. However, I was surprised by some of what I heard that day. I heard so many people questioning the sincerity of medical professionals, the truth of the pandemic we've been experiencing, and the dangers of the pandemic. I heard numerous people claim that the virus hasn't really taken people's lives. They've died from other causes, and we just blame COVID-19. Regardless of people's politics, I was surprised at the casual, dismissive way people were willing to talk about so many people who have died in the last year and a half. Regardless of what other underlying health issues, diseases, or co-morbidity a person might have had, 750,000 human beings in the United States have contracted COVID-19 and died. That is 750,000 of our fellow humans, just in our own country, who are dead today after getting COVID-19. Around the world, the number is a staggering 5.02 million people.
That is a tremendous amount of loss! It is also a tremendous amount of grief. Today I see us moving beyond the pandemic as a thing in the past, a thing we are eager to put behind us. That is also a tremendous amount of ungrieved, unmourned loss as a society. We hardly talk about the fact that 750,000 of us in this country have died related to a new disease spread in the last year and a half. Perhaps, the numbers are too staggering for us to comprehend. They are so large that they become meaningless. They don't sink in.
Here's my point and my takeaway from all of this: this isn't how Christians deal with death, and I think that's important. The notion from the New Testament that death no longer has a sting because death has been defeated by the Resurrected Jesus does not mean leaving death ungrieved, loss not mourned, the dead forgotten.
No, instead, we are invited to join Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus. Look at him there. He hears his friends Mary and Martha. He hears the crowds. And his reaction is to mourn with them. He cries with them. And then he cries out to his Father and begs him for an answer to the grief, pain, and loss. He calls out in hope and faith, and Lazarus indeed rises from the grave again.
Isaiah 25 tells us that God will "wipe away the tears from all faces" and John 11 shows us that that includes the face of the Risen Lord!! Even his face shed tears of loss. The hope that God will wipe away the tears from all faces rests on the truth that death, grief, and loss are still with us. But our faith invites us to hope for something more, something new:
I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
"See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away."
And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new." - Revelation 21
All Saints Day is a reminder that God is making all things new in Jesus. The resurrection of the dead is not just something we hope for in the distance, at a future time not yet realized. The resurrection is a Human, a person named Jesus. He is the resurrection and the life. We can have a relationship, today, with him, with that life of the age to come. We can know it today and be filled with it today if we abide in him.
There are few things more important as to what Christians believe than how we talk about and treat death. Yes, we cry tears of pain and loss. We should encourage our culture and society around us to acknowledge the pain we've experienced, to mourn the loss of those who died from COVID-19, the real, individual, human lives lost during the pandemic. To not treat those human beings as a political talking point, but as individual persons, no longer with us. And then we can share the good news we have been given, that Jesus is not dead....he is risen! And because he lives, all of those who have died are knit together in him, never forgotten and never lost. One day, we will stand together again in a new heaven and new earth where all the old enemies will be defeated once and for all and forever! Amen. Let us shed tears with our neighbors and with the world as Jesus did, and may we bear our message of good news of the Risen Jesus into the hurting world with hope.