Thoughts Between Sundays

Some of what crosses my mind between Sundays

Sermon: the Thorns that Come With Loss

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John 11:17-37

17When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” 28When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32When 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.”

33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

 

Series: Crown of Thorns, Crown of Glory #3

“Thorns that Come with Loss”

            It has been said that “the road to Easter leads through a cemetery.”[1]  As we continue on our Lenten journey, we are examining the experiences that the leads us through — the thorns in our crown that prick us as we move towards Easter.  The examination of our own sinfulness and hardships in life is accompanied by the knowledge that Jesus makes this journey with us.  His suffering was not limited to the cross, but also occurred on the way to it.  The last 2 weeks, Ted has looked at the first two thorns in the crown that we are weaving together this Lenten season – -the thorns that are the cost of following Jesus on this journey, and the thorn that is betrayal.  Today we will look at the thorns of grief and loss.  We will see how Jesus encounters grief and loss – both his own loss, and the loss for people he cares deeply about.  We will see that even in those times on the way to the cemetery, which is where part of our reading for today is set, Jesus is there, and offers the last word.  This is not the final cemetery of the Easter journey, but is the one that changes the direction of the Gospel story.  When the word of Lazarus’ death is spread, the Chief priests and the Pharisees decide to arrest and try Jesus, leading to the final cemetery before Easter.

            Our passage for today is part of a larger event.  I encourage you to take some time and read the entirety of John 11 to get a feel for the events that happen before and after our reading.  Jesus’ grief, and the grief of Mary and Martha, is part of a larger story that begins like this:  Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha was ill.  The sisters sent a message to Jesus to tell him this news.  Jesus replied that this was not an illness that would kill Lazarus, and he stayed where he was for two days.  Later, when Jesus tells the disciples that it is time to go to Bethany to wake Lazarus from sleep, they are concerned – -Jesus has already been threatened with death, and the disciples fear for his safety as he travels.  There also seems to be a miscommunication here- -the disciples think Lazarus is sleeping like we sleep at night.  Jesus corrects them – by sleep, he meant the big sleep – death.  Jesus has to spell it out for them, and it is Thomas – the one we give such a bad rap to when we call him “doubting Thomas” — who says that if Jesus is going to Lazarus, then they should follow.  “Let us go also, so that we may die with him,” says Thomas, and the group sets out for Bethany, despite the danger.  This leads into our reading for today.

            When Jesus arrives on the outskirts of Bethany he encounters something he may not have expected.  Martha is there to greet Jesus on the road, and her grief is evident.  She responds to Jesus with the emotions that accompany grief – anger, sadness, and, shock.  The first thing she says to Jesus is not, “thank you for coming” or “it is so good to see you.”  The first thing Martha says to Jesus is “if you had been here, my brother would not be dead.”  It can be a natural reaction to death – anger that someone is gone, or anger that the loss may have been prevented.  While the loss we see illustrated for us today is that of death, we will grieve other losses during our lives.  Perhaps there is the loss of a relationship due to divorce, separation, or a break-up.  There is the loss of a job – something that many of us have experience with ourselves, or through friends or family.  We even grieve the loss of our children as they grow up and become independent, moving out of childhood home and into adult lives.  As we age, there is a loss of independence that we must also face and deal with.  Loss is a common part of life.  And it is natural to respond to many of these losses with anger, and wanting to blame someone.  But what happens after the anger subsides?

            It is almost in the next breath, as soon as she has released her anger that Martha turns to her faith.  She says to Jesus, “even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”  Even now – even though she is angry, Martha begins an affirmation of her faith.  Even through her grief, she believes.  The road to Easter goes through a cemetery and in Jesus we hear the words that often are said at funerals and burials:  “I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live – do you believe this?”

            Do you believe this?  What a question!  Do you believe this?  Martha’s answer is certain, unwavering, and strong.  “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”  In her grief, Martha has embraced her faith in the teachings of Jesus.  Now, Mary had a different reaction.  When Martha returns to tell her that Jesus is calling for her, Mary races out of the house.  The community that has gathered to mourn with the family follows, thinking she is going to Lazarus’ grave.  Mary kneels at the feet of Jesus and makes the same accusation as her sister: “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  And then she breaks down weeping.  The encounter between Mary and Jesus feels differently from the encounter between Martha and Jesus.  They begin with the same phrase, but then where Martha affirmed what she believed, Mary wept deeply and mourned for her brother, and those in her company wept also.  There is no explicit affirmation of faith from Mary – she is not able to articulate those words that brought comfort to her sister.

            What role does your faith in Jesus play when you face grief and loss?  Do you dig deeper into it, praying, reading your Bible, turning to God for comfort and support?  Do you reject God, reject the words of comfort and peace offered by those who know Jesus?  Do you greet loss with anger and question why God has done such a thing to you?  These are all normal reactions to a loss – maybe not all from the same person at the same time – but many of us experience some of these feeling where we encounter death and grief.  No matter the cause, or how we respond to it, the grief process is a way in which we have to “relearn the world” (Culberson 220).  When we face grief and loss, we face them in the same way we face the rest of our lives – if faith is our first response to the everyday, then that is where we lean.  Martha affirmed her faith in Jesus, and Mary was not in a space where she could do that yet.  Her reaction does not diminish her faith in Jesus, nor should we feel that we have fled our faith if we cry before we pray.  These women are examples of how loss shakes us to our core, and gives examples of two ways in which we might react.

            Notice though, that neither of them had to react alone.  Martha was in the company of Jesus when she grieved, and also had the companionship of her sister and the mourners who had gathered at the house to mourn with them.  Mary fled the house to find Jesus, followed by her friends.  Mary and Martha did not have to bear this loss alone, but had people who came to support them and carry them through.  United Methodist pastor Rev. Dr. Wyley Stephens describes the verses we hear today as happening in the “casserole time.”  The friends and neighbors, wanting to do something to help the grieving sisters have come with their casseroles and offers to help so that they do not have to mourn alone.  Yet even if no one had come to the door or followed Mary down the road, thinking they were going to grieve with her at the cemetery, the two would not have been alone. 

The thorns of grief and loss open up an opportunity for us to show compassion and love to those who are in the midst of them.  We see this compassion in Jesus when he responds to Mary with the realization that he too has suffered a loss.  Verse 35, in the King James translation, is one of the shortest verses in the Bible: “Jesus wept.”  In encountering the grief of Mary and Martha for their brother, Jesus also grieves.  Lazarus was not some guy he knew from a brief visit – -Lazarus was his friend.  They had worked together, broken bread together, spent time together.  Jesus lost a friend when Lazarus died.  He was brokenhearted as well.  When Mary begins to weep, when the mourners begin to weep, Jesus weeps too.  He weeps for his own loss, he weeps for their loss, he weeps in solidarity, and with compassion.  Jesus is right there with them experiencing his own grief, and crying with those who mourn Lazarus, just as he is with us when we grieve. 

I read this week about little boy who was sent by his mother to the corner store to buy some bread.  He was gone a lot longer than he should have been for this errand, and the mother began to worry.  Finally, when her son returned home, the mother asked, “where have you been?  I’ve been worried sick about you!”

“Well,” said the son, “there was a little boy with a broken tricycle who was crying.  I stopped to help him fix it.”

“I didn’t know you could fix tricycles!” exclaimed his mother.

“I can’t,” said the little boy.  “I don’t know how to fix tricycles, so I just stood there and cried with him.”[2]

Sometimes the compassionate response is to cry with one who is crying.  Jesus stood there and cried with Mary, Martha, and the mourners.  The road to Easter goes through Lazarus’ cemetery.  We know when we grieve that Jesus has grieved too.  When we cry, we know that he has cried.  When we affirm “I believe” we know he has done the same thing.  Just as we have broken hearts, so does Jesus.

But this is not the end of our story, nor is it the end of Lazarus’ story.  Our reading ends before the Good News.  Death does not have the last word – not for Lazarus and not for us.  Jesus and those who were with him that day go to the cemetery, and the stone is rolled away from the front of the grave.  Jesus calls for Lazarus to come out, and he does.  No longer dead, but living and breathing, and a little smelly.  Lazarus comes out, and in the next chapter, hosts a dinner party for Jesus.  The road to Easter leads through a cemetery, and in this cemetery, we find resurrection – a glimpse of what is to come.

Just as death does not have the last word for Lazarus, death does not have the last word for us, either.  Jesus was pricked by the same thorns of loss that prick all of us.  He grieved and grieves with us.  When our hearts are broken, so is his.  William Sloane Coffin knows of this heartbreak firsthand.  He was the pastor of Riverside Church in New York City, and in 1983 his son, Alex, was killed in a tragic car accident in Boston.  Ten days after Alex’s death, Coffin preached a sermon at Riverside entitled “Eulogy for Alex.”  He responds to those who offered him comfort by saying that Alex’s death  was “God’s will” with these words: “As his younger brother put it simply, standing at the head of the head of the casket at the Boston funeral, ‘You blew it, buddy.  You blew it.’  The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is that ‘it was the will of God.’  We never know enough to say that.  My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”[3]

God’s heart breaks first when we are pricked by the thorns of loss.  Jesus stands and cries with us when it is all we can do.  When we have to face the reality that our dead will not walk out of the tomb like Lazarus, when we close the coffin and bury the body, we are not alone.  Christ walked this road before us, and walks it with us.  But, we are Easter people.  During the season of Lent, Sundays are little Easters.  Each Sunday we remember the resurrection of Jesus and celebrate life.  Lazarus is a preview of coming attractions.  We are people who know the end of the story:  Lazarus’ story, Christ’s story, and our own story.  On our road to Easter, we will suffer the thorns of loss and grief.  Christ was there suffering there with us and for us, and it is in the end of the story where we can find hope and take comfort.  The economy, the divorce, the move, the loss, and the grief  – they do not have the final say.  Only Jesus has the last word and his words are words of hope for us.  Hear the words of Christ that, “those who believe in me, even though they die, will live” and believe them for yourself.  Amen.

Rev. Julie A. Jensen
March 11, 2012

First Presbyterian  Church, Cartersville


[1] Rev. Dr. Wiley Stephens, Dunwoody United Methodist Church,  Dunwoody GA.  Sermon “The Road to Easter Runs Through a Cemetery” from Day1.org, April 10, 2011. 

[2] SermonCentral.com

[3] www.pbsnow.org.  Transcript: William Sloane Coffin’s Eulogy for Alex.

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