As many of you know, before I went to seminary to begin my studies to become a priest, I was a preschool teacher. There have been many times in which the skills that I developed over my six years of teaching that have been useful in my work and calling to serve God’s people. This week, I have been reminded of how, whenever there would be a dramatic knee scrape or head bonk that inevitably comes when there are multiple four-year old’s running around, I would very often scoop up the crying child and ask some questions to see what was needed to help soothe the pain: does it hurt? Are you scared? Or a little bit of both?
And even though we can’t be in the same physical space today, I no doubt believe that for most of us, we’re feeling a little bit of both. The hurt and the pain of our common life right now is real and physical for some, and it is emotional and spiritual for others. Fear is present in every interaction, and there are days when it seems like that is the foundation upon which we will stand for a long, long time, and we’re scared. Grief seems to be the undercurrent of our world as we navigate what life is and will be like after the pandemic eventually ends. We are grieving what we once knew, and what we once assumed would be the case for how we conducted our lives. We are grieving the very real, staggering number of lives already lost, and those that we know will come. We are grieving who we thought we were, and who we know we no longer are.
Death, even death of the idea of who we thought we once were, is scary and hurts. Nearly all of our passages today seem to help us name this grief that many of us are feeling. From the Valley of the Dry Bones where the people proclaim, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely” to Psalm 130 that cries “out of the depths” to our gospel passage and the raising of Lazarus. Even our inexplicably well-timed collect of the day names the “swift and varied changes of our world.” Our texts today are centered around death, grief, and pain, that is certainly clear, but let us not take them in without realizing that they also center around hope and God’s promise to be with present with us in the midst of the mess.
All of our passages today speak to the reality of grief and despair and doubt, but I’m particularly compelled by reading this story of the raising of Lazarus during this particular moment in our history. Even to this family that was dear to Jesus, Christ doesn’t take away the pain of death and suffering, or the lived reality of compassion, of suffering with someone. Jesus doesn’t swoop in to perform some proactive miracle that saves Lazarus and his family from the pain that they are experiencing. And, honestly, I’m not sure why he doesn’t. Wouldn’t the human Jesus desire, just as all of us do, to prevent any pain and suffering from those that we love? We don’t know why in the midst of chaos and fear that Christ doesn’t take away the hurt and pain of death. And, honestly, to our wearied ears and hearts, that might not sound like good news. It might not sound like good news that we live in a world with immense pain and suffering, and that there are times when it feels like God is distant in our pain.
But the good news in the story of Lazarus’ being raised from the dead isn’t that Jesus raised him, no the good news is that in the midst of it all, all the pain, the grief, the anger, the fear, Jesus doesn’t just take away the suffering of Martha and Mary, but that he goes to them. Jesus comes and sits with them as they mourn the loss of their brother; Jesus comes and is witness to the reality that they are both hurt and scared. If we read this passage closely, we will see that Jesus does not weep when he hears that Lazarus has died, for he knows that he will soon conquer death. Instead, what we see is that Jesus begins to weep when he sees the pain of Mary and Martha. The good news isn’t that death and pain are no longer parts of the story, because they are and will be for each of us, but the good news is that in our death and pain and fear and grief, we know that God is with us. We know that God is with us because God was with Mary and Martha as they were overwhelmed and grieving, like so many of us.
When my dad died last fall, one of the things that caught me by surprise was my grief–not just my grief over the loss of my father, or grief for my mother, or brother, or nephews, I expected all that. What I was surprised by was how I had to grieve the loss of a version of myself. Many of you who provided your own words of comfort to me in that time named this reality for me. So, this is part of what I know to be true about grief: we will never be the same. Just as Martha and Mary were never the same after Lazarus died; we will never be the same people we were before COVID-19; we have to grieve that. But like Martha and Mary, I hope and pray that we will let the truth that God is with us in our grief change us, that it will ignite a sense of unending hope in the resurrection and the life.
In the midst of our grief, I think it’s important that we get curious about what new life looks like; what does resurrection look like, not at the judgement day, but right now, today? What does resurrection look like in the midst of physical isolation, of healthcare workers risking their own safety, for the vulnerable to be more made even more than they already were? What did the resurrection and the life look like to Mary and Martha as they sat in their grief by their brother’s tomb? For one, we know that it looked like their dear friend, who loved them, weeping with them; it looked like the one who will conquer death acknowledging their pain, their fear, their doubt, their grief.
As Christians, many of us find ourselves in a similar place as Martha and Mary today, and in that grief, we, like them, are to hold fast to the belief that in the middle of our grief, in the mess of the middle and the stench of all this pain and hurt and fear, that God is with us. That God is with us; that God is with us in our grief, just as Jesus was with Martha and Mary as they wept for their brother, because it is Christ who shares with us in our suffering just as we will soon be called to share with him in his on his way to the cross. So remember, my friends, that God is with us in the midst of our grief, and that the hope of the resurrection change us just as it changed Martha and Mary.
A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY via Livestream for Lent 5A, March 29, 2020.