Grief on the road to new life

Text: John 11;1-45 (Jesus raises Lazarus)

Why does Jesus weep as he approaches the tomb of Lazarus? As John tells the story, Jesus is going to bring Lazarus back to life. So why weep?

Perhaps Jesus weeps in sympathy with Mary and Martha, the sisters of his dead friend Lazarus. Perhaps he weeps for the many losses that are not miraculously reversed in the way Jesus will reverse his friend’s death.

The story of Lazarus has many details. But today I focus on the grief of his family, the grief expressed by Jesus, and the grief that is a part of Holy Week, which this year begins one week from today on Palm Sunday.

Easter is a holy day of joy: a celebration of springtime and sunshine; a festival of new life after death; and a time in which we sing Hallelujah. So why is the season of Lent, which leads to Easter, such a dark one? Why does it involve so much weeping and grief, particularly on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday?

Easter represents the joy that comes after grief, I believe. Easter does not wipe away life’s losses, nor does it always give us the new life we desire. Instead, Easter gives us the new life we need in the face of those losses. Grief plays a role because it can create an emptiness in which Easter can enter. Sometimes, grief can help us find our own empty tombs into which the light of Easter morning can shine . . .

This Lent, I have spent a fair amount of time with other ministers. Eleven days ago, I hosted a Bible study here with ten ministers. Last Tuesday and Thursday I participated in the first two of four online church webinars, which were mostly attended by ministers. The second webinar was led by one of my heroes, the Rev. Dr. Douglas John Hall of Montreal, who is now 89 years old. The one scheduled for Tuesday will be led by Rev. John Pentland of Hillhurst United in Calgary.

Last Tuesday evening I missed a chance to be with more ministers when I skipped a Presbytery meeting to attend a meeting of our church’s Facing the Future group. But I made up for this the next morning by attending a two-hour prayer circle with nine other ministers in Fort Saskatchewan.

The Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning gatherings both dealt with loss, but in different ways.

I loved the prayer meeting. It was organized and hosted by Alberta Conference President, Paul Walfall, who is also the minister at First United in Fort Saskatchewan. It was attended by eight others of us including Britt Aerhart from Salisbury United in Sherwood Park whom some of you will remember from her years at Beaumont United, Bob Harper, whom more of you will remember from Southwoods United in the 1990s, and Wendy Galloway who worked here as a student minister in 2006, and who is now serving Redwater United.

Like the webinars and the Facing the Future meeting, worries about the future of the church ran through the prayer meeting. Most ministers say their churches are facing financial constraints, aging members, burnt-out leaders, and an absence of children and youth. This is not an easy time to be in ministry, which is one reason we may seek to gather with each other.

On Wednesday morning as we chanted Taize hymns, offered up prayers inspired by readings from the life of Abraham, and sat in silence, I experienced a spirit that had been missing from the meeting here at Mill Woods United the evening before. At the Facing the Future meeting on Tuesday, we didn’t put our discussions about finances, membership, and leadership in the context of Lent as a season of prayer. Laine had asked me to say a few words as we began, and I missed the chance to remind us of the grief-filled journey we are on in Lent, a journey that leads to the joy we celebrate at Easter.

Church is a place to both mourn and celebrate, to feel pain and joy, and to grieve the losses we have suffered in order to look forward in hope to the mystery of Easter. For me, these contrasting pairs describe the paradox of these two seasons.

The story of Lazarus follows the pattern. A beloved friend of Jesus dies. Family and friends mourn. Finally, the presence of God in Christ shows them that life goes on in a way that fulfills hope and restores joy.

Stories of miracles like this are filled with metaphors. When Jesus tells his friends that Lazarus is asleep, they take him literally. But Jesus says that by sleep, he means that Lazarus is physically dead.

This reminds me of the passage we heard two weeks ago about Living Water. In it the woman at the well confuses Jesus’ phrase “Living Water” with actual H2O just as his disciples confuse his words about food with physical sustenance. Jesus explains that when he says “Living Water” he means God’s Grace; and when he says “food” he means the work of doing the will of God. Much of what Jesus says in the gospels is metaphor.

The raising of Lazarus is the last of seven miraculous signs of Jesus’ power found in John, and like Jesus’ words, I take these signs as metaphors. Perhaps for this reason, the moment of today’s story that most grabs me most is not when Lazarus walks out of the tomb, but when Jesus weeps.

Jesus knows that new life follows death — for Lazarus, for him, and for all of us. But this new life does not do away with the loss we grieve when a loved one dies. In fact, the new life of Jesus’ Living Water flows from painful loss, which is what makes Jesus’s tears both real and necessary.

Easter does not wipe out the pain and loss of Good Friday. While Easter is a time of never-ending joy, the joy of Easter is quiet and surprising. It is a joy that takes us beyond our human wishes for stability, pleasure, and worldly success.

In today’s story, Lazarus is resuscitated, and at Easter Jesus is resurrected. But their new life does not do away with all problems. After Jesus’ resurrection, the Romans remain in control, and disease, toil and trouble continue to swarm around us.

What Easter reveals is a life that is wider and deeper than the life we leave behind in Lent. Resurrected life is one of eternal beauty that is not based on ego or pride.

Despite not having the intentions of Lent and the hope of Easter, I appreciated the Facing the Future meeting last Tuesday. After discussing the context in which this congregation operates, we talked about ways to reduce expenses and increase revenue. We celebrated the “Ask” letter that Brian Sampson sent last Monday; we motivated a Stewardship campaign that would run from mid-September to mid-October; and we generated ideas that Randy Round could use to prepare a revised 2017 budget to present for discussion to the church Council in just over a week.

What I missed at Facing the Future, I think, was the opportunity to give thanks for the dark and passionate journey of Lent and to look forward in hope to the strange but joyous light of Easter. And for this lack, I blame myself.

Many of us in the church are in the same boat. On Thursday, Douglas Hall spoke about his sons, who are in their 50s, but who don’t attend church. The ministers who gathered on the webinar to listen to him and to ask questions must have averaged about age 70.

And yet those of us — young or old — who gather at business meetings, webinars, and prayer circles — cherish the Spirit that flows between us. We love its ability to inspire our work of outreach and justice. And I trust that if we keep in prayerful touch with the ground of Love we call God in our gatherings — whether for prayer, administration, or outreach — we will be able to sustain the joyous work of congregations like this one for many more years.

On Wednesday in Fort Saskatchewan, Rev. Walfall wondered if our gathering was the first time that ministers in the Alberta Conference of the United Church had gathered simply to pray together. Whether it was or not, I hope it won’t be the last. And I hope to remember the depth of that experience as a guide to our work in this beloved community as we stumble together in grief and hope towards the strange joy of Easter — this spring, next spring, and for many springs after that.

May it be so. Amen.

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