Unbound

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Isaiah 25:6-9
John 11:32-44

“And he will swallow up death forever.”

That sounds nice, but I don’t know about you, but I am tired. 

I am tired of saying goodbye to people that I love who have died. We’ve said goodbye this year to a lot of people, too. Most recently, we said goodbye to Beverly. Before that, we said goodbye to Bruce. Lee Debiew and Jeff’s mother Lois left us this year, too. We could fill so much time recounting the people we’ve all lost, people whose faces and voices we cherished who are no longer with us.

That alone is enough to cause us to sink into despair. But then we turn on the news, and we get more tired, really, regardless of the specifics our political views. It seems we’re all tired of hearing about the violence and the death and the hatred and the pain, so much that we lash out at everyone we see as being to blame for it all.

Preaching professor Dr. Thomas Long, a tall Presbyterian pastor with a deep voice who was my own preaching professor, opened his lecture on preaching funerals with one sentence that I will never forget: 

“There are two preachers at every funeral. There’s you, and there’s Death with a capital D.” 

Death says that this person is gone too soon, never to be heard from again. Death preaches despair. Death preaches loss. And Death will be heard at every funeral. The Gospel needs to be heard, too.

Sometimes, though, even to preachers, it just doesn’t seem like enough. Funerals are so real. Death is so real. We feel the loss so acutely, but even the best-preached Gospel can seem like just abstract words. Death, we can see. The Gospel? The words of Revelation about no more death and crying and pain? That just seems like an abstraction, something that’s at best too far off to see.

Even reading the story of the raising of Lazarus on All Saints’ Day seems almost cruel. On a day when we remember those who have died and remember being at their gravesides, we hear this story about someone who miraculously comes out of a tomb after four days of death. 

We in the church have made the mistake of making the Gospel an abstraction, a heady idea that we’re supposed to just believe. We’ve failed to unpack the earthiness, the pain, the visceral realness of this Gospel of death and resurrection.

Dr. Long wrote this in his book on funerals: “Christians do not live in the abstract. They are real people who live real lives, and they die real and very different deaths. They die young, and they die old and full of days. The die in the flames of martyrdom, and they die cowering in fear. They die as saintly sinners; they die as sinful saints. They die of crib death, of cancer, of old age, and by their own hand. They die full of joy, and they die despairing. They die in Hartford and Buenos Aires, Karachi and Toronto, Nairobi and rural Nebraska — in the places where they have lived and loved and in places where they are strangers and exiles. They die in hospitals and nursing homes, along highways, at sea, [at home] and at work. They die surrounded by those who love them, and they die alone….

“All Christian funerals — formal or informal, high church or low, small or large, urban or rural — say… ‘Look! Can you perceive this? The life and death of this one who has died can be seen, if you know how to look, shaped after the pattern of the life and death of Jesus.’” (1)

Just like our lives and our deaths and the deaths of all the saints, the Gospel is more than an abstraction. It is death and resurrection. And resurrection is more than just the “undo” button on death.

In this Gospel story about Lazarus, we find ourselves in familiar place — particularly familiar to this community this year. 

Someone has died, and people gather in support around the family. Surely someone brought a casserole. 

A man named Lazarus, a dear friend of Jesus and his band of followers, has died. We don’t know how they knew one another, but we get the sense in this scene that they’ve definitely hung out together, eaten together, laughed together, bonded. When Jesus is told about Lazarus being sick, he hears, “Lord, the one you love is sick” (John 11:3).

And now the one that they have all loved has died, and so they gather. Jesus meets Martha, Lazarus’s sister, outside of town, and she sends her sister Mary out to meet him, too, in the centuries-old tradition of the family greeting the mourners.

Mary says to Jesus the same thing her sister Martha did: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 

Is that faith we hear? Is it protest? Accusation? They had invited him before Lazarus died, but Jesus didn’t leave immediately. The point is, Mary has lost her brother. She is grieving, and grieving people are allowed to just say things, even to the Son of God.

Then the story goes: “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” 

That gives you the sense that Jesus wiped a tear, maybe sniffled a little. No. 

For quite awhile now, translators have softened these emotions of Jesus. The Greek makes him sound much less sad, and much more angry. The words used mean both to snort in anger and to be troubled, anxious, distressed, restless. 

None of them means that he was just sad. He’s disturbed. Angry. Agitated. 

Jesus, God-made-flesh, knows that this isn’t how life is supposed to be. This isn’t how love is supposed to be. Families are supposed to stay together, friends are supposed to be together, love is supposed to last, and yet the powers of disease and violence and death rip us away. And God is angry.

“There are two preachers at every funeral. There’s you, and there’s Death.”

Everyone here has heard Death’s sermon. Jesus hears it here, and he’s angry.

He wants to act. “Where have you laid him?” he asks Mary.

What Mary says to him is the primary invitation in the Gospel of John: “come and see.” Except that nearly every other time, it’s Jesus issuing the invitation. It’s what he says in John rather than “Come, follow me.”

Here, Mary, stricken with grief over her brother’s loss, looks into the eyes of God and offers the invitation back: “Lord, come and see.” 

Come and see what Death has done. 

These days more than most, we feel the gut-wrenching pain of Mary’s words: 

Lord, come and see. Come and see what Death has done.

Come and see what has happened in Pittsburgh.

Come and see what is happening in Syria. 

Come and see what has happened in Puerto Rico.

Come and see the devastation on the Gulf Coast.

Come and see the chairs that used to be filled every Sunday by Beverly and Bruce. Come and see the chairs all over the sanctuary that used to be occupied by people we loved who aren’t here anymore.

Come and see what Death has done.

Lord, come and see. 

This. This is when Jesus weeps.

We already read how the story ends. Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb. Jesus is so moved and disturbed by Death, so sick of Death’s preaching, that he brings Lazarus back after four days gone. Lazarus is one of two people brought back from the death in John’s Gospel, you may remember — Jesus being the other one.

But here, with Lazarus, when he comes out of the tomb, he’s still wrapped in the linen grave clothes — with his face and hands and feet bound. If you want an image, think about that: his feet are bound, but he comes out of the tomb on his own. Did he levitate? Hop? Shuffle? 

Lazarus can’t even see. His face is covered and he stumbles forward, bewildered, still wrapped in the linen clothes of death. What you’re meant to know is this: this is a miracle indeed — Lazarus is alive again! But he is still bound by death. He will someday die again. 

That’s sort of how I feel sometimes, and I’m betting you do too. We’ve got hope, but we’re also still bound by despair, the weight of grief, and the blinding wrappings of Death. 

But it won’t be long in John’s Gospel before we meet Jesus at another tomb: his own. When Jesus is raised from the dead, the disciples will find the linen grave clothes lying in the tomb (John 20:5). Jesus won’t need to shuffle out blindly. He will be free of death entirely. (2)

Where once he called Lazarus by name out of the tomb; on that day at his own tomb he will call Mary by name, no longer bound by death, having put Death under his feet. 

Death still preaches loud, and still, we call to Jesus: come and see. And Christ grieves with us. 

But with all the saints who came before us, we hold on to this crazy hope that maybe it will not always be this way. That maybe, despite everything, new life is coming into the world. We are part of a great cloud of witnesses, living and dead, that hold onto hope, that died in hope, who were buried in hope that maybe, just maybe, after death comes resurrection.

We often try to make the Gospel an abstraction. It isn’t. It is death and resurrection. When we say that someone who has been in physical or mental or emotional pain or who has been lost to dementia is free now, we mean it.  

The people whose names we will call today will be among those who have gone before us, lived before us, grieved before us, died before us. We are who we are because of them. Our faith and our outlook on life is because of them. They weren’t perfect. Many did great harm, and many did great good, and most of them are a messy combination of the two. But they shaped the world and the church that we live in today, and so we continue to proclaim this crazy hope that someday, we will all be free, and as the Revelation reading for today promises, that there is a place where there is no more death or crying or pain, because if John’s Gospel is to be believed, Death makes God angry, too.

I close with words from my dear friend Dana, a Methodist pastor in Atlanta: 

“It seems like death is everywhere in our personal lives and in our collective consciousness.  But know today that death will not have the last word.
Death doesn’t have the last word.
Terror doesn’t have the last word.
Racism doesn’t have the last word.
Anti-semitism doesn’t have the last word.
Islamaphobia and homophobia don’t have the last word.
Fear doesn’t have the last word.
Death doesn’t have the last word. Why?
Because God is the last Word, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.
Life is the last word. Love is the last word.” (3)

I know. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like it. But Christ is angry at death because he knows that love is the last word. And so he shut death up for good.

In a moment, we will sing the words, “And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on.” Rejoice and be glad: we are who we are because of these saints that we will name today, and someday, no matter how tired we are, we will be free, unbound, and Death will finally be swallowed up forever.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

1. Thomas G. Long, Accompany Them With Singing, 2009.
2. Gail R. O’Day, New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, 2002.
3. Pastor Dana Ezell, Trinity UMC, Atlanta, GA, 2018.

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