The following is a sermon that I recently preached at a funeral. The funeral was a graveside service for a young man (not a member of the congregation I serve) who had apparently committed suicide. The Gospel text for the service was John 11:1-6, 17, 32-39a. I am greatly indebted to my colleagues on the ELCA Clergy Facebook page who helped me to think through this sermon, and held me in prayer last week. I am especially grateful for a sermon by Pastor Keith Fry, which drew my attention to the question of Mary and Martha.
Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ.
From time to time, people expect me to have “the answers.” Because of what I do, people thing that I must have some sort of direct line to God; that I must know “why;” that I must have something to say that will make it all better.
Because the truth is that there are no words that will magically make it all better.
[Dad], [Mom]: No parent should ever have to bury a child. Never. I could say all sorts of nice things – things about God’s plan and God’s purpose, things about how everything will work out for the best – and I’ll bet that well-meaning family and friends have said those things to you in the last week. But, however true those things may be, they do not make today any easier, and they do not make this any less painful.
And so, let me begin by saying “I’m sorry.” [Dad], [Mom], [brothers]. I cannot imagine how much you are hurting today. And I’m truly sorry.
In the reading from the Gospel you just heard, Jesus shows up in Bethany where his friend Lazarus has died. And there are immediately questions. Mary and Martha both approach Jesus and the first thing they say: “Jesus, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”
I wonder, today, faced with the death of a dear friend, how many of us have faced the same question - how many of us have sat in the quiet of the night, and accused ourselves just as Jesus was accused by Mary and Martha."If only I had said something. If only I had done something different. He would not have died." Sound familiar?
To that I have two word. Quit it. Knock it off.
What if, Maybe, Perhaps – these questions haunt us, and they are not our friend. They cannot be answered. The past cannot be changed, no matter how deeply we would like to change it. What is done is done; "What if" can only cause us harm.
No, our question today – the real question – is not “What if.” Our question is “What now?”
What do we, who love Name and mourn his loss, what do we do now.
What do we do now? Today we grieve.
The God we proclaim today is not a God who magically makes everything better, but a God who stands beside us in the darkest hours and troubles of life.
As Jesus came to Bethany, he wept over the death of his friend. As Jesus joins our worship this day, I believe he weeps as well. It is a good for us to mourn – to acknowledge our pain together.
Our God, is not afraid of the dark places of life, and is not afraid of our grief. Jesus wept, and so will we today. And in the days to come. And Jesus will continue to walk with us to the tomb, will walk beside us no matter how dark that grief gets. The promise is not that we will understand the "Why" or the "What if" - but that there is no where we can go that God will not go with us - right? Even through the valley of death.
And so we mourn.
What now? Then, we are honest about why we are grieving.
We are not sad for Name. Not today. I don't know what was going through his heart and mind in those last few days, those last few hours. But I imagine he must have been in some scary places. And now, today, we celebrate the fact that he is free from all that. Today we celebrate that Name is free from all that pain and suffering; that he is undoubtedly enjoying the company of his beloved mother. Today, we celebrate the promise that God will gather all his children to himself.
No, as we grieve, we are not sad for [Name]. We are sad for ourselves - for that place that [Name] filled in our life, for the laugh that we won't hear every day, for the smile that we can't see today.
And so, in our grief, we name that empty place, and we remember [Name]
Finally, we begin to pick up the pieces. You and I - we have lives to live. That day in Bethany did not end in the tomb. No, our Lord brought new life into being -- life in the midst of death. Because that is what he does. And that is what he will continue to do in our lives.
We pick up the pieces, and we return to new lives. Not that we forget [Name] - not at all. In fact, we remember him precisely by living our lives.
I have heard the stories - stories about how helpful [Name] was, about how kind, about how generous. We honor [Name] as we return to our lives, by living out those same things in our lives. By showing others the sort of kindness and generosity that we remember so well in [Name].
Friends, in these days of mourning and sadness, God promises to walk beside you. To weep with you as you weep. And even now - here, in the valley of the shadow of death - even here, God is working to bring new life and joy into the world. Through you, through your lives, and through the memory of [Name].
Image: Vzkříšení Lazara (The Raising of Lazarus), 1911, by Bohumil Kubišta. Public Domain.