I did not expect to preach so much about the stay at home orders, or the pandemic. I found, to my surprise, that the experience of the pandemic was largely reflected in the Scriptures. They faced sudden calamity too! They had to struggle with isolation and fear too! Their leaders were confusing and capricious too! What do you know!
So here’s what I said the Sunday before Palm Sunday about Lazarus.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
March 29, 2020
Lent 5, Year A
Every so often these days, I find myself thinking “Oh, I need peppers for dinner tonight—I’ll just run out to the store.” Then it takes a minute before I realize that no—I can’t just run out to the store. Or I’ll think of something I need to tell one of you the next time I see you—only to recall a second later that “Seeing” you means something altogether different now.
This momentary forgetting is how grief works. If you’ve ever lost someone close to you, you find that you go through times when you forget for a period that the person is dead—only to remember again a moment later. Only right now, instead of grieving a particular person, all of us are grieving a way of life that is on hold.
And I don’t say this to be self-indulgent. Staying inside, self-isolating, not going to work, or to the store, or to church, or to the big celebrations we had been looking forward to is important and for extremely good reasons, and by doing these things we save people’s lives. AND AT THE SAME TIME—it is all right to feel things about being stuck in the house all day. It is fine to wonder how a parent who simultaneously has to work from home can also educate several squirmy kids. It is altogether fine to wish things were different, and we could all be together in person. It’s grief—grief is fine, and grief is human when we lose something.
Today’s gospel is all about grief. Jesus gets word that one of his good friends, Lazarus, has died. Now, we know Lazarus from earlier—Martha, his sister, had hosted Jesus and the disciples at her house. This family was one of the ones that were financially supporting Jesus’ ministry. Jesus, though, chooses to delay traveling back to Bethany, and by the time he gets there, Lazarus is dead.
Both sisters, in their turn, lay into him about this. “Teacher, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” There’s something incredibly poignant about this scene—that’s the voice of grief right there. Where were you, Jesus? You could have stopped this. You could have prevented this, and where were you?
And notice what Jesus does in the face of such sadness, grief, and even anger. He doesn’t scold them, or tell them to have greater faith. He doesn’t threaten them to be nicer. He weeps. He cries. He joins them in their grief.
Now—of course, arguably Jesus knows that he’s just going to raise Lazarus to life again. He knows that he has the power to undo death itself, and so the suffering here is but temporary. And yet, that doesn’t stop him from being so moved by the pain around him that he, too, enters into it.
If there is a better encapsulation of Jesus’ relationship to us, I don’t know what it is. Jesus, standing with the grieving Mary and Martha beside the tomb, weeping—even as he is preparing to resurrect their brother, because he is so moved by their grief, and by the reality of what it is to be human.
Christ’s presence finds us even when we are surrounded by death. Christ’s presence finds us even when we are buried in grief, even when we are furious with it, even when the fragility of this mortal life surrounds us on every side. Christ’s presence finds us, just as he does when we are afraid, just as he does when we are alone, just as he always does.
Even the finality of death is no barrier to the love and presence of Christ. Jesus resurrects Lazarus and restores him to his family. In God, our mortal life is held secure, even amid everything that threatens it. In the words of Paul—not even death is able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
But this is not to say that the grief experienced by Jesus and the sisters wasn’t real, or wasn’t a faithful response—it was. And more—Jesus—God incarnate—shared that grief with them. So while we are experiencing such a time as this, such a time where our life seems intensely fragile, and grief seems all around, I want us to hold on to two things:
The first is that death, in the sight of God, is no obstacle to Christ’s love. For us, death means only a change, not an end, in our life in God. God holds us so firmly in his arms of mercy that not even death can remove us. Our state of being changes, but God loves us so deeply that through the power of Christ, no child of God is ever lost. Ever.
The second is that God enters into our sufferings. Even as we are assured that God has overcome death through Christ’s resurrection, God is still with us when we deal with pain and grief, because those are experiences that Christ knew too. God enters into our sufferings, and bears it with us. And so for us, our faithful response is not just to share our burdens with Christ, but to share one another’s burdens.
Our grief, our sorrow, our frustration is not permanent, nor does it separate us from the God who made us and loves us. It is a product of the love God has poured into our hearts for each other, for all that’s good in our lives. And so God honors our grief, and asks that we treat it tenderly.
Because the love God gives us that once ached in grief will just as surely flourish in new places and in new ways. God’s love that flows in us will bind us together, through our grief, into a new day of joy and gladness on the other side of this, The love of God, that we have, will see us through even this. Even this.